Mary Barton

Mary Barton

by Elizabeth Gaskell


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The first novel by English writer Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton was published in 1848. It tells of the plight of the lower class in Manchester during the 1830s and 1840s. Contrasting the gap between rich and poor, the first half of the novel tells of the humble lives of the Barton and Wilson families, the extreme poverty of the Davenports and the luxurious life of the Carsons. Symbolically, John Barton receives five shillings for selling most of his worldly possessions; Henry Carson has this as loose change in his pocket. The second half of the novel comes to grips with a plot to murder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9798602186079
Publisher: Independently published
Publication date: 01/21/2020
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Foster a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa, is a professional writer and editor who has written on nineteenth-century British literature.

Read an Excerpt


"Oh! 'tis hard, 'tis hard to be working The whole of the live-long day,
There's Richard he carries his baby,
Manchester Song.

There are some fields near Manchester, well known to the inhabitants as "Green Heys Fields," through which runs a public footpath to a little village about two miles distant. In spite of these fields being flat and low, nay, in spite of the want of wood (the great and usual recommendation of level tracts of land), there is a charm about them which strikes even the inhabitant of a mountainous district, who sees and feels the effect of contrast in these common-place but thoroughly rural fields, with the busy, bustling manufacturing town he left but half an hour ago. Here and there an old black and white farm-house, with its rambling outbuildings, speaks of other times and other occupations than those which now absorb the population of the neighbourhood. Here in their seasons may be seen the country business of hay-making, ploughing, etc., which are such pleasant mysteries for townspeople to watch; and here the artisan, deafened with noise of tongues and engines, may come to listen awhile to the delicious sounds of rural life: the lowing of cattle, the milk-maids' call, the clatter and cackle of poultry in the old farm-yards. You cannot wonder, then, that these fields are popular places of resort at every holiday time; and you would not wonder, if you could see, or I properly describe, the charm of one particular stile, that it should be, on such occasions, a crowded halting-place. Close by it is a deep, clear pond, reflecting in its dark green depths the shadowy trees that bend over it to exclude the sun. The only place where its banks are shelving is on the side next to a rambling farm-yard, belonging to one of those old-world, gabled, black and white houses I named above, overlooking the field through which the public footpath leads. The porch of this farm-house is covered by a rose-tree; and the little garden surrounding it is crowded with a medley of old-fashioned herbs and flowers, planted long ago, when the garden was the only druggist's shop within reach, and allowed to grow in scrambling and wild luxuriance — roses, lavender, sage, balm (for tea), rosemary, pinks and wallflowers, onions and jessamine, in most republican and indiscriminate order. This farm-house and garden are within a hundred yards of the stile of which I spoke, leading from the large pasture field into a smaller one, divided by a hedge of hawthorn and black-thorn; and near this stile, on the further side, there runs a tale that primroses may often be found, and occasionally the blue sweet violet on the grassy hedge bank.

I do not know whether it was on a holiday granted by the masters, or a holiday seized in right of nature and her beautiful spring time by the workmen, but one afternoon (now ten or a dozen years ago) these fields were much thronged. It was an early May evening — the April of the poets; for heavy showers had fallen all the morning, and the round, soft, white clouds which were blown by a west wind over the dark blue sky, were sometimes varied by one blacker and more threatening. The softness of the day tempted forth the young green leaves, which almost visibly fluttered into life; and the willows, which that morning had had only a brown reflection in the water below, were now of that tender grey-green which blends so delicately with the spring harmony of colours.

Groups of merry and somewhat loud-talking girls, whose ages might range from twelve to twenty, came by with a buoyant step. They were most of them factory girls, and wore the usual out-of-doors dress of that particular class of maidens; namely, a shawl, which at mid-day or in fine weather was allowed to be merely a shawl, but towards evening, or if the day were chilly, became a sort of Spanish mantilla or Scotch plaid, and was brought over the head and hung loosely down, or was pinned under the chin in no unpicturesque fashion.

