Gendered Communication & Speaking Faces

As Gaskell constructs her story of the cruel injustices suffered by the working classes in Mary Barton, she reflects on the hidden struggles and woes of every stranger we may pass by in the course of our lives. She writes, “But he [John Barton] cannot, you cannot, read the lot of those who daily pass by you in the street. How do you know the wild romances of their lives; the trials, the temptations they are even now enduring, resisting, sinking under?” (63). Gaskell points out that on one street we may brush against “the girl desperate in her abandonment, laughing in mad merriment with her outward gesture, while her soul is longing for the rest of the dead,” while on another corner “you may push against one, humble and unnoticed, the last upon earth, who in heaven will forever be in the immediate light of God’s countenance” (63). In this narrative aside, she highlights the difficulty of reading a person’s true character in their face, yet as the story unfolds, the ability to discern truth in countenances becomes a pivotal factor in the interactions of the people of Manchester.

The moments in Mary Barton when countenances speak rather than voices also highlight the gendered difference in communication. Gaskell’s female characters frequently perceive the message in the speaker’s face before they have said a word, while the men often fall short of fully interpreting the nonverbal truth communicated through countenances. In the case of Mary’s aunt Esther, the male character’s inability to understand the message of her face propels her further down the path of ruin and despair. When Esther accosts John Barton in the street, Gaskell highlights the nonverbal plea plainly apparent in Esther’s expression: “He pushed the bonnet back, and roughly held the face she would fain have averted, to the light, and in her large, unnaturally bright grey eyes, her lovely mouth, half open, as if imploring the forbearance she could not ask for in words, he saw at once the long-lost Esther” (emphasis added 124). Esther’s plaintive looks ask for John’s mercy, but he fails to perceive her plea: “He flung her, trembling, sinking, fainting from him, and strode away” (125). John’s failure to interpret Esther’s countenance is one of many instances in Gaskell’s narrative when masculine inability to hear inaudible communication harms the lives of those around them.

By noting the gendered differences in her characters’ communication, Gaskell combines questions of social justice and the problems of poverty with the additional difficulties facing women in such a society. The women in Mary Barton not only suffer the pain and fear accompanying hunger and homelessness but also the frustration of misunderstanding when the message of their faces remains unheeded. In this way, Gaskell’s novel contributes to the conversation in the nineteenth century surrounding the arenas in which women’s voices ought to be heard.

What’s With the Secrets?

The tension created by the secrets in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is enormous.  Mary’s excitement every time she knocks on Jem’s door, whether it is to attract or repel him, and her anxiety as she stands on the pier waiting for a boat to chase Will Wilson for an alibi is our tension also.  Every time we think that this time the truth cannot fail to be know, that this time, Jem will learn from young Mr. Carson that Jem is Mary’s favored lover, that this time everyone might be happy, something happens to thwart it.  In a town that allegedly values frank, no-nonsense talk, there sure are a lot of secrets and miscommunications.

There are two kinds of secrets in the novel: the obvious, large ones that characters keep from others (Mary’s love for Jem, Mr. Barton’s murder) and the ones that characters keep from themselves.  The “coming of age” story for Mary Barton is driven by the gradual revelation to herself of the advice of her own “secret oracle” (3084). This term is a curious one by which the narrator explains why Margaret’s advice to Mary is so effective.  Advice only carries such weight when “it puts into language the secret oracle of our souls.  It was the whisperings of [Mary’s] womanly nature that caused her to shrink from any unmaidenly action” (Loc. 3084). Such a phrase occurs again when, at the novel’s end, a “secret instinct inform(s)” Mary’s soul (Loc. 6475) that death is her father’s only happy end.

In Gaskell’s conception of this character, then, there is a whispering, secret advisor of which Mary becomes more and more aware as she matures.  The first shocking awareness of this is, of course, her revelation that she loves Jem.  “What were these hollow vanities to her, now she had discovered the passionate secret of her soul?” (Loc. 2331). Understanding her heart forces her to value young Mr. Carson’s “virtues” as she ought – as hollow vanities – and after this, to begin to place all other vanities in their appropriate relation to that overpowering guide of love for a good man.

The effects of these small, self-secrets are the same as the large plot-driving secrets.  Jem’s lack of knowledge about Mary’s love leads to confusion, despair, hatred for Mr. Carson, and finally his false accusation as a murderer.  But it was Mary’s own lack of self-knowledge that caused her to flirt with Mr. Carson in the first place.  This resulted in her rejection of Jem’s proposal, which led to her self-revelation, and created the great secret of the novel – that Mary loves Jem and can’t tell him.  This secret causes half of the subsequent trauma of the novel.

The other half of the trauma results from a similar lack of communication between Mr. Barton and the Carsons – a type for the confusion between the worker and the master. Clearing up part of this confusion becomes the narrator’s stated purpose for the book, “to disabuse the work-people of so miserable a misapprehension” (Loc. 61) of the mater’s viciousness, and to convince the masters that when “the secrets of all hearts shall be made known, the virtues [of the poor] will astound us in far greater degree.  Of this I am certain” (Loc. 1006).  The end of the novel satisfies the wish for this confusion to be understood through John Barton’s confession, and Mr. Carson’s forgiveness.  The quite study at the end where Joe, Jem, and Mr. Carson can converse with freedom, revealing secrets, and explaining motives is the final resting place of the novel.  It is this we have hoped for. I suspect that Gaskell hopes this novel will become a similar space: a virtual sitting-room where master and worker, friend and lover can meet and understand one another at last. And this is why we find such a building of pressure such a desire for truth to be known.  But it is not initially the revelation between people, but within Mary Barton.

