This is a gripping story that covers so many themes – class systems, poverty, ambition, injustice, love, murder, and even a bit of a who-dunnit. It details the life of Mary Barton, from her poor background growing up with her hard working father, her relationships with her friends, the men in her life, and, mostly, the difficult choices she makes. The book is set in 19th century northern England and focuses on the differences between the workers and the masters; both needing one another to survive, yet both determined to mistrust one another.

The book has an interesting range of characters who have many similar traits (such as ambition, and passionate dedication) yet these traits are displayed in different ways and with different results; Mary is ambitious, and this ambition is best displayed in her choice of partner – Harry Carson (also representing the masters) would provide her with riches and a fresh start in life, whereas Jem (also representing the workers) would provide her with love and loyalty yet can only offer her a continuation of her present poor life; Esther is similar to Mary in her ambition to better herself, but is now suffering for it and has dropped completely out of society and feels unable to enter into it again; John B (Mary’s father) is obviously a very strong character who seems to almost have too much determination and energy to be contained in a small poverty stricken house in northern England; Margaret, (I feel), represents how we can overcome hardship and restrictions, she is blind yet still finds success and happiness and the book basically seems to state that this is because she is good and kind; Jem is faithful and loyal, he is not overly ambitious in fact his main ambition is to provide for his loved ones and to keep them secure and safe, he seems to have a strength within him, but his strength isn’t oppressive and crushing like John B’s.

I enjoyed the style of writing that the author adopted, she often gives her opinion on the characters and their decisions as if they were real people that she knew, eg “If you knew Mary …” and “I will simply try to state the case,” which I felt made the story seem more real and personal, almost like somebody telling you about a true story from their own experiences and past.

The book is disturbing at times with its depiction of the suffering that poverty causes, and the fact the poor had no power, support or help; it particularly stayed in my mind how they were resigned and accustomed to going without food.

I felt that both sides of the workers’ strike are displayed fairly, the author shows how it affects both the workers and the masters; she seems to sympathise with the strikers in essence, but can also see their folly, as well as the folly of the masters by not explaining the situation to the workers. The picture the author paints allows the reader to understand how frustrated the workers must be, they’re starving and have no help and are powerless to help themselves. John B is unable to pull himself out of his depression, he firstly believes support will come from the government if he can put the working class’ case forward, then when this doesn’t work he turns to opium for support, and then follows a further downhill path. As a reader I can see how desperate he is, but can also see his choices and actions will only make things worse, however I am full of sympathy for his frustration and desperation.

The viewpoint the book gives of trade unions is also thought provoking as they are shown as almost another type of master; they are tyrannous and domineering, they give orders which they expect to be followed without question, and they are all-powerful, causing suffering to their members. It is an interesting point that the trade unions are brought about in order to oppose oppression, and yet are oppressive themselves.

After the murder is committed the reader isn’t really sure who has done it – Jem or John. I found myself looking back in the book for clues in order to determine which one it was. This aspect of the book seemed like an extra bonus – I was expecting a great read debating the differences between workers and masters, and there was also a good mystery story included as well. Mary then discovers the identity of the murderer and is faced with a terrible dilemma, she has evidence to free the innocent man, but this means declaring the guilt of the other – she has to choose between father and lover. It is a classic book with brilliant storytelling.

Mary Barton was praised by contemporary critics for its vivid realism, its convincing characters and its deep sympathy with the poor, and it still has the power to engage and move readers today. This edition reproduces the last edition of the novel supervised by Elizabeth Gaskell and includes her husband's two lectures on the Lancashire dialect.
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