Sometimes I get in this mood where I’m like, “I’ve ready so many 19th century British novels (something like 65 in the last 7 years), and I really think I’ve mined out that vein.” And that is when, inevitably, I run across another book that shows me something totally new! I mean I suppose it shouldn’t be very surprising: this is an entire century of literature, after all. Okay so maybe I’m just really callous when it comes to history. If somebody told me that 65 great novels were published in America last year, I’d be like…duh. But my standards for books that’re 100+ years old are much higher.
Anyways, in the last week I’ve been devouring Elizabeth Gaskell. And in a miracle of pacing, each book has been better than the last. North and South was great. I loved how it featured political issues and the working class and plotting that is notably more subtle than the average political novel. However it still felt like a standard marriage plot. The next book, Cranford, was better still. This was a series of vignettes about a village populated mainly by old maids and widows. Nary a marriage plot in sight! I loved their little disputes and household dramas.
But the latest book, Mary Barton, is the best yet! This one is entirely about working class people, which for me is a huge novelty. The only other 19th century British novels I’ve read that’re about working class people are a few of Dickens novels, and in his books they’re always, like, displaced gentry (a la David Copperfield) or exceptional in some other way. Here it’s like, nope, they’re a bunch of mill workers. And they laugh and love and scheme just like gentlepeople! But they also go hungry sometimes =[
Most striking is Gaskell’s portrayal of their health problems. In Victorian literature, people are always taking to bed, wasting away, and dying. But in Mary Barton, the people don’t take to bed until they’re really freaking sick. Thus you have characters like Margaret, a dressmaker’s apprentice who knows the tiny stitching she’s doing is making her go blind, but who takes in more work anyway because she needs to save up money to support her grandfather. You’ve got Alice Wilson, the unmarried aunt of one of the characters, who starts the book as a spry old woman, a factory worker who goes out into the fields on her own time to collect herbal cures, and then deteriorates over the course of the book, first losing her hearing, and then her sight, until she’s left nodding in the corner, confused and alone.
The book does suffer, though, from the stupid detective plot in the third act. One of the characters gets accused of murder and the other characters need to rally and find evidence that exculpates him. Yawn! Give me some more stuff about who’s gonna marry whom, please.