The Power of Imagination

In her commencement address at Harvard University in 2008, J.K. Rowling spoke of the importance of imagination. She said, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” This function of imagination is at the heart of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. All of the adverse events of the novel arise from characters’ inability to imagine themselves in others’ circumstances, and the novel as a whole seems to be Gaskell’s attempt to help her audience develop their imaginative powers.

Though Gaskell’s novel deals with the large-scale social problems of England, most of her narrative takes place on a much smaller scale. She is much more interested in the joys and adversities of a small group of Manchester residents than in the political movements of the trade unions. She discusses the difficulties the unions face in order to show the effect of those difficulties on particular characters. Gaskell makes England’s problems personal, and in doing so, she allows readers to imagine themselves in position of the characters. She doesn’t give us the unions or Parliament as the primary actors in her tale. Instead, she shows us suffering individuals and families and asks for our empathy. She also emphasizes the importance of empathy in her characters.

The central action of the novel itself comes about as the result of a lack of empathy. On the one hand, the factory masters cannot imagine themselves in the situation of their workers. They do not see them as suffering individuals but as a collective nuisance. When the masters hear the demands of the delegation of workers, Gaskell says, “No one thought of treating the workmen as brethren and friends, and openly, clearly, as appealing to reasonable men” (240). Instead, they mock their shabby appearance. However, it is not just the masters who are incapable of empathy. On the other hand, John Barton, though he is described as a good man, is also incapable of any sympathy with the upper class: “[T]he only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class, and keen sympathy with the other” (Gaskell 226). John Barton does not think past his hatred of the rich to see the potential consequences of his actions for Carson’s family and anyone else who might get caught up in the wake of his crime.

Mary Barton is somewhat unique in that fifteen chapters go by before the main action of the novel is even mentioned. For those first fifteen chapters, Gaskell paints a vivid and devastating picture of the lives of the working poor. She takes readers into the squalid cellars in which they live to see their sickbeds and hear the cries of their starving children. She makes them confront the weeping mothers who have lost their husbands and children to fevers that could have been prevented with regular meals and suitable housing. Over and over, the characters wonder how their rich masters allow their workers to live in such squalor, and they profess that these masters must not know of their suffering because if they did, their humanity would not allow it to continue. Gaskell makes sure that her readers cannot fall back on this excuse of ignorance. She  shows her audience the realities of poverty and forces them to imagine it in all its horror. By focusing on the condition of the Bartons and their friends rather than on the condition of England or workers in general, Gaskell is better able to help readers develop imagination and empathy, demonstrating the power of fiction to address social concerns.

Mary Barton and Murderous Melodrama

Spoiler Alert: Contains spoilers of exciting parts of the novel.

Would Mary Barton reach the ship in time to contact Will Wilson, who alone could prove the alibi that would save her lover in his murder trial?

Mary’s small boat, propelled by rough rivermen, was giving chase to Will’s large ship. They were nearly within earshot, but the large ship weighed anchor and heaved away. In desperation, “Mary stood up, steadying herself by the mast, and stretched out her arms, imploring the flying vessel to stay its course, by that mute action, while the tears streamed down her cheeks” (285). With this intensely dramatic scene, Gaskell impresses upon readers the image of a sorrowing angel, honored for the power and purity of her love even in a wild world of tossing waves and gruff sailors.

While I appreciate the symbolic beauty of Mary’s posture, I also recognize its cost—readers’ true sympathy for the heroine. In this moment (and others like it), Mary ceases to be a real, interesting human being. Instead, as a reader, I am conscious that she is merely a figure that the author manipulates for the author’s own purposes. Even as I wonder—and even thrill—at the unlikely, exciting course of events, I find myself oddly indifferent to Mary herself. Though I want to remain in the story, the contrived impressiveness of plot and presentation pushes me to the position of a skeptical outsider. Melodrama, which Gaskell apparently thought was a key to conveying her message, turns out to be the novel’s main weakness.

Melodrama does satisfy a certain desire in readers. We want excitement and suspense—some delay of satisfaction to make it more delicious when/if it comes, or more shocking when denied. In an age rife with sensational fiction, my-lover-is-accused-but-my-dad’s-a-murderer plotlines and hyper-emotional heroines were perhaps more acceptable than they are now. Therefore, it may be unfair to judge Mary Barton with my twenty-first century sensibilities. Further, I acknowledge the effectiveness of intense scenes upon the memory. Dwelling on the details leaves an impression, which, in the case of Mary Barton, could move readers to the benevolent action toward the poor that the narrator so clearly desires.

The alienating effect of overused melodrama, however, undercut these benefits in my reading of Mary Barton. It’s not just the tear-stained martyr against the mast, either. Mary realizes that she loves Jem passionately after she rejects him and he leaves her to wallow in deep despair: “Jem! Jem!” cried she, with faint and choking voice. It was too late…” (123). At Jem’s trial, Mary’s face turns pale, her eyes wild, and her voice mumbling; she loses her mind and then faints away. Jem and Mary glimpse Aunt Esther’s ghastly white face against their window as she stumbles in and then dies. And, of course, the summit of melodrama: Mr. Carson, the vengeful father, gently holding John Barton, his son’s murderer, so that he can die comfortably. John, in his turn, looks gratefully at Mr. Carson, “folds his hands as if in prayer,” and breathes his last. (I will leave the narrator’s other treatment/abuse of John Barton for another discussion.) The point is that, despite the thrill of these moments, they are kitschy, improbable, and frustrating. By desperately trying to convey a message, the melodrama kills Mary Barton’s surest power to move readers.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ed. Myron F. Brightfield. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1958.

Wagging Tongues, Working Women: Gossip in Cranford and Mary Barton

People will talk.

