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Mary Barton: A bold novel of social turmoil [review]

Mary Barton By Elizabeth Gaskell 

In the early 1840s, the city of Manchester was the engine house of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Its huge cotton mills were a magnate for people from the countryside who saw in them an opportunity to improve their lives, particularly since industrial employees were paid more than agricultural workers.

But when demand for cotton began to fall away in the mid 40s, thousands of workers were put on reduced hours or dismissed. Dissatisfaction mounted as newly unionised workers began to demand a better deal.

The social turmoil of strikes and lockouts added to the misery of overcrowded streets, inadequate water and poor sanitation.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, saw at first hand the consequences: starvation, disease, early death.

In the preface to Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life she confessed that she knew nothing of political economy or the theories of trade, but she had always felt ” a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.”

Her intent in the novel was to give a voice to those care-worn men in order to reveal the common humanity that could serve to unite social classes.

The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulsed this dumb people.

Driven to desperation

Gaskell uses the figure of John Barton, a mill worker, to illustrate how even honest men are driven to desperation in such a climate.

At the start of the novel Barton is an intelligent, thoughtful man who cares strongly about two things: his family and his livelihood. He goes into a rapid decline when his wife dies in childbirth and  then the factory where he works is closed. He cannot find a job anywhere else.

He is a proud man. When his daughter asks why he does not accept money from the town so he can buy food, he replies angrily: “I don’t want money, child! D — n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work!”

In anger and frustration he succumbs to the temptation of opium and becomes heavily involved in the burgeoning trade union movement and the Chartist cause.

When all efforts fail to get politicians and mill owners to listen, he concludes that the only way to get their attention is through an act of violent rebellion.  He turns murderer, killing Harry Carson, the handsome but arrogant son of a mill owner.

Is violence a solution?

Gaskell rejects such violence as the solution to the problems of the working poor of Manchester.  The core of the issue for her is that workers and employers simply don’t understand each other.  As John Barton says early in the novel:

The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds …

Through her narrator Elizabeth Gaskell openly pleads for the two sides to come to a meeting of the minds through communication. In the final stages of the novel she puts this idea into the mouth of one of her worker characters, an intelligent and rational man. After a meeting with the mill owner Mr Carson, father of the murdered man :

You say our talk has done no good. I say it has. I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand. I can remember that, when the time comes for judging you; I sha’n’t think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own. It has done me good in that way.

It’s a worthy sentiment but it’s hard to see how improved communication can have any practical application as a solution to poor wages and slum conditions.

Love and devotion

Gaskell’s other solution to the problem of the poor is revealed in the novel’s parallel plot of the problematic love life of John Barton’s daughter Mary.

Mary Barton is a good girl at heart, a hard working seamstress who is devoted to caring for the father. But she has her head turned when Harry Carson, the mill owner’s son begins paying her attention.

The silly girl thinks she can marry him and thus secure a comfortable life for herself and her father. Only after she rejects a proposal from Jem Wilson, a hard working boy she’s known all her life, does she realise it’s Jem she loves after all. But it’s almost too late.

Jem gets arrested on suspicion of Carson’s murder and it takes all of Mary’s courage to find a way of saving him. It all ends happily ever after with Jem, who had been a much respected foreman at a forge, and Mary setting up home in Canada.

It’s meant to seem a reward from his boss for his loyalty and dedication but is Gaskell suggesting that the only way out of the poverty in Manchester is to leave the country? It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in England and can surely only have limited application. Emigration was for sure an escape route for many (particularly the Irish) but how many of them really found live on the other side of the Atlantic a bed of roses?

Power of redemption

The book’s conclusion, with its emphasis on the power of redemption and heavily sentimental tone,  is the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly constructed and engaging novel that depicts real, rather than idealised Victorian family life.

The world of Mary Barton is one in which mothers die in the agony of childbirth, children suffer starvation and scarlet fever and women abandoned by their lovers end up wandering the streets as gin-soaked prostitutes. Gaskell’s characters speak in a natural voice using Lancashire colloquialisms and dialect.

It’s a bold move.

Other Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, often had their protagonists and most virtuous characters speak in ‘standard English’, regardless of their social or regional background. But Gaskell’s decision gives her novel an added dimension of realism. Some of her most frequently used words such as ‘clem’ which means to suffer from extreme hunger and ‘frabbit’ which apparently means peevish, convey sentiments that would be difficult to fully capture in ‘standard English’.

