Elizabeth Gaskell’s remarkable first novel, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life portrays a love that defies the rigid boundaries of class with tragic consequences. This Penguin Classics edition is edited with an introduction and notes by MacDonald Daly.
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 Chartist agitator John Barton, Mary Barton 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.
Macdonald Daly’s introduction discusses Gaskell’s first novel as a pioneering work in the recognition of the conditions of the poor and working class; this edition also contains full notes and a chronology of Gaskell’s life.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) was born in London, but grew up in the north of England in the village of Knutsford. In 1832 she married the Reverend William Gaskell and had four daughters, and one son who died in infancy. Her first novel, Mary Barton, was published in 1848, winning the attention of Charles Dickens, and most of her later work was published in his journals. She was also a lifelong friend of Charlotte BrontÃ«, whose biography she wrote.
If you enjoyed Mary Barton, you might like George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, also available in Penguin Classics.