Elizabeth Gaskell understood firsthand that gossip was a common feature of Victorian society, and she uses it to narrative advantage in both Cranford and Mary Barton. Yet the kinds of gossips she employs are very different: in Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous and even redemptive; in Mary Barton, gossip becomes the twisting and the destruction of the truth. These different kinds of gossips reflect two contrasting communities: the mutually supportive small-town community of idle women, and the hardened, desperate, and uneducated community of the working class.

American WWII propaganda poster. "Tell NOBODY - not even HER" by The National Archives UK - Tell NOBODY - not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

American WWII propaganda poster. “Tell NOBODY – not even HER” by The National Archives UK – Tell NOBODY – not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous, although Gaskell sometimes uses it as an instrument of humor. For example, when the ladies of Cranford are panicking about being robbed, “every time [Miss Pole] went over the story, some fresh trait of villainy was added to their appearance” (Cranford 95). The story becomes so exaggerated that it turns into a fabulous fiction, as entertaining to the storyteller as the listeners. However, her exaggerations have merely comic consequences.

Likewise, Gaskell takes the opportunity to “redeem” gossip when Miss Matty falls on hard times. In the ladies’ show of generosity, there are still several little confidences: “Of course this piece of intelligence [from Miss Pole] could not be communicated before Mrs. Fitz-Adam,” and then Mrs. Forrester approached the narrator “at the entrance to the dining parlour; she drew me in, and when the door was shut, she tried two or three times to begin on some subject,” and then “Mrs. Fitz-Adam… had also her confidence to make” (136-137). These instances of private communication do not have any detrimental effects on Cranford society; they are merely a fact of life, and Gaskell expects us to smile along with the development of her characters’ wagging tongues.

In Mary Barton, however, gossip becomes a malicious force, capable of destroying Mary. The gossip centers around Sally Leadbitter and the girls at the dress shop, and it becomes (figurative) vitriol. At the beginning, Sally’s gossip eggs Mary into the love affair with Henry Carson, which becomes the central factor responsible for Jem’s arrest in the murder case and the central tarnish on Mary’s character. When Mary wants to break up with Carson, Sally twists the truth, encouraging him to keep pursuing her. She “laughed in her sleeve at them both, and wondered how it would all end– whether Mary would gain her point of marriage, with her sly affectation of believing such to be Mr. Carson’s intention in courting her” (135). Because Sally is incapable of innocence, she is unable to recognize it in others; thus, her gossip continually twists the truth to fit her own character and entertainment.

When Carson is murdered, Sally turns the weapon of gossip against Mary, blaming her in front of all the girls: She “made no secret now of Mary’s conduct, more blameable to her fellow-workwomen for its latter changeableness, than for its former giddy flirting. ‘Poor young gentleman,’ said one, as Sally recounted Mary’s last interview with Mr. Carson….’That’s what I call regular jilting,’ said a third. ‘And he lying cold and bloody in his coffin now!'” Mary’s character assassination is now complete, and the reader is left with the feeling that if such is said to Mary’s face, much worse must be said behind her back.

What makes the difference between these two gossips? Is it that Sally Leadbitter is not constrained by the rules of aristocratic society? Is it merely that more is at stake in the melodramatic and murderous gossip of Mary Barton than in the quotidian everyday happenings of Cranford? Or is the survival-of-the fittest society in Mary Barton to blame? Perhaps, for Gaskell, it is a combination of all these factors. Either way, she seems to accept gossip as a fact of society– people simply will talk about one another– and to draw the line in the content and intent of the gossip itself.

Mary Barton and Manly Tears: Why Women Should Stay Home and Men Shouldn’t Cry

“But he stayed long there, nad at last his sturdy frame shook with his strong agony. The two women were frightened, as women always are, on witnessing a man’s overpowering grief….Mary’s heart melted…putting her hand softly on his arm, said:

‘O Jem, don’t give way so; I cannot bear to see you.’

Jem felt a strange leap of joy in his heart…when her soft hand’s touch thrilled through his frame…he could almost hate himself for it; with death and woe so surrounding him, it yet was happiness, was bliss, to be so spoken to by Mary” (Barton 78-79).

Jem, you better not be crying! I'm the only one allowed to pout in this novel!

Gaskell’s portrayal of sensitive men and acute women is a strange flipping of tables throughout Mary Barton. The first half of the novel — though concerned with the plight of the poor and the sad, frequent deaths of those without luxury — spends a considerable amount of time creating sensitive men and hardened women.

Gaskell gives ’em tears and pouts, none of which do any good. It is as if an industrial town and the forced awareness of economy creates men and women incapable of becoming their fullest selves through experiences that challenge and change their accepted, gendered behavior in subtle ways. The two most obvious examples are Mary’s vanity and Jem’s tears. Now, plenty of the women in Mary Barton are a bit vain, but Mary’s vanity is encompassing and self-deluding, softened only by Gaskell’s repeated attempts to remind the reader that Mary will cry when a baby dies (this is so she can save Mary at the end for the reader). In contrast, the men are sensitive and generous, and cry. Alot. The men are always weeping, and though they are manly tears, they are frightening to the women (which is within the scope of a properly gendered reaction to manly tears).

A tender young woman aspires to a higher match and is cruel in the face of manly tears. The poor young gallant is stricken with grief, and still can’t get laid. These mildly warped genders are the sign of a society warped by political economies gone bad, and by the inclusion of both sexes in a system Gaskell finds to be broken and unnatural. Where men must nurse the poor while the women meet rich young dandies in the lane, Gaskell’s novel is a portrayal of the evil an over-participation in the economy can be for women, and the unnaturalness of a system in which men cannot properly care for their families or pursue love. Industrial work, bone-breaking hours and the avoidance of them through dressmaking and marriage, the terrible terms of a contract for women’s labor and apprenticeship, men faced by repeated deaths of children and fainting women, by fires, and economic frustration — these are the conditions under which society crumbles into sad, genderless chaos.