Their faces were not remarkable for beauty; indeed, they were below the average, with one or two exceptions; they had dark hair, neatly and classically arranged, dark eyes, but sallow complexions and irregular features. The only thing to strike a passer-by was an acuteness and intelligence of countenance, which has often been noticed in a manufacturing population.

There were also numbers of boys, or rather young men, rambling among these fields, ready to bandy jokes with any one, and particularly ready to enter into conversation with the girls, who, however, held themselves aloof, not in a shy, but rather in an independent way, assuming an indifferent manner to the noisy wit or obstreperous compliments of the lads. Here and there came a sober quiet couple, either whispering lovers, or husband and wife, as the case might be; and if the latter, they were seldom unencumbered by an infant, carried for the most part by the father, while occasionally even three or four little toddlers had been carried or dragged thus far, in order that the whole family might enjoy the delicious May afternoon together.

Sometime in the course of that afternoon, two working men met with friendly greeting at the stile so often named. One was a thorough specimen of a Manchester man; born of factory workers, and himself bred up in youth, and living in manhood, among the mills. He was below the middle size and slightly made; there was almost a stunted look about him; and his wan, colourless face gave you the idea that in his childhood he had suffered from the scanty living consequent upon bad times and improvident habits. His features were strongly marked, though not irregular, and their expression was extreme earnestness; resolute either for good or evil, a sort of latent, stern enthusiasm. At the time of which I write, the good predominated over the bad in the countenance, and he was one from whom a stranger would have asked a favour with tolerable faith that it would be granted. He was accompanied by his wife, who might, without exaggeration, have been called a lovely woman, although now her face was swollen with crying, and often hidden behind her apron. She had the fresh beauty of the agricultural districts; and somewhat of the deficiency of sense in her countenance, which is likewise characteristic of the rural inhabitants in comparison with the natives of the manufacturing towns. She was far advanced in pregnancy, which perhaps occasioned the overpowering and hysterical nature of her grief. The friend whom they met was more handsome and less sensible-looking than the man I have just described; he seemed hearty and hopeful, and although his age was greater, yet there was far more of youth's buoyancy in his appearance. He was tenderly carrying a baby in arms, while his wife, a delicate, fragile-looking woman, limping in her gait, bore another of the same age; little, feeble twins, inheriting the frail appearance of their mother.

The last-mentioned man was the first to speak, while a sudden look of sympathy dimmed his gladsome face. "Well, John, how goes it with you?" and, in a lower voice, he added, "any news of Esther, yet?" Meanwhile the wives greeted each other like old friends, the soft and plaintive voice of the mother of the twins seeming to call forth only fresh sobs from Mrs. Barton.

"Come, women," said John Barton, "you've both walked far enough. My Mary expects to have her bed in three weeks; and as for you, Mrs. Wilson, you know you are but a cranky sort of a body at the best of times." This was said so kindly that no offence could be taken. "Sit you down here; the grass is well nigh dry by this time; and you're neither of you nesh folk about taking cold. Stay," he added, with some tenderness, "here's my pocket-handkerchief to spread under you to save the gowns women always think so much of; and now, Mrs. Wilson, give me the baby, I may as well carry him, while you talk and comfort my wife; poor thing, she takes on sadly about Esther."

These arrangements were soon completed: the two women sat down on the blue cotton handkerchiefs of their husbands, and the latter, each carrying a baby, set off for a further walk; but as soon as Barton had turned his back upon his wife, his countenance fell back into an expression of gloom.

"Then you've heard nothing of Esther, poor lass?" asked Wilson.

"No, nor shan't, as I take it. My mind is, she's gone off with somebody. My wife frets, and thinks she's drowned herself, but I tell her, folks don't care to put on their best clothes to drown themselves; and Mrs. Bradshaw (where she lodged, you know) says the last time she set eyes on her was last Tuesday, when she came downstairs, dressed in her Sunday gown, and with a new ribbon in her bonnet, and gloves on her hands, like the lady she was so fond of thinking herself."

