Mary Barton - Elizabeth Gaskell, Juliet Stevenson
This was Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel and it shows. It's signficantly less assured than her better known works, [b:North and South|156538|North and South|Elizabeth Gaskell||1016482], [b:Cranford|182381|Cranford|Elizabeth Gaskell||1016559] and [b:Wives and Daughters|383206|Wives and Daughters|Elizabeth Gaskell||816009]. The eponymous heroine is at times annoying (although she grows in stature as the work progresses) and the narrative has a number of those features which make some readers avoid Victorian fiction: a leisurely pace, wordiness, preachiness, sentimentality and melodrama. The novel starts very slowly. At the half-way mark the pace picks up and it turns into an interesting court room drama, which would be even more interesting if the outcome had not been predictable. The last quarter of the novel falls off somewhat, as Gaskell's preaching kicks into high gear.

That said, Gaskell writes well and is a good storyteller, notwithstanding the signficant implausibility of some parts of the narrative, such as the fact that all it takes for Mary to realise she is in love with Jem is to reject his proposal of marriage. In addition, the setting of the novel - Manchester between 1837 and 1842, torn apart by industrial strife between mill owners and factory hands - is inherently interesting. Gaskell depicts the plight of the poor with sympathy, although her suggested cure for the devastating consequences of working class poverty - an increase in philanthropic and charitable activities by the factory-owning class - reveals her own social conservatism. Gaskell was not arguing for the abolition of either capitalism or the class system.

Notwithstanding the weaknesses of the work, I very much enjoyed listening to the audiobook narrated by the truly wonderful Juliet Stevenson. Even when it was at its most predictable, the narrative still held my interest. It's not destined to be up there with my favourite Gaskell novels, but I still liked it a lot, somewhere between 3-1/2 and 4 stars worth.