The scene above, in which Mary tells Jem she cannot bear to see him cry (though she herself weeps a-plenty at his family’s deaths), and he — in his moment of grief — experiences a rather revolting (though perhaps natural?) emotional-physical arousal at her comfort, is the exact example of a situation which in any other Victorian novel would result in Mary swept into the tear-soaked arms of Jem and discussing when they should break the news of their engagement to the family mourning twin boys. But no, not here. The unnaturalness of Mary’s situation in her motherless existence, her lack of empathy, her vanity and materialism, and her proximity to industry create a situation in which her womanly instincts are perverted and cause pain, rather than comfort. A match which is so natural to the community is scorned by the upstart wench who values her looks and pouts at the mention of a match between her and the sweetest, manliest scalawag Gaskell could conjure.

Ultimately, Gaskell takes her dear sweet time in the first half of the novel to build a confused pathos, one in which all the readers may be horrified — but empathetic — at the sight of the Vainly Sympathetic Mary Barton and the Valiantly Weeping Jem Wilson. The havoc industry wreaks on the natural order of things is highlighted by the “acutely” intelligent and sallow-faced industry girls, and the economically frustrated, crying men.

And what Gaskell really wants to say is, fix that economy, because ain’t nobody got time for all that…

Savior of her People?

“… and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
(Esther 4:14)

Mary Barton’s aunt Esther is perhaps the most fascinating character in Gaskell’s novel about the laboring classes in Manchester. Cast away by a wealthy lover and not able to earn her living by any other means, Esther becomes a prostitute in order to survive. Though she appears in only a handful of ‘scenes’ in the novel, each appearance is not only charged with dramatic tension, but is essential to the construction of the narrative as a whole. However, the question remains, what exactly is Gaskell doing with Esther?

Taking into account the innumerable Scriptural allusions and references that proliferate Mary Barton, the most obvious (and perhaps most correct) analysis of Esther’s character is that she is meant to be a Victorian re-working of the Biblical queen, albeit one with a much darker narrative.

Like her Biblical namesake, Esther leaves her home and people. As the Jews were to the other ancient peoples of the Middle East, so were the laboring classes of factory towns like Manchester to the wealthy land-owners England – marginalized and poor. Though Esther Barton is seduced rather than taken captive, both women become lovers of men far above their social and economic station: “As she is loving now, so did I love once, one above me far” (214). At first, Esther’s story seems typical of the Victorian ‘ruined woman’ narrative that appears in scores of Victorian novels.

Yet, Gaskell does not have Esther serve as simply a cautionary tale, but as a character who has a great influence on narrative events. She tells Jem about Carson’s seduction of Mary, and brings Mary the wadding that was used in Barton’s gun. It is in a great way owing to Esther’s help that Jem is informed of Carson’s plot and eventually saved from being convicted as a murderer. It is in this function that Esther most resembles her Biblical namesake. Like the ancient queen, she has come ‘for such a time as this’ – she appears at the right place and at the right time to bring about a salvation for her ‘people’ – Jem and Mary.

Esther does not only serve a symbolic function, but is a fascinating case-study for how characters in the novel form itself develop. Ian Watt’s central claim in his Rise of the Novel is that the development of the novel form itself is a constant moving back and forth between Romance and Realism. In Mary Barton, both are seen. On the one hand, Gaskell’s depiction of the laboring classes and their hardships are incredibly real and vivid. On the other, the ‘domestic plot’ of Barton is littered with Romantic, somewhat ‘unrealistic’ events – particularly in the depiction of the upper classes. In Esther, both these qualities are brought together – as someone who has ‘been in the society’ of both the upper and lower classes, and one knows both labor and luxury, Esther is the perfect character to bridge these two forms and unify the narrative.

“The Monster of Many Human Qualities”: Gaskell’s Uneducated

Elizabeth Gaskell’s work is most outstanding in its diversity.  Writing novels of such range that it becomes difficult to imagine them being the product of one author: the humorous Cranford, the genteel romance of North and South, and the working-class political tragedy of Mary Barton. These texts are linked with the most obvious thread of economic hardship, while a more confusing narrative occurs in the two novels on which we focus in the course: Gaskell’s stance on the uneducated.

Cranford presents the reader with a town filled with ladies solely educated in the ways of conducting herself as a hostess, and Mary Barton surrounds the lives of the working-class, with no time or money to spare for education other than trade work. Both instances of ignorance are treated with a kind of hostile understanding or, perhaps, patronizing tolerance. In Cranford, while the cast of characters are strangely lovable, we love them because we can laugh at them. They are not respectable or bright, or even that nice, and only one of the many are compelling as a developed character. It seems as though we are equally meant to despise the ignorance and love the ignorant. Miss Matty is continuously ridiculed as the narrator represents her to the reader as a shockingly ignorant, silly woman:

‘Are you fond of astronomy?’ Lady Glenmire asked.

‘Not very’ — replied Miss Matty, rather confused at the moment to remember which was astronomy, and which was astrology…as to astronomy…she never could believe that the earth was moving constantly, and that she would not believe it if she could, it made her feel so tired and dizzy whenever she thought about it. (96)

Miss Matty is uneducated, but even worse, when offered knowledge she is unable to absorb it. What is difficult to ascertain is whether Miss Matty is a victim of her circumstances, in as far as education, or if she is incapable of intelligence. Gaskell walks a delicate line of pity and contempt, which is more clearly evidenced in Mary Barton.

