Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester
, the 1848 debut novel of Elizabeth Gaskell tells of the Victorian working class in Manchester, a city in England, from 1839 to 1842. It focuses on political and domestic issues. The title character serves as the first person narrative voice. There are differing views as to whether or not the narrator is the alter ego of the author. Gaskell instills social class and time period realism
by using working class dialect and colloquial speech and also with literary references. A good portion of the novel is devoted to comparisons between classes on the opposite ends of the economic spectrum.
The story opens with two families meeting just outside of Manchester in a field. One family consists of Jane and George Wilson and their babies who are twins along with seventeen-year-old son Jem. The other is John Barton, his pregnant wife Mary, and their thirteen-year-old daughter whose name is also Mary. Jane and Mary sit visiting with each other while their husbands take a walk. The men discuss Esther, Mary’s sister, who ran off a few nights earlier. John believes Esther has gained too high a level of independence because of the money she is making as a factory worker. Jem, meanwhile, is slapped by young Mary when he kisses her. The group moves on to the Barton’s’ home for tea. Mary is sent by her mother to get some things they need and to extend an invitation to George’s sister Alice who is working as a sick-nurse.
After three years pass, Mary is working as an apprentice to a dressmaker and John is involved with the Trades Union. When another year passes, and Mary is seventeen, Alice introduces her to a seamstress named Margaret Jennings who lives with her grandfather Job Legh and they become close friends. Margaret is slowly losing her eyesight making it increasingly difficult for her to sew, but might be able to sing to support herself. Harry Carson, who comes from the wealthy family that owns the mill at which George Wilson works, takes an interest in Mary. Jem is in love with Mary but the feelings are not reciprocated and she has as little contact with him as possible.
George finds himself out of work when the Carson mill burns down. The sole means of support for the family is the money Jem earns as a mechanic. Adding to the hard times of the Wilson family is the death of the twin boys from an illness. When Mary arrives to offer her condolences, Jem professes his love for her. She is put off by this, more by his timing than the fact that she does not share his affection. She dreams of marrying Harry Carson and elevating her status in society as well as being able to help her struggling father, who has money problems. Mary soon realizes that although she turned down Jem’s marriage proposal, she is actually in love with him. She decides to avoid Harry and eventually reveal her newly discovered feelings to Jem.
Esther, who is now a prostitute, returns to tell John that he must be mindful of letting Mary turn out like she has. He pays her no heed and Esther is arrested for vagrancy. When she is released from prison a month later she takes her warning to Jem asking that he protect Mary. He agrees and finds Harry. A fight ensues between the men, with a police officer watching. Shortly thereafter, Harry is found shot to death, and Jem is arrested as his gun was found at the scene. Esther looks into the situation and finds that the material used as wadding in the ammunition is a paper that has Mary’s name on it. When Esther finds Mary she warns her to save her loved one. Mary comes to the realization that Jem did not kill Harry, but that her father is the actual murderer. Mary struggles with deciding how to save Jem while still protecting her father.
Mary goes to Liverpool in an attempt to find an alibi for Jem. She is seeking Jem’s cousin Will Wilson who is a sailor and was with Jem on the night the murder took place. The ship Will is on is already at sea when she arrives, so Mary follows in a small boat. Will tells her that he will return in the pilot ship the next day and testify at the scheduled trial. Jem becomes aware that Mary is in love with him as the trial progresses. Will gives his testimony which results in Jem being declared not guilty. Upon returning to Manchester, Mary finds her father suffering from guilt. He confesses to Harry’s father that he is the killer and dies right after that. Esther dies a short time later.
Feeling that he cannot overcome the damage his reputation has received, Jem decides to leave England. At the end of the book, Mary and Jem are married and living in Canada with a child and Mrs. Wilson. In an added piece of good fortune, Mary learns that her friend Margaret has regained her sight and is marrying Will.