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Mary Barton

by Elizabeth Gaskell
395 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Clodsley S.

A very well-written and thorough novel, but a bit too dark for young children.

Plot

In the early days of the 1800s, a time of factories, poverty, and the rise of Unions, lives a young woman named Mary Barton who works as a dressmaker in Manchester and lives with her widower father. She is torn between two young men: Jem Wilson, a family friend and childhood playmate, and Harry Carson, a rich, self-centered aristocrat who seems to be deeply in love with her. When circumstances change and Jem is framed for a crime that he did not commit, Mary must choose between them and face the consequences of making the wrong choice.

Morality

The people of Manchester live and struggle together, but they all try to support one another. Margaret, one of Mary's friends, becomes a singer and supports Mary and her father by giving them a little of her payment and also cares for her grandfather in his old age. But when Mary's estranged aunt, Esther, returns from abroad, no one reaches out to help her because of her status.

Spiritual Content

Some of the characters are described as being Puritan. Bible scripture is often quoted, and most of the characters look to God to help them with their problems.

Violence

A few major deaths, including the death of Mary's mother at the beginning. A character is shot in the temple (the wound and the event are described very briefly). Others die from sickness or starvation. The poverty of England is described very intensely at times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Esther describes herself as being an alcoholic, and some fear that Jem may take to drinking if Mary refuses him. Mary's father is addicted to opium.

Sexual Content

It is suspected that Harry Carson might have the wrong intentions towards Mary and almost implies that they don't get married at all. Their romance is called a love affair, and Harry often refers to Mary as a "wench" or "hussy", along with other words such as "flirtatious". Esther is a prostitute (though the word is mentioned only a few times) and describes how she once loved a man deeply and had a child with him (it is unknown whether they were married or not). Harry grabs Mary violently around the waist.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Depending on what version of the book you read, most of the four-letter words are blanked out (i.e., D--ed, Oh G-d) occasionally. But if you do not read such a version, look out for words such as d-mn, as well as the Lord's name being misused. An aristocrat is shot because of the tension between the workers and the mill-owners and most of the workers (i.e., those in the Union) are strongly against business owners to the point of rallying.

Conclusion

Elizabeth Gaskell is not one of the most well-known writers of her time, but she very vividly describes the despair of England in the 1840s. Her characters come to life and are described thoroughly, and her heart-wrenching plot-twists make "Mary Barton" an intense, almost painful, book to read. The morality is also quite sound and there are strong Christian messages throughout. However, I only recommend this to people who are very mature readers, as some of her writing is in-depth and a little confusing, especially for tweens and young children who aren't used to reading classic novels. But I highly recommend this for teens and adults who are interested in the industrial age of England.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 4.5
Written for Age: adult

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