Through the first half of the novel, Mary Barton portrays the indignities suffered by the working-class poor. The reader watches as countless men, women, and children suffer without food or medicine and ultimately die slow, agonizing deaths. However, as the novel nears the half-way mark, Gaskell educates the reader with another way to view the previous events. She presents the masters’ reasons behind the low wages and the letting go of workers: they we trying to keep their factories afloat and “they dreaded that the goods could be made at a much lower price” on the continent (161). In this same redefining chapter, Gaskell sees the Mr. Barton’s addiction to opium and asks what else can be expected from the suffering and ignorant.

Can you expect the uneducated to count the cost of their whistle?…No education had given him [Mr. Barton] wisdom…He acted to the best of his judgement, but it was a widely-erring judgement. The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil. (159-160)

Not only does this new interpretation negate Mr. Barton’s autonomy as a character, no longer culpable for his own actions but a mere victim of the system, but his is no longer even a person. He, and all other uneducated people, are aligned with a monster whom Gaskell contends has no soul. How is the reader supposed to envelope this new context? How does this affect our reading of this text? Are we meant to believe that those unable to acquire education, women and the poor, are to be pitied as less than human? It becomes increasingly difficult to amass the wide ranging sympathies, present in both texts, with the narrators’ seeming patronizi of those victims who arise those sympathies.


In Distrust of Language

Because Elizabeth Gaskell was a novelist, one can easily assumed she loved language. I am fond of picturing these Victorian women writers turning out page after page, slowly making names for themselves and effecting change against formidable odds in their times. However, as I read Mary Barton this week, I began to wonder how Barton herself felt about words. Though the novel as a whole seems to affirms the power of the written word—sections of it read like a history text, she quotes the Bible, and she presents a possibly more realistic view of poverty than her predecessors—Gaskell seems to come to an important question: what is the role of words/speech/language in an established, difficult world? Is language ultimately redemptive or not?

One of the earliest points in which language is questions appears in the mourning of John Barton. When mourning for his wife, he does not remember what she said, but rather what she did: “He was reminded of one of the daily little actions, which acquire such power when they have been performed for the last time, by one we love. He began to think of his wife’s daily round of duties; and something in the remembrance that these would never more be done by her, touched the source of years, and he cried aloud” (52). This is one example of John Barton’s love of doing; he raises his daughter on a strong work ethic, so that eventually she can support herself. When Barton does manfully set aside his mourning, he also thinks in terms of what actions need to be completed: after he is roused by his daughter’s entrance, “[h]e could think on what was to be done, could plan for a funeral, could calculate the necessity of soon returning to his work” (53). His emotions don’t need expression, and in moving past them quickly, he shows masculine strength. A bond grows between him and Mary as they work through this hard time of loss, and it is not so much what they say about loss as what they as what they do together—the daily life they build—that brings them together.

Barton only becomes a terrible father (one that at points beats his daughter) when he can no longer work; in turning to a union, he effectively relies on language over direct action. The central problem between workers and employers is founded on their inability to understand each other. Though they attempt to understand each other, talking is seemingly unhelpful. Words in this case seem to continually fail: “So class distrusted class, and their want of mutual confidence wrought sorrow to both” (228). His neglect of Mary stems from his attempt to bring about change through speech, an avenue that brings him much shame.

At times characters also suggest true feelings lie much deeper than language; they don’t trust themselves what they feel deeply. When Jem first tries to explain his love to Mary, he says bluntly, “I cannot speak as I would like; my love for you won’t let itself be put into words. But oh I darling, say you’ll believe me, and that you’ll be mine” (179). Here he asks Mary to have faith in the sentiments behind the words; words themselves don’t do it justice. Esther also believes Jem will help to her “save” Mary not because he promises to, but because her intuition reveals that he actually cares. Upon seeing his face, she exclaims: “You are grieved for me! I know it better than if you had spoken it in words” (219). In this way, we see that there are emotions that go beyond language—those that one can be certain of in a way that one cannot trust language.

And though Mary assures Jem of her love through a fiery speech in court, she initially blames their misunderstanding on words, shielding her actions from scrutiny. When worrying about what will happen, she asks “were a few hasty words, spoken in a moment of irritation to stamp her lot through life?” (231). This is a strange question because it fails to recognize the indifference that she supposedly felt for years about Jem. She blames her own words rather than her own misjudgment or failure to realize her true feelings. Ironically, she also blames her inaction towards Jem after she realizes she loves him on words: “She wished Margaret had not advised her against such a manner of proceeding; she believed it was her friend’s words that made such a simple action impossible, in spite of all the internal urgings” (231). Thus, Mary blames and not the viewpoints that caused them for her problems.

When Mary becomes ill after the extreme pressure of the courtroom and the possibility of devastating loss, she goes to a realm described to be beyond language and reason: “she was where no words of peace, no soothing hopeful tidings could reach her” (416). Language once again fails to inhabit the very spaces it could seemingly offer redemption. The cruel world itself is more ominous, more looming than the words spoken into it. Though the novel as a whole certainly affirms language as powerful, it leaves room for questioning the effectiveness of speech. This also leaves room to question Gaskell as a writer: though she seemingly tries to effect change through writing novels, does she hint at the ways in which it might not be effective at all? Does she know how complicated and difficult the task before her is? Does she know that in some ways she is destined to fail?

