With dramatic phrases and pauses, with rhetorical flourishes and sensational descriptions, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton veers dangerously close to that scorned genre, melodrama. Chapter twenty-eight, in particular (the chase after HMS John Cropper), is a fast-paced, emotional, adventuresome, high-stakes, life-and-death escapade full of tears and breathlessness. Similarly, the courtroom chapters stage scenes of sentimental theatricality climaxing in a last-minute entrance and a fainting woman. The novel wraps up with a deathbed confession and reconciliation, a long-delayed marriage for love, and the curing of blindness. These are sensational events indeed.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, melodrama is a work of literature that excites its audience “by exaggeration and sensationalism,” or, “More generally: any sensational incident, series of events, story, etc.; sensationalist or emotionally exaggerated behaviour or language; lurid excitement” (OED). With the exception of “lurid” excitement, these descriptions fit Mary Barton, particularly the chase scene. Chapter twenty-eight, “John Cropper, Ahoy!” is full of sensational diction. There is even a gothic tone to Mary’s fear when “a kind of nightmare dread and belief came over her, that every thing animate and inanimate was in league against her one sole aim and object of overtaking Will…. she sat silent with clenched hands…. But she was sickening all the time with nervous fear” (370). Here is the damsel in distress, motionless in a boat, at the mercy of men and nature. Yet the girl’s suffering is in the context of a high-speed inverted escape trope nearly as pulse-pounding as a “Follow that car!” chase scene in a modern heist movie. The little river-boat struggles to catch up with the ship, and “as they looked with straining eyes, … they saw her sails unfurled and flap in the breeze, till, catching the right point, they bellied forth into white roundness, and the ship began to plunge and heave, as if she were a living creature, impatient to be off” (371). Dramatic sensationalism is located in the elements, as the wind picks up, and in the vessels, as boat and ship compete against each other and against time, tide, and tempest. Such an unconventional vehicle chase is certainly an example of a sensational incident heightened by exaggeration.
Furthermore, not only the situation, but also Mary’s emotional actions during this hot pursuit are dramatized and sensationalized. Not content any longer to sit still and await the men’s initiative, “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” (371). Those outstretched arms, those tears streaming down cheeks, are the classic stuff of melodrama, as is the diction of what happens to Mary next. The captain shouts down to see what she wants, but “Her throat was dry; all musical sound had gone out of her voice; but in a loud harsh whisper she told the men her errand of life and death, and they hailed the ship” (372). The adjectives here are themselves melodramatic—dry, musical, loud, harsh—especially ‘musical,’ which hearkens back to the origins and etymology of melodrama as musical theatre. The captain’s harsh rebuff and Mary’s traumatized, religiously-tinged response also heighten the tension and enlarge the scale of ordinary interactions:
He swore a dreadful oath; he called Mary a disgraceful name; and he said he would not stop his ship for any one, nor could he part with a single hand, whoever swung for it. The words came in unpitying clearness with their trumpet-sound. Mary sat down, looking like one who prays in the death-agony. For her eyes were turned up to that Heaven, where mercy dwelleth, while her blue lips quivered, though no sound came. Then she bowed her head and hid it in her hands. (372)
This purple passage seems dangerously close to ham-handed bathos, and indeed “melodrama” is typically used as a term of insult, suggesting ineptitude on the part of the author or poor taste on the part of the reader. However, Mary Barton’s reception is not that of a dime-story bodice-ripper or cheap true-crime thriller. It is treated by academics as a serious work of literature and enjoyed by thoughtful readers as a lively but sophisticated novel. However, then, does it escape from being melodrama?
One possible feature that raises this novel above heavy-handed sentimentalism is Mary’s active, heroic role. She is not the standard, passive, damsel-in-distress of Gothic horror, macho Westerns, or lurid warning tales like The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall with its defenseless maidens and their infamous virgin bosoms “that rose heaving above the border of lace” (Lippard 73). Instead, Mary Barton is a proactive, sensible protagonist who makes plans and executes them in order to save her helpless lover and help her guilty father. I recently heard a very persuasive paper by my colleague Nichole Bouchard arguing that Mary Barton is a remarkable example of a nineteenth-century heroine who overcomes hysteria, manages the bodily symptoms of anxiety, and retains her wits under great strain (in the courtroom scene), and that Gaskell made this character choice at a time when most other writers were showing their female characters as victims of these very ailments. Perhaps such fortitude is what raises Mary Barton above melodrama.
There are other possibilities, of course. Perhaps Gaskell does not shy away from melodrama in this book, but rather shows that the genre has been unfairly maligned. Or, more subtly, she may use Mary Barton to reveal hypocrisy in the hearts of many academics, who claim to have exalted literary tastes, but who really like a cheap, page-turning, romantic beach novel as much as anybody else. Such a strategic move would be in keeping with Gaskell’s social agenda throughout the book, as she strives to arouse in middle-class readers sympathy with and understanding for their economically underprivileged neighbors. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Gaskell cleverly drawing her snobby, bourgeois audience into enjoyment of a much maligned, supposedly low-class genre.
Many thanks to that inestimable site of wisdom, TV Tropes, which I consulted freely while writing this post.