Despite Elizabeth Gaskell’s scene-heavy narrative style in Mary Barton, the flirtation between the novel’s eponymous heroine and her wealthy suitor, Harry Carson, is never directly narrated. It is alluded to during narrations of other scenes; Harry, for instance, anticipates being “in time to have a look and a smile from lovely Mary Barton” while Mr. Wilson petitions Mr. Carson for Mr. Davenport’s infirmary order (Gaskell 110). Mary, too, dwells upon her lover when they are apart, imagining the good she will be able to do when she is “Mrs. Harry Carson” (Gaskell 121). But the nature of their clandestine meetings—the topics of their conversation, the words and glances exchanged—are never directly recorded in the novel.
In fact, when Mary does speak directly about her flirtation with Harry Carson, it is to express her intention not to see him. First, this is a temporary arrangement during her father’s absence from Manchester. Mary says to Sally Leadbitter, the messenger between her and her suitor, “You must tell him I can’t come…I have said I won’t meet him while father is away, and I won’t” (Gaskell 137).
When Mary next speaks directly about this flirtation, it is during her rejection of Harry’s marriage proposal. In the only narrated scene between Harry and his beloved, Mary says, “I have made up my mind to have nothing more to do with you” (Gaskell 186). When Harry protests and asks her meaning, Mary insists, “I mean, sir,…that I will never speak to you again, at any time, after to-night” (Gaskell 186).
As a result, the reader’s impression of the flirtation between Harry and Mary differs from the impression left on Mary’s neighbors and friends. Upon learning of Harry Carson’s murder and Jem’s arrest, Mrs. Wilson calls Mary a “dirty hussy” for her conduct with Harry, and even Margaret is “surprised and disappointed” by Mary’s behavior (Gaskell 318). But perhaps no one is as hard on Mary as she is on herself. The narrator records the “self-reproach gnawing at her heart” and even says that Mary felt “she deserved it all” for having flirted with Harry Carson—that is, deserved the imprisonment and likely death facing the supposed killer (Gaskell 297). While the community understands Mary’s relationship to Harry as one of careless, condemnable flirtation, the reader perceives it as one of reluctance and even resistance because of the lack of narrative attention devoted to their time together.
Why does Gaskell allow this disparity between the community’s and the reader’s impressions of their relationship? What is the intended effect of withholding direct narration of the pair’s interactions, and thus, leaving the reader with a vision of their relationship that is much more innocent than other characters’ vision of it?
One effect of withholding narration of Mary’s and Harry’s flirtation is a necessary lack of readerly attachment to Harry as a character. We do not see him when he is tender and winning—we see him only at his worst, when he is stubborn in the face of Mary’s refusal, or haughty in response to Jem’s confrontation. As a result, the reader is free to respond to Harry’s murder, not principally with grief for him, but with concern for his accused killer, Jem. If Gaskell had narrated Harry’s kinder moments—his soft words to Mary, his presentation of the bouquet of roses—the reader may well have been off-put by Mary’s excessive worry for Jem and failure to mourn for her murdered sweetheart.
Indeed, another consequence of Gaskell’s refusal to narrate the flirtation is a preservation of the reader’s sympathy for Mary. Because the reader does not believe Mary to be at fault in any significant way for the murder of Mr. Carson—that is, we do not have any reason to believe that her flirtation with Harry is passionate enough to justify murder by a jealous lover—our sympathy for her is maintained amidst (and perhaps, even heightened by) Mrs. Wilson’s accusing monikers and Margaret’s sidelong glances. By refraining from any direct narration of Mary’s and Harry’s interactions, Gaskell ensures that Mary remains an eminently sympathetic character after Harry’s death.
I feel the need to clarify a point made in the previous paragraph. I have said that Mary’s conduct with Harry does not “justify murder by a jealous lover”, as if any conduct, no matter how forward or suggestive, could justify it. I don’t mean that a murder driven by jealousy would be morally justified if spurred by the demonstrably wayward affections of the beloved, but rather, that the murder would be causally related to those affections in a way that the reader could understand. And even this claim—that the reader might hold Mary accountable to some extent if Jem had murdered Harry because of her conduct—is dubious and highly dependent on the reader’s context. Perhaps a Victorian reader would have assigned more culpability to Mary if her flirtation had induced Jem to murder Harry. To the twenty-first century reader (or, at least, to me), such assignment of blame is unthinkable.