The Role of the Audience

In the first paragraph of Mary Barton, Gaskell begins to establish a very different relationship between the narrator and audience than we saw in Cranford. In Cranford, the narrator is part of the story, even if somewhat outside of it and willing periodically to make commentary regarding either the town or her own reactions to the town, as we see when she becomes so moved by the story that it “has taken away my breath and my grammar” (131). Mary Smith seems confident in herself and her observations—maybe even too confident as she imposes her will on the occupants of the town. The narrator in Mary Barton, on the other hand, presents herself in the first paragraph as somewhat unsure of herself. Gaskell writes that the audience would be able to understand the beauty and popularity of the location if only the narrator could “properly describe, the charm of one particular stile” (5). Very shortly thereafter, we also find the narrator defending herself and the views she states regarding the plight of the workers. The narrator clearly and reasonably explains John Barton’s frustration at working hard only to remain poor, while the millowner works little and becomes rich, especially during “bad times” when the workers starve but “shops for expensive luxuries still find daily customers” (17). However, the narrator quickly says “I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters; but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks” (17). The narrator clearly distances herself from the action of the story by instituting a class divide between herself and the subjects of her story and by thus aligning herself with her audience.

The narrator’s relationship with her audience also reflects a considerable amount of trust in their ability to understand and sympathize, if she can properly communicate the situation. Again, in the first paragraph, Gaskell’s narrator states “you would not wonder, if you could see, or I properly describe…”(5). The narrator takes responsibility for any lack of the audience’s understanding, and epistemologically privileges observation as a method of understanding. The narrator also shows observation as a method of understanding in her initial portrayal of Mary, who appears “silly” for her scruples (18), by reminding her audience to remember the “fancies of sixteen years of age in every class, and under all circumstances” (18), asking them recall from the observations of their own life examples that would cause them to react with sympathy to the characters. While the introduction of the second person into the text seems jarring and potentially emotionally manipulative, as the narrator entreats her audience to “fancy the bustle” and “fancy the delight” of a poor woman in her kitchen (21), the narrator takes care to fill in the gaps of the audience’s experience, through such descriptions and by copying, for example, the “Lancashire ditty” Margaret sings (24). The narrator recognizes that her audience has limits to their experience and observations (which, since she is aligned with them, suggests that she, too, has limits). The suggestion, then, is that the exposure of her audience to Mary Barton and her community should result in further understanding and sympathy…provided she can “properly describe” it.


Submit to being taught by suffering

“And what good have they ever done me that I should like them?” John asks of his friend Wilson.  His assaults of the gentility and wealthy goes on to ask:

If I am sick do they come and nurse me?  If my child is dying does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life?  If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes, with black frost, and keen east wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thing bones are see through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn’t a humbug?  (Mary Barton chapter 6)

John Barton’s words come at a time when part of the justification for the existence of differences in class and wealth was the idea of noblesse oblige – that “one must act in a fashion that conforms to one’s position and with the reputation that one has earned”; additional wealth and power were justified, at least in idea, by additional responsibility of those possessing this wealth and power.  However, throughout Mary Barton we see failure after failure of this concept, failures most harshly criticized by John Barton who has given up on seeing the rich as any source of hope.  In fact, Julie Nash observes that Gaskell’s servant characters “expose the potential for dehumanization and corruption in this paternalist philosophy.  Both authors [Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Gaskell] go so far as to create servant characters who are stronger, more successful, and more capable than their masters and mistresses, undermining the notion that these people are in need of the fatherly guidance of their betters” (Servants and Paternalism in the works of Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Gaskell).

Throughout Mary Barton, we witness proof of Nash’s observation.  The noble and rich have failed to care for those of lesser means (and the government has refused to even notice their plight), but character after character emerges who displays nobleness of character and spirit not connected to their caste.  Alice Wilson is known by neighbors and friends as one who is always ready to help those in need.  George Wilson, “though ‘silver and gold he had none’, he gave heart-service and love-works of far more value” when a coworker was taken ill.  The old boatman who helps Mary get to the John Cropper, one seeing Mary lost at the docks, “stood by her, striving to put down his better self; but he could not” – he is called by human decency to take care of her, as he does, taking her home to his wife rather than leaving her to wander Liverpool at night.  Jem Wilson certainly displays true nobility when he refuses to prove himself innocent by accusing the father of one he loves.  Gaskell’s characters undermine the values of their own Victoria society.  The noble and rich have failed in their duty, as John Barton will not let us forget, but those who they have slighted have not given up showing human kindness to one another.

Is the purpose of this novel then to call out the rich and noble to fulfill their duty?  To bash them for their failure to act?  To call for a ridding of caste and class?  Job Legh, perhaps, provides the closest answer in his conversation with Mr. Carson: “You say our talk has done no good.  I say it has.  I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand” (Barton 37).  Many of the problems presented in the book lie in a failure to communicate and things from another’s point of view: the government fails to listen; the owner’s fail to tell their workers the reason for such low wages.  Yet, perhaps, novels such as this could help to enlighten others to see things from another’s point of view and move them to show kindness and help one another. Through such a novel, we, too, might “submit to be taught by suffering” (Barton  37).

“But I’m clear about this, when God gives a blessing to be enjoyed, He gives it with a duty to be done; and the duty of the happy is to help the suffering to bear their woe.”  —Job Legh, Barton chapter 37


How to Judge a Book by its Cover

… and do you know Dr. Epps?—I think you do. Ask him who wrote Jane Eyre and Shirley. Do tell me who wrote Jane Eyre. (Letter to —–, May 29, 1849)

Elizabeth Gaskell: Nosy and trifling.

I have seen Branwell’s profile; it is what would be generally esteemed very handsome; the forehead is massive, the eye well set, and the expression of it fine and intellectual; the nose too is good; but there are coarse lines about the mouth, and the lips, though of handsome shape, are loose and thick, indicating self-indulgence, while the slightly retreating chin conveys an idea of weakness of will. (Life 146)

Elizabeth Gaskell: Prone to placing weight on insignificant details.

Or was she?

While the passages above seem to suggest that Gaskell was inordinately concerned with appearance, an episode in Mary Barton reveals that Gaskell’s interest in the faces and figure of her fellow writers is perhaps not as petty as you might at first suppose.

