19th-Century Classics: Elizabeth Gaskell

Courtroom drama! A woman torn between two lovers! Murder! Violence! Class struggle!

Whoa, hold on there, you say. All this craziness from a book published in the prim and proper Victorian era? Can that be?

Why, yes, I reply. You will find all kinds of stirring action in Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton.

Who? you ask. Elizabeth Gaskell? We’re talking about 19th-century women writers, right? Aren’t we talking about Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and don’t forget Anne Bronte? Aren’t we talking about Jane Austen and George Eliot? Who’s Elizabeth Gaskell? I’ve never heard of anyone named Elizabeth Gaskell!

Well, good, I say. Then you have a whole new body of work to discover. Who’s Elizabeth Gaskell? She’s the writer with the social consciousness front and center in her work. She’s the one who illustrates class conflict in a powerful yet tender way. She’s the one who writes about the industrial cities and the hardships that are met by ordinary people. The book of hers you may have heard of is Cranford, the one made into a TV miniseries, which is much quieter than much of her other work.

I just read Mary Barton, and it was terrific. It’s set in the industrial city of Manchester, England, where Gaskell herself spent much of her life. Mary is the daughter of John Barton, a man whose native benevolence is warped over the course of his life as he becomes mired in the struggle between the working-class mill workers and the more privileged mill owners. Fun fact: Elizabeth Gaskell wanted to call her book John Barton but her publisher made her change it.

Getting back to Mary, we learn that she is an unusually beautiful young woman with no mother to offer her moral guidance as she comes of age. This often spells doom for a young heroine of the Victorian era, and Mary’s choices drive much of the plot forward. Mary grows up alongside Jem Wilson, and from their childhood everyone acts as if of course those two will get together. Just to spice things up, however, Mary’s beauty attracts the son of a wealthy mill owner.

And I’m not going to tell you any more. Because I really want you to read Mary Barton, and be all excited about discovering another 19th-century woman writer the way I was.

If you like Mary Barton, you can try Elizabeth Gaskell’s other books:

Cranford  (and the TV miniseries is here)

North and South

Wives and Daughters

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