In One Word

In One Word, Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell is…

mary barton

  • First published in 1848 by Chapman & Hall
  • Format: Audiobook
    • Narrator: Juliet Stevenson
    • Listening Speed: 1.7x
  • Listening Time: 7 dreary days


  • Now, it’s time to close out my Classic Women Reading Challenge with a book by Elizabeth Gaskell. I’ve never read anything by Gaskell before but I had heard some good things about it about Mary Barton so I decided to go with that first. This book follows two working class families, the Bartons and the Wilsons, as they are pushed to their limits by diminishing opportunities for work and falling wages. The only daughter of the Barton family, Mary, is caught between both classes. She has attracted the attention of both the hard-working Jem Wilson and the careless son of the rich miller owner, Harry Carson. Little does she know that the choice will be made for her in dramatic fashion and that she will have to choose between love and family to save an innocent man.
  • A good portrait of the hardships of Victorian working class life. It all feels real and it will tug at the heartstrings but, after a while, it just feels excessive. It feels like the book is a dry history book rather than a novel. The book just paid too much attention to building the world and to describing how miserable life is for the working class. As a result, the reader feels more like an outside person looking in at their world rather than a person actually in the world, feeling what they feel along with them. A rather classic case of the author showing off their research on what happens when hard times befall working people over telling a proper story. It’s also a classic case of the author understanding what’s wrong without really understanding what the problem is. Where Gaskell completely lost me, however, was when she suggested that the mill owners would be more understanding if they knew how the workers were suffering when times were bad and the workers would bear their hardships without resentment if they only knew why their wages were being cut. Diminishing long-entrenched class divides to just a few simple misunderstandings between employee and employer feels, at best, naive and, at worst, insulting.
  • It’s certainly a novel of its time. There are loads of saintly characters who are too good for this sinful world, lots of fainting, lots of last minute rescues, lots of illnesses brought on by emotional turmoil (especially in women) and, in particular, lots of sexism. Seriously, the sexism shown in this book is bad even by Victorian standards. Men who are educated enough to know better won’t take no for an answer, wives are blamed for being negligent of their duties if men fail to come home to them after work, women are treated like even the slightest bit of bad news will kill them and even barristers ask the most inappropriate and demeaning questions when a woman is on the witness stand. It really put my back up and I wish Gaskell had done more to mock it like the Brontes did. It would have cushioned the blow nicely.
  • Very underutilised characters in my opinion. That may be down to the author’s decision to tell this in the third person or because they, again, focussed way too much page space on giving a detailed account of the bigger picture rather than giving us an insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling. The beginning was very promising as it focussed solely on the backstories and troubles of the two families from the disappearance of Esther to Alice’s illnesses. Then, the book got into describing the events leading up to a strike and the focus drifted away from the characters almost completely. In particular, the titular character, Mary, feels very underdeveloped. We’re given no insight into her character and we have no idea how she fell for Harry Carson nor do we even follow her story for about half the book. It’s shame the book is let down on character because some of them were pretty interesting. Job Legh was one of them. He might have received little formal schooling but he still takes whatever opportunities to learn about the natural world wherever he can by way of collecting books and specimens. So was his granddaughter, Margaret, who has to find a way to support herself despite her oncoming blindness. Honestly, if the book had centred around Margaret, it would have been a much more compelling story.
  • Engorged the ending to an obscene degree and the climax was so overblown that it wouldn’t have been out of place in a melodrama of the time. The book definitely should not have taken two hours of audiobook time to round off. In fact, this book should not have been anywhere near as long as it should be. It should have focussed completely on the characters and how the workers’ disputes affected them alone rather than trying in vain to give us a whole dry history of the event.

Goodreads Rating: ⭐️⭐️

Did you agree with my rating? Can you think of a better word to describe it? Please let me know with a like, share or comment.

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