"She was as pretty a creature as ever the sun shone on."

"Ay, she was a farrantly lass; more's the pity now," added Barton, with a sigh. "You see them Buckinghamshire people as comes to work in Manchester has quite a different look with them to us Manchester folk. You'll not see among the Manchester wenches such fresh rosy cheeks, or such black lashes to grey eyes (making them look like black), as my wife and Esther had. I never seed two such pretty women for sisters; never. Not but what beauty is a sad snare. Here was Esther so puffed up, that there was no holding her in. Her spirit was always up, if I spoke ever so little in the way of advice to her; my wife spoiled her, it is true, for you see she was so much older than Esther she was more like a mother to her, doing everything for her."

"I wonder she ever left you," observed his friend.

"That's the worst of factory work, for girls. They can earn so much when work is plenty, that they can maintain themselves anyhow. My Mary shall never work in a factory, that I'm determined on. You see Esther spent her money in dress, thinking to set off her pretty face; and got to come home so late at night, that at last I told her my mind: my miss is thinks I spoke crossly, but I meant right, for I loved Esther, if it was only for Mary's sake. Says I, 'Esther, I see what you'll end at with your artificials, and your fly-away veils, and stopping out when honest women are in their beds; you'll be a street-walker, Esther, and then, don't you go to think I'll have you darken my door, though my wife is your sister.' So says she, 'Don't trouble yourself, John. I'll pack up and be off now, for I'll never stay to hear myself called as you call me,' She flushed up like a turkey-cock, and I thought fire would come out of her eyes; but when she saw Mary cry (for Mary can't abide words in a house), she went and kissed her, and said she was not so bad as I thought her. So we talked more friendly, for, as I said, I liked the lass well enough, and her pretty looks, and her cheery ways. But she said (and at the time I thought there was sense in what she said) we should be much better friends if she went into lodgings, and only came to see us now and then."

"Then you still were friendly. Folks said you'd cast her off, and said you'd never speak to her again."

"Folks always make one a deal worse than one is," said John Barton, testily. "She came many a time to our house after she left off living with us. Last Sunday se'nnight — no! it was this very last Sunday, she came to drink a cup of tea with Mary; and that was the last time we set eyes on her."

"Was she any ways different in her manner?" asked Wilson,

"Well, I don't know. I have thought several times since, that she was a bit quieter, and more womanly-like; more gentle, and more blushing, and not so riotous and noisy. She comes in, toward four o'clock, when afternoon church was loosing, and she goes and hangs her bonnet up on the old nail we used to call hers, while she lived with us. I remember thinking what a pretty lass she was, as she sat on a low stool by Mary, who was rocking herself, and in rather a poor way. She laughed and cried by turns, but all so softly and gently, like a child, that I could not find in my heart to scold her, especially as Mary was fretting already. One thing I do remember I did say, and pretty sharply too. She took our little Mary by the waist, and–––"

"Thou must leave off calling her 'little' Mary, she's growing up into as fine a lass as one can see on a summer's day; more of her mother's stock than thine," interrupted Wilson.

"Well, well, I call her 'little' because her mother's name is Mary. But, as I was saying, she takes Mary in a coaxing sort of way, and 'Mary' says she, 'what should you think if I sent for you some day and made a lady of you.' So I could not stand such talk as that to my girl, and I said, 'Thou'd best not put that nonsense in the girl's head I can tell thee; I'd rather see her earning her bread by the sweat of her brow, as the Bible tells her she should do, ay, though she never got butter to her bread, than be like a do-nothing lady, worrying shopmen all morning, and screeching at her pianny all afternoon, and going to bed without having done a good turn to any one of God's creatures but herself.'

"Thou never could abide the gentlefolk," said Wilson, half amused at his friend's vehemence.

