John Barton, his pregnant wife, Mary, and their thirteen-year-old daughter, “little” Mary, are on a spring outing with their friends George and Jane Wilson and the Wilsons’ twin babies and son Jem. Mary is extremely worried because her sister Esther has disappeared, probably with a lover. When the group returns to the Barton home for tea, George’s sister Alice joins them. Later that night, Mary goes into labor; there are complications, and the doctor is unable to save her life. John blames Esther for his wife’s death.
The next year, young Mary becomes an apprentice to a dressmaker. Through Alice Wilson, she meets Margaret Jennings, a poor girl blessed with a beautiful voice, and Margaret’s self-educated grandfather, Job Legh. Margaret tells Mary that she is going blind. Since she will no longer be able to do needlework, her only hope is to earn a living by singing.
When the mill catches fire, Jem Wilson saves both his father and another mill worker from the flames, becoming a hero. The owners of the mill, including Mr. Carson, think the fire was a godsend, for with the insurance money they will be able to replace outdated equipment. Their former employees, however, out of work because the mill is not operating, face starvation. When an epidemic rages among the weakened workers, the Wilson twins, always delicate, become ill and die.
Although Mary has strong feelings for Jem, she is surreptitiously seeing Harry Carson, encouraged in this by Sally Leadbitter, another apprentice. When George Wilson dies suddenly Mary is shaken, but she does not pay a visit of condolence because she cannot face Jem. Margaret’s future looks brighter after she finds work as a singer.
John Barton’s situation, on the other hand, is grim. He had quit his job and gone to London with a group of mill workers to petition Parliament, but the petition was rejected, and no one will hire a Chartist and a union man. He and Mary...
(The entire section is 800 words.)