I tried to read this novel years ago and ended up just skimming it. I read it for my British history class, and our professor said that this was Gaskell’s first novel. That might help explain why I found it harder to enjoy than her other “great” novels. I did like it better this time around though. I think the first time I thought Mary was going to capitulate if Harry Carson had not been killed.
Mary was an irritating little snob . . . and the way she treated poor Jim! She was a fool in the beginning, but she ended up being quite heroic (which is annoying because this was painted on rather heavily). Jim still deserved soooo much better though.
The action and plot were interesting, more so than the characters who were rather flat and stock. The description of the charaters and overall tone made the book seem rather sanctimonious in tone (which the author intended as my professor indicated, in a more positive way, remember this was a HISTORY class; we have to have preaching about social issues). I think that when novels (and movies) are action focused to the point of style and characterization degradation, the quality is quite low. Also, please show rather than preach.
The whole factory/mill master and workers situation seems to intrigue me in novels. My professor stated (after I brought up the better, in my opinion, North and South) that Gaskell received quite a bit of criticism for Mary Barton and probably toned down North and South for that reason . . . because of course any balance and positive light to the upper and/or master classes is wrong! In North and South the story displays so many sides of the question and the author’s bias is less obvious (or, if possible nonexistent) which makes the story so very fascinating.
I say do not preach because no one ever seems to preach truth in novels.