"And what good have they ever done me that I should like them?" asked Barton, the latent fire lighting up his eye: and bursting forth, he continued, "If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life? If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes, with black frost, and keen east wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion was not a humbug? When I lie on my death-bed, and Mary (bless her) stands fretting, as I know she will fret," and here his voice faltered a little, "will a rich lady come and take her to her own home if need be, till she can look round, and see what best to do ? No, I tell you, it's the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. Don't think to come over me with the old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don't know, they ought to know. We are their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us: but I know who was best off then," and he wound up his speech with a low chuckle that had no mirth in it.

"Well, neighbour," said Wilson, "all that may be very true, but what I want to know now is about Esther — when did you last hear of her?"

"Why, she took leave of us that Sunday night in a very loving way, kissing both wife Mary, and daughter Mary (if I must not call her little), and shaking hands with me; but all in a cheerful sort of manner, so we thought nothing about her kisses and shakes. But on Wednesday night comes Mrs. Bradshaw's son with Esther's box, and presently Mrs. Bradshaw follows with the key; and when we began to talk, we found Esther told her she was coming back to live with us, and would pay her week's money for not giving notice; and on Tuesday night she carried off a little bundle (her best clothes were on her back, as I said before), and told Mrs. Bradshaw not to hurry herself about the big box, but bring it when she had time. So of course she thought she should find Esther with us; and when she told her story, my missis set up such a screech, and fell down in a dead swoon. Mary ran up with water for her mother, and I thought so much about my wife, I did not seem to care at all for Esther. But the next day I asked all the neighbours (both our own and Bradshaw's) and they'd none of them heard or seen nothing of her. I even went to a policeman, a good enough sort of man, but a fellow I'd never spoke to before because of his livery, and I asks him if his 'cuteness could find anything out for us. So I believe he £sks other policemen; and one on 'em had seen a wench, like our Esther, walking very quickly, with a bundle under her arm, on Tuesday night, toward eight o'clock, and get into a hackney coach, near Hulme Church, and we don't know the number, and can't trace it no further. I'm sorry enough for the girl, for bad's come over her, one way or another, but I'm sorrier for my wife. She loved her next to me and Mary, and she's never been the same body since poor Tom's death. However, let's go back to them; your old woman may have done her good."


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Table of Contents

Elizabeth Gaskell: A Brief Chronology
A Note on the Text

Mary Barton

Appendix A:
The Composition of the Novel

  1. Excerpts from Gaskell’s Letters
  2. Parable of Dives and Lazarus

Appendix B:
Contemporary Reviews of the Novel

  1. Athenaeum (21 October 1848)
  2. Examiner (4 November 1848)
  3. Christian Examiner (March 1849)
  4. Edinburgh Review (April 1849)
  5. Fraser’s Magazine (April 1849)

Appendix C:
Social Commentary on Industrialization

  1. Thomas Carlyle, Chapter I, Chartism (1840)
  2. “Emigration—Report of the Poor-Law Commissioners on the Subject,” Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal (15 February 1840)
  3. Joseph Adshead, Distress in Manchester. Evidence (Tabular and Otherwise) of the State of the Labouring Classes in 1840-42 (1842)
  4. Leon Faucher, Manchester in 1844: Its Present Condition and Future Prospects (1844)
  5. Ralph Barnes Grindrod, The Slaves of the Needle(1844)
  6. Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)
  7. Charles Kingsley, Appeal to the Chartists (12 April 1848)
  8. Caroline Norton, Letters to the Mob (1848)
  9. Morning Chronicle (Thursday, 1 November 1849)
  10. William Rathbone Greg, Employers and Employed (1853)

Appendix D:
Related Fiction and Poetry

  1. Thomas Hood, “Song of the Shirt” (1843)
  2. Charlotte Brontë, Chapters 8 and 19, Shirley (1849)
  3. Charles Dickens, Chapter 4, Hard Times (1854)
  4. George Eliot, Chapter 31, Felix Holt (1866)

