Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton is the tale of the title character, a dressmaker and daughter of a textile weaver, and the struggle between rich and poor in 19th century Manchester. Courted by an engineer she has known since childhood and also by the dashing son of a mill owner, surrounded by misery and squalor, caring for and being cared for by her widower father, Mary must find her place in a confused and hurting world.
Although Gaskell uses her experiences working with the poor of Manchester to good effect, she writes with neither the warm elegance of Austen nor the cold brutality of Zola, nor does she possess Dickens' genius for character. Some of the writing is awkward - instead of incorporating a key plot point into one scene she simply tells us later that it happened. The plot is as predictable as a railroad track - once you see how the pieces fit you know where it's going. Gaskell apparently alienated some members of Manchester's upper crust due to the social concerns of the novel, but rarely does she portray them as other than well-intentioned, though sadly blind to the realities of life outside their comfortable world.
Not a great book, but there are certainly worse things to read, especially for fans of Austen or Dickens looking for a little variety.