Mary Barton is a novel with multiple elements.

It has a love triangle, a murder,  a tale of a wronged woman and a life and death chase, all set in a city in the grip of an industrial revolution.  It does tend towards the polemic and the melodramatic at times but fortunately it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

Publication history of Mary Barton


Mary Barton was the first novel to be published by Elizabeth Gaskell.  She wrote it at the suggestion of her husband as a response to the death in infancy of  her  son from scarlet fever. It was published anonymously in 1848 though relates the events of a few years earlier and is believed to have been based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill owner in 1831.

Why I read this novel

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South which I thoroughly enjoyed.  But having been disappointed by Wives and Daughters and Cranford, I wanted to get back to her gritty realism. Mary Barton features in my Classics Club list.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

38 thoughts on “Mary Barton: A bold novel of social turmoil [review]

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  • I think she did draw more attention to the issue of poverty than people writing “intellectual” books did … I suppose it was the Victorian equivalent of a soap opera storyline drawing more attention to a social problem than anything politicians or campaigners said.

    • Dickens is credited as another author who used his novels to highlight social issues.

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  • This book sounds really depressing (but intriguing too!). I can see why you enjoyed it, lots to think about and mull over, and I bet it made you thankful to be living now rather than back then!

    • certainly did make me vey thankful – its easy for people to romanticise the Victorian period but life was only good for people with money

  • It’s a very long time since I read this, but you make it sound really compelling a multi layered story though I think Gaskell was probably a little idealistic in her view.

    • I’d have to agree Ali about the idealism. Can’t blame her for having a try though

  • Excellent review. I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading this book. I prefer it to North and South.

    • I think I prefer N and South because that was my first experience with Gaskell but Mary barton comes a close second

  • We had a talk on Mrs Gaskell at our local U3A last month. At least that is what it was advertised as. In fact it was by someone who knew very little about her and spent most of the hour telling us how great he was and how much people loved his talks. I can only assume some people are easily pleased – or more likely that the speaker was very good at pulling the wool over his own eyes. However, it has made me want to go back and re-read some of her work just to take the bad taste out of my mouth.

    • I think I would have been sitting there with steam coming out of my ears at the waste of my time. If you are going to put yourself forward as a speaker then you should really know something about the subject 🙂

      • Ten minutes in I turned to my neighbour and said, “ Can I kill him now, please?”

        • Love it. so tempting just to get up and walk out…..

  • I’ve yet to try anything by Elizabeth Gaskell although her North and South has been on my wishlist for quite a while. A different era I know, but the social issues explored here remind me a little of some of Winifred Holtby’s work – Anderby Wold and South Riding in particular.

    • I don’t know Anderby Wold but I’d say Mary Barton is a more evident look at poverty than South Riding. That’s not to diminish Holtby at all, just a different approach

  • I’ve read all those Gaskell’s that you’ve read – but not Mary Barton, which is on my TBR list. I have read one you haven’t, “Ruth”, which is a more moral tale. It’s moralistic, to our ears but tries to encourage compassion in people of her time. It’s a challenge reading these writers because they can sound simplistic or moralistic to our ears, but I think we need to read them from the point of view of their times (as long as, of course, the fundamental story, the writing and characterisation are good).

    I loved Cranford when I read it, but it’s a different mode altogether – it’s more your comedy of manners, as I recollect. A long time since I read it. It didn’t “move” me intellectually the way that North and south did, but I found it an engaging story with a commentary on small town life and values.

    • Excellent point about reminding ourselves of the context in which these novels were written. It may well have been that Gaskell was considered a forward thinker. Now you’ve got me keen to find out how her book was received at the time

      • I’m sure she would have been Karen. . . Here’s Wikipedia on Mary Barton :

        “She began writing her first novel to escape the grief of losing her only son. Mary Barton was ready for publication in October 1848[2] shortly before they made the move south. It was an enormous success, selling thousands of copies. Ritchie called it a “great and remarkable sensation.” It was praised by Thomas Carlyle and Maria Edgeworth. She brought the teeming slums of manufacturing in Manchester alive to readers as yet unacquainted with crowded narrow alleyways. Her obvious depth of feeling was evident, while her turn of phrase and description was described as the greatest since Jane Austen.”

