How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book Review: Mary Barton

Mary Barton
“Oh! I do think that the necessity for exertion, for some kind of action (bodily or mentally) in time of distress, is a most infinite blessing, although the first efforts at such seasons are painful. Something to be done implies that there is yet hope of some good thing to be accomplished, or some additional evil that may be avoided; and by degrees the hope absorbs much of the sorrow.”

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote that as the narrator of her first novel, Mary Barton. She began writing it after her baby son’s death in 1845 to release her grief, pouring into it her passion for the plight of England’s lower working class and her clear-sighted, Christian viewpoint as to how they and the factory owners could reconcile their differences. This is a story of Manchester’s hardest years, from 1839–1842. The narrator showcases the harm that people render each other because of selfish ignorance, while she cries out for each side to understand one another and work together in light of the Golden Rule. I don’t know if Mrs. Gaskell’s specific plea was heard, but the message is so true I would hope that her readers benefited. Since that is not the only message of her “social novel” (a special genre of Victorian novels exploring social ills), I do feel sure that something virtuous and hopeful penetrated them, even if they weren’t in a position to do anything about the factories. She evidently wished that something good would come of her only son’s death.

Quite a few people died in Mary Barton—as is common in Mrs. Gaskell’s novels (and Victorian times), but the overall tone of this one was far more melancholy than Wives and Daughters, for example. Life itself was bleak. Yet she treated each death with the sympathy of one who understands. Although many of her experiences went into this novel, the impression I am left with is that this was a catharsis from her particular tragedy. Only the ending gives us a glimpse of life without death to overshadow it. I tell you, it’s a good thing I was naturally happy this June, busy with plans, because otherwise I might have been depressed reading this! (There—you have been warned.)

But it is a powerful, well-told, and exciting story, one not to be missed by Gaskell and Victorian novel fans. It even contains a murder mystery which turns Mary Barton, the heroine, into one of the rare early female detectives. (Who was the first, I wonder? It could have been Mary!) Mary is a “sweet, faulty, impulsive, lovable creature” who belongs to the working class in Manchester and must work as a dressmaker to feed herself and her father, the only members of her family left. Being very pretty, she attracts a lot of male attention—including Harry Carson’s, a wealthy factory owner’s son. She welcomes it because she is tired of being poor. She’s virtuous and wants to marry him, but she doesn’t realize her danger—that wealthy men do not generally marry poor women, no matter how much they “love” them. Meanwhile, her father John Barton, the character Gaskell herself was actually the most interested in, is oblivious to all but his efforts on behalf of the factory workers’ union. Bettering their lot consumes him. Jem Wilson, a longtime family friend, is in love with Mary, and gently persists in loving and guarding her despite her rebuffs. The stories of other characters, friends of Mary’s, weave in and out of the main plot.

In the crush of sorrows and struggles that make up the story, Mary grows by repenting of her faults. She soon must draw up courage for a terrible task, and with God’s help, finds what she is looking for in more ways than one. Who else will triumph? And … who will fall?

Have you ever read Mary Barton? Elizabeth Gaskell is one of my favorite novelists, and I’ll have to write a post about why I like her one day! Have you read anything else by Gaskell?

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