My "Victorian Controversies" seminar is over, but there's still books to read, both ones from that class that I never got around to, as well as ones from my next Victorian class...
|Trade paperback, 649 pages|
Published 2008 (originally 1848)
Acquired August 2009
Previously read September 2009
Reread January 2012
by Elizabeth Gaskell
On rereading Mary Barton, I was struck by its similarities to some of Dickens's work, especially Oliver Twist and Hard Times. Like both of those novels, Mary Barton seeks to dramatize the lives of the poor so that the middle-class reader will have some sympathy-- sympathy seemingly being the key to solving this social problem. But for all that Dickens is Dickens, Gaskell's work in this regard is clearly superior. Dickens's characters are typically caricatures, either negative or positive. It's impossible to feel any sympathy for Oliver because he's obnoxiously virtuous and completely devoid of personality. I can't even remember the names of any of the characters in Hard Times. But Gaskell draws a number of sharp portraits here in the factory town of Victorian Manchester, on both sides of the class divide. We spend the most time with John and Mary Barton, of course, but everyone is developed, and they are developed in ways that show how they respond to their social circumstances. Mary Barton is unarguably a "social problem" novel, but it works without that framework: it's also a novel about a group of people responding to, well, hard times.
Related to this is that I think the novel's plot is more firmly integrated into its project than in Dickens's works. Oliver Twist is ostensibly about the perils of being poor, but there's rather a lot of faffing about with inheritance or something. Mary Barton might take a turn about halfway through to be about a murder, but Gaskell makes this a natural extension of the first half of the novel's depiction of poverty. It helps, too, that Mary's journey to the docks and beyond is completely gripping, Gaskell ably exploiting the way that a girl of Mary's background would be vulnerable in such circumstances. Her emotional journey is also very neat, as she moves from unable to speak her feelings to making the kind of intimate communications that marriage requires, with the court case forcing her into the open for once-- and for the best.
Lastly, I was struck this time through by how many people die in this book. Especially in the first half, it feels like a never-ending stream. Despite this, Gaskell somehow manages to keep the book from descending into Thomas Hardyism. Thankfully. I mean, I like Thomas Hardy, but I don't need that all the time.
(I was interested to note on reading the preface, that Professor Recchio mentions a stage version of Mary Barton written by Rona Munro, who of course previously penned the last-ever Doctor Who serial, Survival. It's nice to know that there are people out there who have exactly the overlapping interests that I do.)