Appendix E:
Chartism and Free Trade

Select Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The revolution urged by Mary Barton is a revolution in the emotional and mental dispositions of individuals towards each other … a thoroughly idealist enterprise."
—Macdonald Daly

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Mary Barton 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
evertrap on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Like a bad soap opera, this story is based on ridiculous situations that are depressing to the extreme.
Shuffy2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Two men love the Mary Barton- one she has known her entire life being from the same poor neighborhood as her while the other is from a wealthy family. What should she do?Mary Barton's life doesn't go according to plan and her life is changed forever! Set in the 1840's during the industrial upheaval in England, Glaskell takes the reader on a journey through love, loss, social restrictions, death, murder, and redemption. Great cast of characters that come together to create a well written and moving story- the beautiful Mary, faithful Margret, devoted Jem, simple Job, doting John, and meddling Esther, to name a few. As a fan of Austen as well as Glaskell's 'North and South' and 'Wives and Daughters', I enjoyed this book and it did not disappoint- could not put it down! A real page turner!!
Bodagirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was sitting on my bedside table for over a month and I just couldn't bring myself to finish it. Really depressing, almost Dickensian.
lindawwilson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not as good as North and South or Wives and Daughters; the conflicts between workers and masters was a bit trite and the poems at the beginning of the chapters were not that good and it was not as well written as a Hardy or Trollope novel, by any means.
atimco on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mary Barton is, like Elizabeth Gaskell's more famous novel North and South, set in a manufacturing town and is concerned with the wide inequities between the working and master classes. Published in 1848, this is Gaskell's first novel and sets the stage for the major concerns she would highlight in her work. This story follows Mary Barton, a young woman of the working class in the industrial town of Manchester, whose father is a vocal advocate of better conditions for the poor. Mary has two lovers: Jem Wilson, a man of the working class, and Henry Carson, the son of a prominent mill owner. When murder is done, Mary must see through her illusions and save the man she loves. But what if it is at the expense of another person she loves? The descriptions of life among the poor in Manchester are appalling, and Gaskell explores the depths of human suffering in ways that grip the imagination. I suspect I will be haunted a little by these long-gone agonies, the "clemming" of children, the despair and utter helplessness of the parents. And the hard-heartedness of Parliament, that refused to even listen to the plea of the delegates from the working class. Gaskell is always at great pains to make it clear that she knows nothing of politics and economics, but she can't help abjuring the rich to help the poor; it seems to her the only possible solution. I was saddened by the fate of Esther, counterpart to the much older and saintly Alice. Both die in end, but Alice with such a wonderful aura of peace and faith in God... Esther, the streetwalker and prostitute, in a ragged heap on the wet streets. There is a feeling of inevitability about Esther's death; is there ever a reclaimed, rejuvenated prostitute in any Victorian literature? How much more fascinating it would have been to see Esther escape her horrible life and come away with Jem and Mary to Canada. I don't know why Gaskell chose not to explore that possibility¿she is certainly sympathetic toward the plight of the ruined woman¿but Esther dies and is mourned in the way quite proper to the literature of the time. Ah well. As with her characters in Wives and Daughters, Gaskell portrays very realistic people, especially in Mrs. Wilson, Jem's mother, who is of an irritable and scolding temper. Her mother-love, her best impulses, her moments of sacrifice are given full weight in the narrative, but we also see her littlenesses and the trifles that upset her. She's very human indeed. Mary, too, is not without her faults, most notably a slight vanity and propensity for flirting. I also really liked Job Legh, that simple old man with his love for natural history and science, and the crusty Mr. Sturgis and his kind wife. Interestingly enough, for those who are familiar with Gaskell's other work, there is a Molly Gibson referenced in the story (though she never appears). Apparently it was a good enough name to be reused. Comparisons with Gaskell's better-known novels, especially North and South, are natural. It is clear that this is Gaskell's first novel; there are certain plot gaps, such