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Mary Barton (Penguin Classics)by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
Synopses & Reviews
‘O Jem, her father won’t listen to me, and it’s you must save Mary! You’re like a brother to her’
Mary Barton, the daughter of disillusioned trade unionist, rejects her working-class lover Jem Wilson in the hope of marrying Henry Carson, the mill owner’s son, and making a better life for herself and her father. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself painfully torn between the two men. Through Mary’s dilemma, and the moving portrayal of her father, the embittered and courageous activist John Barton, Mary Barton (1848) powerfully dramatizes the class divides of the ‘hungry forties’ as personal tragedy. In its social and political setting, it looks towards Elizabeth Gaskell’s great novels of the industrial revolution, in particular North and South.
In his introduction Maconald Daly discusses Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel as a pioneering book that made public the great division between rich and poor – a theme that inspired much of her finest work.
This is a tale of Dives and Lazarus, of the comfortable pinnacle and the miserable base of the Victorian social pyramid. It is told, however, without simplification and without hatred.
The plot turns on Mary's romantic choice between Henry Carson, the son of a rich industrialist, and her working class lover Jem Wilson, and the rivalries between them. The class-divide and the widening gap between rich and poor are central themes in a novel originally named after Mary's father, John Barton.
About the Author
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was born in London in 1810, but she spent her formative years in Cheshire, Stratford-upon-Avon and the north of England. In 1832 she married the Reverend William Gaskell, who became well known as the minister of the Unitarian Chapel in Manchester’s Cross Street. As well as leading a busy domestic life as minister’s wife and mother of four daughters, she worked among the poor, traveled frequently and wrote. Mary Barton (1848) was her first success.
Two years later she began writing for Dickens’s magazine, Household Words, to which she contributed fiction for the next thirteen years, notably a further industrial novel, North and South (1855). In 1850 she met and secured the friendship of Charlotte Brontë. After Charlotte’s death in March 1855, Patrick Brontë chose his daughter’s friend and fellow-novelist to write The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), a probing and sympathetic account, that has attained classic stature. Elizabeth Gaskell’s position as a clergyman’s wife and as a successful writer introduced her to a wide circle of friends, both from the professional world of Manchester and from the larger literary world. Her output was substantial and completely professional. Dickens discovered her resilient strength of character when trying to impose his views on her as editor of Household Words. She proved that she was not to be bullied, even by such a strong-willed man.
Her later works, Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), Cousin Phillis (1864) and Wives and Daughters (1866) reveal that she was continuing to develop her writing in new literary directions. Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly in November 1865.
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