In reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, I found myself inexplicably rooting for Henry Carson, the ostensible villain of the piece. He was, the poor lad, cursed by the author as a “gay, handsome young man,” rich, well read, and relatively charming (when he had a mind to be so) (117). It is apparent from the listing of his virtues that he must die. He was not a steady man, such as Jem Wilson, nor a plain working man. This is his sin, from which there is no salvation.
Now, to be sure, I make my point a little two strongly. Carson does have serious flaws–his arrogance is repulsive, his treatment of the working class is abhorrent, and his treatment of Mary Barton herself is extremely unchivalrous. However, I might hope that this sins are treated as the sins of youth and responded to with grace, rather that murder. Gallagher’s Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton provides an excellent reading of the novel that accounts for the tragedy of John Barton, the poor worker who, by means of a system beyond his control and that he rails against, finds his life destroyed and worn down endlessly. Gallagher sees his tragedy as a touch of realism, fighting against the “sentimentality of Esther and Mary and the farce of Sally Leadbitter and Harry Carson.” She continues, “His interpretation, of course, immediately undercuts all the story’s romance…makes it merely a part of a larger social tragedy” (70). The reader naturally sympathizes with the tragic hero of John Barton, and who could not? He is a hard worker who, through forces beyond his control, loses his wife, his income, and his health. And yet, despite this, it is still his choice to turn to murder. The system broke him down, but it did not turn him to murder. But we forgive him this fault, because his poor, ugly, and downtrodden. We do not forgive Carson his faults, though they be far less.
Carson’s damning moment is his caricature of the working class representatives, in which he “wrote a hasty quotation from the fat knight’s well-known speech in Henry IV” (123). The speech, claims Gallagher, comes from Act IV, Scene II, and is summed up by Falstaff’s claim that his men, scrawny, pale soldiers, are “good enough to toss; food for powder, food / for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better.” The Falstaff connection is strong. That is certainly one of the fat knight’s worse moment, just as it is Harry Carson’s. But it is impossibly to recall that speech without recalling an earlier,“If sack and sugar be a fault, /
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a / sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if / to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine / are to be loved… banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”
For Henry to be truly villainous, I would like to see him offered Grace–perhaps in the form of marriage to Mary Barton–and reject it. Were he to offer her the life of a mistress, and she reply that they should instead wed he would have the chance to grow in wisdom, love, and humanity. In rejecting that choice, and turning only into himself (the sin of Gomorrah), we would see his true evil: a sinful narcissism, an idolatry of self beyond mere youthful ego-centrism. Instead, he is killed for being young, handsome, and rich–as much a victim of the system as John Barton–and he dies unmourned. Jem is right when he realizes that “a man’s a man,” but he fails to see that this category moves both ways (118). He very much has the right to talk to Henry Carson and Henry Carson very much has the right to live and repent. Gaskell’s novel offers free will only to the heroes. Its villains are, unfortunately, damned.
Gallagher, Catherine. “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton.”The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Forom : 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. 62-87. Print
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. 2011. Kindle