‘Mary Barton’, by Elizabeth Gaskell, Publ. 1848

This is Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, published in 1848. It’s for the most part a grim and faithfully realistic account of the poverty-stricken lives of north of England labouring men and women. It takes one into the heart of things more than many of the history books I’ve read, dealing with the life of ordinary people swept into the ‘Industrial Revolution‘. Dickens did some stunning work in this area (Hard Times, Barnaby Rudge) and the failure of the workers’ charter to secure a hearing from parliament is a key point in the book. It certainly deals with the England of ‘Two Nations‘.

Like Dickens, Gaskell would like to see all this misery as a result of a great ‘misunderstanding’. That is to say, if the better-off classes could be brought to recognise how awfully the ordinary poor are being treated, then things would be done to better their lot. And while she is certainly not as anti-Trade Union as Dickens, it’s strange to see how she still clings to the idea of ‘workers being misled’ even while showing the contempt with which the ‘Chartists’ were held by their masters.

In its second half, the book strays from its ‘documentary’ strengths and becomes more or less a suspense story involving a court trial and a tediously long account of tracking down a vital witness. However, it’s still a riveting read after so many years.

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