Mary Barton is one of the quintessential novels of industrial 19th century England. It’s a novel about class division: the factory workers vs. the factory owners. The rich and the poor were so distinct from one another they spoke in different dialects, wore different clothes, and lived in different sections of the city. This era predated labour laws, and workers slaved long hours in unsafe conditions, sometimes on empty stomachs, as their pittance wages barely or hardly covered the cost of living. Workers and employers gazed at each other across the great divide of have and have-not and felt little sympathy for each other. Little wonder, then, that animosity should sprout, fester and erupt, as it does in this novel.
Mary Barton puts faces to this class struggle. The young heroine Mary must choose between a young man of her own class or the son of her poor father’s rich employer. Conflicted by her secret struggle, Mary watches in horror as her father is tried for murdering her rich beau at the command of his trade union. Her world in tatters and the brink between the classes growing ever wider and their relationship ever more volatile, Mary leaves home to exert all her efforts to bring things to rights.
Once you’ve finished the book, read an in-depth literary analysis “The Body of Christ in ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell.”