Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

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The Independent Culture

Elizabeth Gaskell has never had the fame of Jane Austen or George Eliot, not least because her most famous novel was Cranford, a very domestic "gem" of small-town manners. But her novels, inspired by her own knowledge as the wife of a Unitarian minister, of working-class life in Manchester during the Industrial Revolution, usually had a wider and more socially abrasive canvas. Mary Barton is the first and arguably the finest of them. In it, early trade-union radicalism and competition between old industrial methods and new is the background to a powerful, often heartbreaking depiction of real rather than ideal Victorian family life. This fast-moving dramatisation, directed by Claire Grove and Tracey Neale, stays faithful to Gaskell's honesty and humanity.

An unusual addition to the audiobook as archive is Voices of Black America: historical recordings of poetry, humour and drama 1908–46 (Naxos, c2hr 30mins, £10.99 2CDs; £8.99 2 tapes). Despite the inevitable hissings and clicks in some tracks, there's a strange magic in these mechanically produced echoes of men with quirky musical accents speaking 100 years ago and more, some recorded on shellac, if not Edison's own phonograph rolls. Not all the jokes are funny, and not all the poems great, but Langston Hughes's short, hard-hitting verse and Paul Robeson's great bass magnificently intoning Blake and Shakespeare are unforgettable. As usual with Naxos, the notes are excellent: extensive and informative.