Again the northern industrial town is represented in all its overt dirt and misery and yet discovered to be full of humanity beneath. A man can be an idealist and yet still be a murderer. Death and illness are ever present, yet the characters find reason to live.
Gaskell was, apparently, one of Dickens’ favourite authors and it is not difficult to see why. The plots of the novels are sequential and lend themselves well to serialisation.
I briefly studied Mary Barton at degree level, just as part of a general overview of nineteenth century literature, before we were pushed on to the twentieth century and the ‘superior’ social commentary of Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison. You take what you are given when you are nineteen and, if I’m honest, back then I genuinely enjoyed getting all fired up about why a caged bird sang. But now, I just wish that I had paid more attention to the original. Perhaps you need a few extra years under your belt for some things. Perhaps the DVD version of North and South helped to reignite my interest. We all come to our chosen destinations from different angles and via different routes. I suppose it doesn’t matter how we get there, as long as we do. (I know someone who was first introduced to D H Lawrence by a quote on the back of a Mott the Hoople album.)
One thing I do remember from an early Wednesday morning quarter-full lecture was that Gaskell originally intended the novel to be called John Barton but thought that her readers would ultimately find it too depressing. Mary, on the other hand, can be touched by idealism but see both sides. She can spurn the attentions of a mill-owner’s son without realising the consequences, and so her journey is a more interesting one.