        But some male critics then and in the years after were very sexist about her abili ty to understand the industrial issues! Only a man could! So yes, I think she was pioneering.

        • I’v just been reading that the reaction from the Manchester manufacturers was not very complimentary – but then you’d hardly expect them to agree with her…

  • I’ve read a few of Gaskell’s and admire her greatly, I believe it was she who made the transition to Industrial England in Eng.Lit. I reviewed Cousin Phillis a couple of years ago – a Canadian connection there too – and have been meaning to review Ruth – the life of single mother – for ever. Also Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Bronte which has been on my TBR shelves for years. Gaskell’s heart was clearly in the right place in relation to the poor (for whom I think factory work was the only option after the Inclosure Acts – of 1801 in particular) but she would have benefited from a more Socialist analysis.

    • I have a copy of Ruth so will be keen to read this one. Gaskell doesn’t have the status of an Austen or a Bronte which seems rather unfair to me. Factory work wasn’t only one of the few options available – it was much better paid than agricultural work and seemed to have more security (less vulnerable to harvest failure etc)

      • I see what you are saying Karen, but I think that’s the wrong comparison.

        Yes, they are women, but I think Austen and Eliot wrote in different styles. Better comparisons for Gaskell would be Dickens and perhaps even George Eliot? And then I could argue why she perhaps isn’t in quite the same league, as much as I love her. I think she can be a bit didactic (in some of her works at least).

        • I’ve always thought of North & South as JA with steam engines – middle class relationships with an industrial rather than a rural background. maybe I’m wrong. If I could suggest a topic for your JA group, how about her influence on women’s writing in the first half of the C19th.

        • That’s one way of looking at it, Bill, though I’ve just thought of them as writing with somewhat different purposes altogether. I must say we have often referred to Austen’s influence on writers of that period but I don’t think we have ever specifically discussed it. I’ll try to remember to out the idea forward.

        • Fair point. My intention had been just to reflect on popularity of women novelists from roughly the same period but yes Eliot would be a more relevant comparison

  • I like Gaskell, (and have also watched North and South with a lump in the throat) but yes, I think her solutions to poverty are a bit simplistic.
    However, I don’t think we can overestimate the importance of making her readers aware of the problem. My guess is that wealthy people in London would have been shocked to learn about the human cost of the goods they consumed, and some among them over time transitioned from philanthropy to political reform. I always think of this when I read about some great act of philanthropy now: of course it’s good that Bill and Melinda Microsoft Gates are alleviating polio in Africa, but what’s really needed is reform of the global system so that it doesn’t result in billionaires who might or (more often IMO) might not do something to alleviate worldwide poverty and disease.

    • At least she had some ideas for solutions even if they weren’t exactly practical – whereas Dickens really seemed to think it was enough to show how bad life was for the poorer sectors of society.
      As for reform of the global system – it needs to begin with the regimes in power in the countries where there is suffering. If only their Presidents stopped spending all the wealth on flash cars and big houses, and then going cap in hand to Foundations and the western governments….

  • I have never read Gaskell but this does sound intriguing with its emphasis on social commentary.

    • The romance plot is fine but its definitely the social commentary that makes Gaskell worth reading

  • Fantastic review, Karen. I’ve come no closer to Elizabeth Gaskell than watching North and South on the telly, which I remember sobbing through. At the moment I need cheerier fiction but cheekily now I’ve read your review, I almost feel like I’ve read it myself!

    • It was a really good adaptation – those scenes in the cotton mills with the kids crawling under the machines were heart breaking.

  • Ooh – I loved North and South (and thought Cranford sweet if minor), so I’ve got a copy of Wives and Daughters to dig into at some point. What about it didn’t work for you? (And glad to hear that Mary Barton did!)

    • Wives and Daughters was really good in parts but it just lacked a bit of social realism. A little too much emphasis on romance for me

  • I read this one decades ago, so of course can’t remember a thing about it. From what you say, however, I think Gaskell is over-optimistic – I can’t see that sitting down the haves and the have-nots nowadays to talk is going to bring about any meeting of minds, and things are getting just as bad as they were back in her time…. 🙁

    • The added problem now is that the ‘haves’ or the political representatives would likely have been coached in what to say by legal advisers etc so they would only come out with bland statements rather than meaningful action


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