As Jem Wilson stands trial in Liverpool, the onlookers comment upon his appearance. They analyze his face, attempting “to trace in the features common to humanity some expression of the crimes by which they have distinguished themselves from their kind” (320). As they do so, one of them comments to his neighbor, “I am no physiognomist, but I don’t think his face strikes me as bad” (320). Taken in conjunction with Gaskell’s interest in the looks of her compatriots, this brief comment suggests that perhaps that interest was not based upon mere idle curiosity. Instead, Gaskell seems to have considered herself to be what this bystander is not: “An expert in or student of physiognomy; a person who reads faces or other physical features to discern character, personality, etc.” (“physiognomist”).

The study of a person’s face in order to discern his or her character was quite common in the mid-nineteenth century. One of the reasons for this was the late-eighteenth century publication of Johann Caspar Lavater’s Physiognomy: or the Corresponding Analogy between the Conformation of the Features and the Ruling Passions of the Mind. This book made a science of analyzing faces, suggesting that a person’s face is indicative of his or her character. Though the credibility of Lavater’s theory was of course questioned, physiognomy yet became a popular practice during the early- to mid-nineteenth century: Lavater’s book went through fifty-five editions in various languages during its first forty years in print, and sales did not slacken in England until around 1870 (Graham 562).

Given the popularity of physiognomic study during Gaskell’s lifetime, her interest in the appearance of others becomes less trifling. Like many others, Gaskell was interested in how high was the forehead, how deeply set were the eyes, and how prominent was the chin because she believed that these details could convey important information about the character of the individual who was being studied. Having obtained this information, the observer would be better equipped to interpret that individual’s actions.

Knowing this information about Gaskell in turn helps us as readers to interpret Gaskell’s writings. If Gaskell believed that the face reveals the character, then we as readers should pay special attention to all descriptions of faces in her writings, for in these descriptions lie hints as to the disposition of the person described. Thus, physiognomy becomes an important tool for interpretation of Gaskell’s writings, and we learn like Gaskell that it is not always inappropriate to judge a book by its cover.



Works Cited

Graham, John. “Lavater’s Physiognomy in England.” Journal of the History of Ideas 22.4 (1961): 561-572. JSTOR. Web. 21 Feb 2015.

“physiognomist.” OED Online. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Cranford’s Poor Scanties: The Economy of Sexuality

“I’ll do it as you tell me, ma’am,’ said Martha; ‘but I like lads best.”


We felt very uncomfortable and shocked at this speech of Martha’s; yet I don’t think she meant any harm; and, on the whole, she attended very well to our directions…Martha, to be sure, had never ended her staring at the East Indian’s white turban, and brown complexion, and I saw that Miss Matilda shrunk away from him a little as he waited dinner.”

What struck me upon reading Cranford is the initial purity of the setting. Though to think of the womanly body as “lacking” a phallus rather than in possession of full sexuality in solitude is uncouth at this point in Feminism’s history, the absence of men in Cranford is seen as a lack. Though snug and womanly in their drawing rooms with their elegantly economical tea trays and card tables, the women of Cranford are lacking. They are not lacking kindness or gentility, but there is a lack of frankness and sexuality that can only be brought about by one kind of person in Cranford’s society: The Vulgar. T

In Cranford, The Vulgar are menfolk, and “ignorant” maid servants. The coarse and frank sexuality of Martha is a breath of fresh air in the quaint beginning of the novel. Martha’s sexuality is further heightened and highlighted by Gaskell by placing that scene so closely to the description of the Hindoo servants; the warmth of their skin, their exotic presence, coupled with the ignorant, hot, low-class sensuality of poor Martha seems to boldly embody the repressed sexuality, and — in Victorian society — the absent phallus. The men of Cranford cannot be the men of the world, and when the male, the vulgar, the sensual appears in the figure of Captain Brown, it is quickly tamed by a woman’s sickness and cut off by the great representation of masculinity, the loud, terrifying, industrial, capitalist train, speeding the death of a child and inadvertently emasculating Cranford further.

One can notice in the above quote that Martha, a woman “vulgarly” attuned to her own sexuality, is fascinated by the foreign servants (buying unpleasantly into the objectification and sexualization of dark complected peoples), while Miss Matty is horrified, repulsed by and shocked by the nearness of their bodies, the difference, the quiet existence of not only foreigners representative of non-Cranford repressed sexualitites, but of male servants not bound to the sexual codes of conduct with which Miss Matty is bound.

In these three characters Gaskell writes in a phallus for Cranford; in the absence of men, we find variations of masculinity in the vulgar, the servants, the exotic, the brown, the train — all that is meant to shock and remain mysterious in Victorian society. These Others serve as Cranford’s scanties, representing both the necessaries of a society and the primness of such hidden gems enfleshed in the subordinate classes.

Elegant Economies in a Tragicomedy

As Gaskell introduces her readers to the endearing and eccentric inhabitants of Cranford, she prepares us to discern the reality about Cranford by reading in-between, around, and behind the lines that regulate their lives. In the opening chapter, Gaskell writes, “We had tacitly agreed to ignore that any with whom we associated on terms of visiting equality could ever be prevented by poverty from doing anything that they wished. If we walked to or from a party, it was because the night was so fine, or the air was so refreshing; not because sedan-chairs were expensive” (8). By describing this intentional self-deception practiced by the Cranford ladies, Gaskell teaches us to look through their nonsensical interpretations of gentility and propriety to the rich and holistic depiction of English country life contained within the pages of Cranford.

