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"Mary Barton" by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog.

First published in 1848, Mary Barton was Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel. The story is set in the English city of Manchester during the 1830s and 1840s and deals heavily with the troubles of the working-class poor of the time.

The first half of the novel chronicles young and beautiful Mary Barton, the motherless daughter of a factory worker father, and her romantic vacillations between Harry Carson, the wealthy son of a mill owner who is infatuated with Mary but has no noble intentions, and Jem Wilson, a long-time friend who is poor but loves Mary passionately.

The second half of the novel becomes a murder mystery and courtroom drama. Some of the best and most memorable scenes are here: the heroine divulging her true feelings during cross-examination, a heart-pounding chase at sea, and the sad final moments of a major character.

Many of the themes of this novel are similar to Gaskell's later work, North and South. One cannot help comparing the two, and North and South is the more polished novel in terms of writing style and plot construction. In Mary Barton, Gaskell's use of first person narration is sometimes jarring, as I was engrossed in the story and not prepared to hear a statement written from the author's own point-of-view. This first-person narration sometimes divulged political statements, and it appears Gaskell's intent was to villainize the rich and side with the poor. This is true especially during the first part of the story. In the second part she was more careful to present a balanced view from the perspective of both rich and poor. Indeed, she could not help doing so as the real victim of the novel turns out to be--ironically--the richest man in it.

It was it was not until several chapters in that I remembered that this novel was Gaskell's first. I was then more willing to overlook the small problems with style and tone and focus on the story. Mary Barton is also significant for presenting a recurring theme of the "fallen woman" through the character of Esther, Mary's aunt. Gaskell would later return to this as the major theme of her third novel, Ruth.


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