(Mis)Taken Identities in Mary Barton: Sight and Deceit in the Female Tête-à-tête

I want to look at how we might read two parallel interactions, which occur in close proximity in the narrative of Mary Barton:  Mary’s conversation alone with Esther, and Margaret’s conversation one-on-one with Mary. Both interactions involve issues of recognition or misrecognition, and revelation or concealment of identity. Both conversations also function as a meeting place of the two plots, the political and the romantic. The outcome of each conversation is very different, and I am interested in what we as readers are to make of these mirrored yet contrasted narratives. In the first, one woman is trying (and succeeds, which eventually pains her) to deceive the other about her identity; in the second, a blind woman sees all too clearly the true identity of the other, and yet she maintains/renews her love for her.

And one further consideration:  if Gaskell is, in fact, committed to the conviction that the means of social transformation is “sympathetic encounters between those occupying different…social positions” (Anderson 139), I think we have to examine these interactions in light of that. While neither meeting consists of the upper-middle class/working class encounter that Gaskell’s narrator especially advocates, each connection does in fact involve a relationship of inequality. Margaret is more secure financially than Mary, and is understood to be a more virtuous character. With Mary and her aunt Esther, Mary thinks Esther is in a higher station than she (based on Esther’s own deception: “We’ve the best of everything, and plenty of it”[306]), while the reality is that Esther, as a prostitute, is actually in the lowest of social positions.

In the case of Mary and her long-absent aunt Esther, their interaction begins with misrecognition. Mary willingly opens her door because she hears a voice that sounds like the voice of her dead mother. This strange mistaken identity, recognizing a deceased loved one in the face/voice of another, continues when Esther tells Mary “You are so like my little girl, Mary!” (309). The whole interaction between Mary and Esther is one of concealment and misrecognition, rooted in Esther’s fear of Mary discovering her true identity as a prostitute. Intriguingly, Esther’s purpose for coming to Mary is also based on a mistaken identity; she brings Mary a paper with Jem’s handwriting, which she believes confirms Jem’s identity as a murderer. This is where I see Gaskell especially underscoring the interconnectedness of the political and romantic plots; Esther comes to Mary with a piece of evidence she views as relevant to a lovers’ quarrel that ended in murder, while in fact her evidence points to the political intrigue playing out between masters and workers. Unwittingly, Esther reveals the truth to Mary (while still in the dark about it herself), that in fact Mary’s father is the murderer. Their interaction concludes with Mary newly aware of the truth of the murder, though she is even more deceived about the identity of her aunt. Their interaction ends with Esther weeping “long and bitterly” (310) and Mary facing the reality of her father becoming unrecognizable to her.

In the case of Mary and Margaret, before their one-on-one, the narrative describes how Margaret was “surprised and disappointed by the disclosure of Mary’s conduct” (318), and that she “considered herself deceived” (319). Mary is made strange to Margaret, by her actions with Harry Carson, and Margaret even feels “strongly inclined to give Mary up altogether” (318).  However, as Esther witnesses Mary’s desire to prove Jem’s innocence, she “beg(ins) to love her again; to see in her the same, sweet, faulty, impulsive, and loveable creature she had known in the former Mary Barton, but with more of dignity, self-reliance and purpose” (330). Margaret, compellingly one of the near-sightless characters of the novel (along with Alice), can see Mary as a whole person. While Margaret’s friendship with and affection for Mary were complicated and strained by her knowledge of Mary’s actions, she yet is able to maintain, or to relearn, her love for Mary. Margaret’s knowledge of Mary is full; she knows her friend in her complimentary qualities and in her reprehensible ones.

The role of vision seems key in determining how to read each of these encounters. Though this is oversimplifying, these conversations seem to encapsulate Gaskell’s (or the narrator’s) conviction that appearances can be deceiving. On the one hand, we have Esther deceiving Mary into thinking she is more well-off than she is, because she has been able to obtain a “suit of outer clothes, befitting the wife of a working man” (304). Outward appearances, along with Esther’s ability to “assume the manners and character…of a mechanic’s wife” (305), preclude Mary from seeing her aunt, and thus their interaction, truthfully. Paradoxically, Esther tries to see the truth of Mary’s experience, placing a candle “right between them…in order to have a clearer view of Mary’s face, so that she might read her emotions (307), yet because of her own deceit, the whole interaction is compromised, and true connection is impossible. Mary is even compelled to “(cover) her eyes with her hands, as if to shade them from the light, and Esther herself” (307). They cannot meet in a “sympathetic encounter” (Anderson 139), because deceit is prohibiting true recognition. They do not see each other.

In contrast, when Mary and Margaret are together, Margaret sees Mary, knows her in the new and condemning light of how she has behaved with her suitors, yet she doesn’t reject her. This is partly effected by Mary’s own resolution to be open about her failings; Margaret had been cold towards Mary upon discovering her conduct, and Mary recognizes herself as “to blame,” owning her errors and acknowledging that she “would rather have had them spoken about” than to endure Margaret’s “icy manner” (328). When she and Margaret are alone together, Mary passionately tells her, “I see—I feel how wrong you think I have acted; you cannot think me worse than I think myself; now my eyes are opened” (331). In their tête-à-tête, both Margaret and Mary recognize Mary’s true, unvarnished identity, and are able to walk out their relationship in openness.

Central to Margaret’s ability to reaffirm her love for Mary is her belief that perhaps the golden rule needs to be expanded to say “Let others do unto you, as you would do unto them” (333). Margaret is able to encounter Mary with empathy, recognizing that if she were to behave similarly, she would want to be met with grace and not judgment. This empathy presupposes a humility in Margaret that acknowledges her own potential culpability, her own possibility of acting not as she should. Because of her humility, Margaret is able to extend the hand of mercy that Mary requests (331), and the conversation ends with Mary feeling supported and encouraged in her aim of helping to clear Jem. Again, Gaskell intertwines the political and the romantic plots, using a domestic friendship between two women as a site of support, a location of recognition, and a catalyst for (potential) transformation in the political narrative.

—Sabrina Fountain

2 thoughts on “(Mis)Taken Identities in Mary Barton: Sight and Deceit in the Female Tête-à-tête

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