Throughout the novel Gaskell delights and amuses with her gently satirical descriptions of the habits and interactions of the hierarchical Cranford ladies. Mrs. Jamieson is revered as the most “honourable” of all the Cranford women, and she is deferred to in all questions of propriety because of her distant connections with the aristocracy. Yet, she is still susceptible to social gaffs, as Gaskell illustrates during her visit to Miss Betty Barker. While the ladies at the gathering are worrying over how to form pools of card players, Mrs. Jamieson compromises her aura of gentility by falling soundly asleep. Miss Barker ignores the impropriety of falling asleep in the midst of company and chooses to interpret Mrs. Jamieson’s behavior as a compliment: “‘It is very gratifying to me,’ whispered Miss Barker . . . ‘very gratifying indeed, to see how completely Mrs. Jamieson feels at home in my poor little dwelling; she could not have paid me a greater compliment’” (81). Gaskell again points out how truly un-aristocratic Mrs. Jamieson actually is by describing the vexation Mary feels when her attempt to discreetly take a healthy portion of sugar for her tea is ruined:

“Sugar was evidently Mrs. Jamieson’s favourite economy. I question if the little filigree sugar-tongs, made something like scissors, could have opened themselves wide enough to take up an honest, vulgar, good-sized piece; and when I tried to take two little minnikin pieces at once, so as not to be detected in too many returns to the sugar-basin, they absolutely dropped one, with a little sharp clatter, quite in a malicious and unnatural manner.” (93)

Mrs. Jamieson may present herself as a member of the gentry, but in reality she is as prone to fall asleep in a warm room as any other Cranford lady and must pinch certain luxuries because of her modest means. By reading around the higher status Mrs. Jamieson claims as her right, we can detect the harmless posture of ignorance Mary, Miss Matty, and others adopt to preserve the strict social rules of Cranford.

By choosing to ignore the obvious lack of true gentility and social superiority in Mrs. Jamieson, the Cranford ladies display their generosity and kindness towards one another. However, the rigid rules Cranford society constructs for itself are not always harmless. As Miss Matty tells the story of her brother Peter’s humiliation by their father and consequent flight from Cranford to join the navy, Gaskell depicts the grievous pain Cranford’s stringent sense of propriety can cause. Gaskell concludes this sad anecdote with Mary’s tragic comment, “But Peter did not come back. That spring day was the last time he ever saw his mother’s face. The writer of the letter – the last – the only person who had ever seen what was written in it, was dead long ago – and I, a stranger, not born at the time when this occurrence took place, was the one to open it” (69). Peter’s attempt to poke fun at the eccentricities of Cranford’s social structure results in the bereaved death of his mother (71). Through Peter’s needless exile and many more humorous yet somber tales, Gaskell invites us to read between the lines of Cranford society. We are prompted to sympathize with the residents of Cranford, but also to question the values of nineteenth-century provincial life.

An Unusual Beginning

“Oddly, the meanings of books are defined for me much more by their beginnings and middles than they are by their endings.”  —Lev Grossman

Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford has something of an odd beginning, especially when you consider that it was originally published in parts in Charles Dickens’s Household Words. When the original readers got to the end of the first number, all the characters who had featured prominently in the story had died or moved away. Miss Matty and Miss Pole are mentioned in the first two chapters (which made up the first number), but the beginning of the story focuses on Miss Jenkyns and the family of Captain Brown.

Why would Gaskell begin her narrative in this way? How does our introduction through these relatively minor characters develop our understanding of the place and people of Cranford?

Perhaps the easiest answer to the first question is that Gaskell intended the first part of Cranford to stand alone and turned the story into a novel only upon request. Perhaps, rather than revising her initial chapters, Gaskell simply decided to pick up the thread of the story with the remaining characters. Even so, we can learn much about Cranford values from the relationship between Miss Jenkyns and the Browns.

Toward the end of Chapter Two, Miss Jenkyns decides to accompany Miss Jessie Brown to her father’s funeral because to allow her to go alone “would be against both propriety and humanity” (24). Here, we see the two values that feature most prominently in the rest of the novel. Gaskell emphasizes the Cranford women’s love of propriety from the first words of the novel to the last, and Miss Jenkyns is perhaps the most proper of them all. Even after her death, her sister abides by her strict rules of decorum. However, when faced with the suffering of those around her, Miss Jenkyn’s first concern is humanity.

When Captain Brown arrives in Cranford, he shocks Miss Jenkyns’s propriety in all manner of ways: he does not hide his poverty, he speaks far too loudly, his oldest daughter seems cross while his younger daughter sports ostentatious dimples and pink bows inappropriate for her age.  HIs greatest sin, however, is his preference for Dickens over Dr. Johnson, a preference which offends Miss Jenkyns to the very core of her being. Soon, though, it becomes clear to all the Cranford residents that the elder Miss Brown is suffering from a fatal illness. Despite her feelings about Captain Brown’s poor taste, Miss Jenkyns devotes herself to the care of the Brown family. One of my favorite passages and one I find to be characteristic of the novel as a whole is Miss Jenkyns’s preparation of the aromatic apple for Miss Brown’s sick room:

“Miss Jenkyns stuck an apple full of cloves, to be heated and smell pleasantly in Miss Brown’s room; and as she put in each clove, she uttered a Johnsonian sentence. Indeed, she never could think of the Browns without talking Johnson; and, as they were seldom absent from her thoughts just then, I heard many a rolling three-piled sentence.” (22)

Though Captain Brown, Miss Jenkyns, and their “literary dispute” pass away by the end of Chapter Two, the competing values of propriety and humanity run throughout Cranford. These first chapters are telling, though. As is the case with Miss Jenkyns and the Browns, humanity always wins out over propriety. Whether it is Miss Matty’s bending of the rules to allow Martha a male “follower” or all of the ladies’ banding together to aid Miss Matty in her poverty, sympathy shines through as Cranford’s chief virtue.