as the gun (when it was clearly ascertained to be Jem's, why did no one ask him who had borrowed it of him?). And it's fairly clear who is responsible for the murder, right from the start. But this isn't meant to be a whodunit. One theme that runs throughout the novel is the idea of culpability and blame, and how it may rest not only with the perpetrator of a crime, but also with the influences that made the criminal what he is. Gaskell's sympathy is strongly with the workers; she acknowledges their wildness and their violent crimes, but asks who it was that made them that way. It's the masters, of course, and though their deeds are wicked, so are those who brought them to such extremities. But the idea of culpability is not just for masses of people; it is also personal. Mary Barton feels the weight of it when she considers that it was her rash, angry words that may have spurred Je
heidijane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have mixed feelings about this book. Some bits were really thrilling and exciting - particularly the murder trial and Mary's efforts to track down the alibi to try and clear an innocent man's name. However, the rest of it surrounding felt quite pedestrian and plodding, despite the large number of deaths due to poverty and starvation in the first few chapters. More could have been made of the worker's strike, and the injustices etc. But the central story is still enjoyable.
alexdaw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mary Barton is a love story and a murder mystery but as Elizabeth Gaskell writes, the real motivation for telling the story was "to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people; the agony of suffering without the sympathy of the happy, or of erroneously believing that such is the case." So Mary Barton is ultimately a study of workplace relations, of the uneasy relationship between the working class and the factory owners. Gaskell builds a detailed picture of how a dispute over wages in the mills escalates: "So class distrusted class, and their want of mutual confidence wrought sorrow to both. The masters would not be bullied, and compelled to reveal why they felt it wisest and best to offer only such low wages; they would not be made to tell that they were even sacrificing capital to obtain a decisive victory over the continental manufacturers. And the workmen sat silent and stern with folded hands refusing to work for such pay. There was a strike in Manchester."It could be a dull and dreary read but the characters are drawn so beautifully and despite the 'clemming" (starving) and the death and the distress...there is a dry humour carved into some of the character descriptions. I particularly liked the character of Job, someone we would refer to these days as having a bit of an OCD. Job is at heart a botanist and likes to collect specimens of all descriptions. The account of Will Wilson, a sailor, courting Job's grand-daughter Margaret is very amusing...the bargaining chips being exotic specimens of dried fish and other sundry items from far off lands!! "Job wanted to prove his gratitude, and was puzzled how to do it. He feared the young man would not appreciate any of his duplicate Araneides; not even the great American Mygale, one of his most precious treasures; or else he would gladly have bestowed any duplicate on the donor of a real dried Exocetus. What could he do for him? He could ask Margaret to sing."This book isn't for everyone I'm sure. It may at times seem over-blown or over-done in its sentimentality. At times I felt it was a guilty pleasure - a bit like "Neighbours" for the soul. That didn't seem to worry me for some reason. I was just captivated by the account of life in Manchester in the 1840s and the characters' struggle to make their way in the face of unemployment, starvation and everything else you can think of. There is true pathos in this book. Death is a regular visitor to the point of ridiculousness - but any family historian will tell you that it sometimes seems a miracle that any of us are here today, if you study the lives of your ancestors.For my money, it was worth every cent and more. I loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a good read. I like history and it gave a thorough vision of the reality of life of the poor.
wiremonkey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A contemporary of Dickens, Gaskell portrays the horrors of the disenfranchised poor working class.Although she can't get away from the prejudices of her own time (she tends to talk about the poor as if they were a different species and is all amazement and wonderment when they are able to reatian their dignity) she creates some surprisignly strong, flawed and interesting female characters. I really enjored this book despite for the neatly wrapped up threads at the end (a blind girl suddenly gets "fixed".
lindianajones More than 1 year ago
Not an easy read. Found myself skimming through it. Not one of the more readable classics.
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