Reviving the classics: Mary Barton

Mary Barton tells a story of a young girl living in Manchester in the 1840s. It is a time of a great economic depression, and the novel is concerned with the situation of the working class. Gaskell presents in detail the horrible conditions in which the factory workers lived and appeals for understanding and compassion.

The plot concentrates on Mary, who starts the training as a dressmaker and her romantic involvement with rich and fashionable Harry Carson and her childhood friend Jem Wilson. When Mary’s father, John Barton, loses his job in the Carson mill, the Bartons life takes a turn for the worse. Money is sparse, and the morale is low, while John declines into gloomy desperation…

Mary Barton is a realistic representation of the poor of Manchester contemporary to Elizabeth Gaskell. Their hopes and fears are expressed by John Barton’s speeches, which are full of his conviction of the social injustice and indifference of the middle class. As a Ministers wife, Gaskell helped in charity organisations and visited the factory workers’ houses. We can assume that she knew what she was talking about when describing the poorest neighbourhoods. Her depiction is horrifying, and it was calculated on evoking sympathy for the working class.

On the other hand, the novel is also full of hope, love, and laughter. The poor come together, tell stories, sing and read poems. They are presented as individuals, from simple factory workers to those who could reach for a scientific or artistic career if their life circumstances were different. Still, they are also a strong community that helps the most needing. 

Overall, it is an interesting novel. It has a lot of depressing descriptions of the life of the poor, but it is also surprisingly full of action. I found it more entertaining than I expected. I would recommend it to those who enjoy classic novels or those who want to find out more about the life of the factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.

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