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Mary Barton [Norton Critical Edition]

by Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Recchio (Editor)

Other authors: Richard D. Altick (Contributor), Samuel Bamford (Contributor), Rosemarie Bodenheimer (Contributor), Dion Boucicault (Contributor), Thomas Carlyle (Contributor)22 more, Henry Fothergill Chorlay (Contributor), Liam Corley (Contributor), Deirdre d'Albertis (Contributor), Maria Edgeworth (Contributor), Friedrich Engels (Contributor), Leon M. Faucher (Contributor), John Forster (Contributor), Catherine Gallagher (Contributor), W. R. Greg (Contributor), Jonathan H. Grossman (Contributor), Josephine M. Guy (Contributor), Graham Handley (Contributor), Amy Mae King (Contributor), Charles Kingsley (Contributor), John Lucas (Contributor), Deborah Epstein Nord (Contributor), Hilary M. Schor (Contributor), John Geoffrey Sharps (Contributor), Patsy Stoneman (Contributor), Kathleen Tillotson (Contributor), Raymond Williams (Contributor), Susan Zlotnick (Contributor)

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This Norton Critical Edition of Gaskell's first novel is based on the 1854 Fifth Edition, the last edition corrected by the author. "Contexts" includes letters related to Mary Barton's publication as well as Gaskell's reaction to her harshest critics. Ten contemporary reviews reflect the dual nature of the novel's critical reception: one group valuing its eye-opening moral energy and concern for the suffering of the working classes and the other group taking Gaskell to task for the deceptive implications of her perceived flawed reasoning. A section featuring fifteen illustrations from the novel offers readers the opportunity to explore narrative emphases. "Criticism" collects seventeen major interpretations of the novel's central themes. Contributors include Kathleen Tillotson, Richard D. Altick, John Lucas, Catherine Gallagher, Hilary Schor, Deborah Epstein, Susan Zlotnick, Jonathan H. Grossman, and Liam Corley, among others. A Chronology of Gaskell's life and work and a Selected Bibliography are also included.… (more)
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This marks the third Elizabeth Gaskell novel I've had to read (after Cranford and North and South), so it's a good thing I enjoy her novels, but this one is my least favorite so far. Mary is not quite as bright as Gaskell's other protagonists, though this isn't entirely her fault, as she's been socialized with this notion of "maidenly modesty" that the novel undermines by the end-- but it's not entirely enjoyable to read about someone doing slightly stupid things you don't agree with. I laughed out loud when Mary declared her plan to win Jem Wilson's love (though I suspect that may have been Gaskell's intention). But the novel picks up once it switches from its initial social-problem plotline (something Gaskell did much better in North and South) to its largely separate thriller/mystery one (Gaskell is also better at integrating plotlines in North and South). But the thriller stuff is so good! When Mary goes to Liverpool to look for Will, I was gripped; when she followed a sailor to parts unknown "with the unquestioning docility of a little child", I was frightened for her; when Mary finally manages to testify (in more ways than one) at Jem's trial, I was captivated. (Fortunately, things turn out okay for nearly everyone involved.) Gaskell is a master of character, and Mary Barton is no exception to that, even if it's not quite as interesting as some of her later works.

The best part of this book is, of course, Gaskell's use of free indirect discourse, about which I recently completed a 3,000-word paper. A full 1,500 words of the paper concerned a six-word parenthetical, "and true love is ever modest". This may be the peak of my scholarly career.

And, I have to give kudos to this Norton Critical Edition, which was edited by Professor Thomas Recchio, in whose class I was introduced to Gaskell. I have no complaints about his critical apparatus; the footnotes were in general quite helpful.

added January 2012:
On rereading Mary Barton, I was struck by its similarities to some of Dickens's work, especially Oliver Twist and Hard Times. Like both of those novels, Mary Barton seeks to dramatize the lives of the poor so that the middle-class reader will have some sympathy-- sympathy seemingly being the key to solving this social problem. But for all that Dickens is Dickens, Gaskell's work in this regard is clearly superior. Dickens's characters are typically caricatures, either negative or positive. It's impossible to feel any sympathy for Oliver because he's obnoxiously virtuous and completely devoid of personality. I can't even remember the names of any of the characters in Hard Times. But Gaskell draws a number of sharp portraits here in the factory town of Victorian Manchester, on both sides of the class divide. We spend the most time with John and Mary Barton, of course, but everyone is developed, and they are developed in ways that show how they respond to their social circumstances. Mary Barton is unarguably a "social problem" novel, but it works without that framework: it's also a novel about a group of people responding to, well, hard times.

Related to this is that I think the novel's plot is more firmly integrated into its project than in Dickens's works. Oliver Twist is ostensibly about the perils of being poor, but there's rather a lot of faffing about with inheritance or something. Mary Barton might take a turn about halfway through to be about a murder, but Gaskell makes this a natural extension of the first half of the novel's depiction of poverty. It helps, too, that Mary's journey to the docks and beyond is completely gripping, Gaskell ably exploiting the way that a girl of Mary's background would be vulnerable in such circumstances. Her emotional journey is also very neat, as she moves from unable to speak her feelings to making the kind of intimate communications that marriage requires, with the court case forcing her into the open for once-- and for the best.

Lastly, I was struck this time through by how many people die in this book. Especially in the first half, it feels like a never-ending stream. Despite this, Gaskell somehow manages to keep the book from descending into Thomas Hardyism. Thankfully. I mean, I like Thomas Hardy, but I don't need that all the time.

(I was interested to note on reading the preface, that Professor Recchio mentions a stage version of Mary Barton written by Rona Munro, who of course previously penned the last-ever Doctor Who serial, Survival. It's nice to know that there are people out there who have exactly the overlapping interests that I do.)
1 vote Stevil2001 | Oct 22, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elizabeth Gaskellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Recchio, ThomasEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Altick, Richard D.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bamford, SamuelContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bodenheimer, RosemarieContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Boucicault, DionContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Carlyle, ThomasContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Chorlay, Henry FothergillContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Corley, LiamContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
d'Albertis, DeirdreContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Edgeworth, MariaContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Engels, FriedrichContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Faucher, Leon M.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Forster, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gallagher, CatherineContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Greg, W. R.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Grossman, Jonathan H.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Guy, Josephine M.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Handley, GrahamContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
King, Amy MaeContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kingsley, CharlesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lucas, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Nord, Deborah EpsteinContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Schor, Hilary M.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sharps, John GeoffreyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Stoneman, PatsyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Tillotson, KathleenContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Williams, RaymondContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Zlotnick, SusanContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed

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This Norton Critical Edition of Gaskell's first novel is based on the 1854 Fifth Edition, the last edition corrected by the author. "Contexts" includes letters related to Mary Barton's publication as well as Gaskell's reaction to her harshest critics. Ten contemporary reviews reflect the dual nature of the novel's critical reception: one group valuing its eye-opening moral energy and concern for the suffering of the working classes and the other group taking Gaskell to task for the deceptive implications of her perceived flawed reasoning. A section featuring fifteen illustrations from the novel offers readers the opportunity to explore narrative emphases. "Criticism" collects seventeen major interpretations of the novel's central themes. Contributors include Kathleen Tillotson, Richard D. Altick, John Lucas, Catherine Gallagher, Hilary Schor, Deborah Epstein, Susan Zlotnick, Jonathan H. Grossman, and Liam Corley, among others. A Chronology of Gaskell's life and work and a Selected Bibliography are also included.

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