‘Speak…can’t you?’: Unseen Faces and Unusual Speech in Mary Barton

“She wanted them to read something in her face—her face so full of woe, of horror. But they went on without taking any notice.”[i]

The servants of the Carson household are the first to discover the news of Harry Carson’s death. They bear the news on their very faces, and it falls to them to deliver the message of his death to his family, whom they serve. In the scene in which this telling occurs, chapter 28, wordless expressions are met with ignorance, with a failure to see, much less recognize, misery or despair.

The first account of this unseeing occurs when Sophy Carson fails to read Parker’s countenance when she “authoritatively” calls for tea. Having entered the room, Parker’s face was “blanched to a dead whiteness…It was a terror-stricken face.”[ii] Further, we read that his lips were pressed, silently containing within the news of Harry Carson, whose body had just been brought in ten minutes prior. Parker seems to leave without his wordless expression of terror being recognized, and without speaking news of death. Instead, it is the nurse, this “anomalous” person in the house, as Gaskell writes—neither family nor single-office servant—who acts as the harbinger of despair. Here again, it is her countenance that makes known something of her purpose in entering the room, yet, again, she goes unrecognized by the Carson sisters. Coming into the room, the nurse “wanted them to look up. She wanted them to read something in her face—her face so full of woe, of horror. But they went on without taking any notice.”[iii] Only with an “unnatural” cough do the women recognize her presence and strained countenance; however, she is still hesitant, and cannot seem find the words to express the horror her face exhibits.

Now seeing the nurse, her stricken countenance, the Carson sisters implore her to tell them what is wrong, especially Sophy:

“Speak, speak, nurse!

“…Anything is better than this. Speak!”

Finally, the nurse tells them of Harry’s death, yet she cannot bear to tell the whole truth of the matter. Instead she tells it to them in pieces, gradually leading to the worst of story, how Harry died. This she only seems to tell directly to Sophy. And with this, we see a reversal of affect between the servants, namely the nurse, and the Carsons. With the knowledge of her brother’s death, Sophy is speechless, struck dumb, only mouthing wordlessly. Her faced “worked involuntarily” as the nurse requested Sophy to speak, to tell Mr. Carson the news of his son’s death.[iv]

Interestingly, the following scene echoes much of what happened previously. While Sophy tries to wake her father, alluding to something sad happening, he doesn’t see her face. In fact, it is again the nurse who is the first to speak of the matter directly and, again, it is the nurse’s “unusual speech” that calls for his attention.[v] Now attentive, he can see from Sophy’s face that something is wrong: “What are you looking at me so strangely for, Sophy?”[vi] Startled by the nurse, Sophy’s countenance, and their contradicting statements of Harry’s whereabouts, Mr. Carson demands to know what has happened (directed primarily to Sophy): “Tell me at once what’s the matter…Speak, child, can’t you?”[vii]

This interesting interplay between the failing to recognize, unusual speech, and the direct request for speech seems to suggest something of the way in which knowledge is conveyed between classes. What is to be done when the terror-stricken faces go unseen? What type of unusual speech can best gain attention? As we’ve seen in the first half of the novel, there is a sense in which the classes—the servants and those served, the poor and the rich, etc.—do not really know how to speak to one another. Yet, importantly, in these scenes the knowledge conveyed is in regard to Harry Carson, one of the wealthy, and the sad circumstances of his death.

To this, it is interesting that Gaskell highlights the character of the nurse as a type of mediator. While the servants know of Harry Carson’s death before his family, it falls to the nurse to break the news. The nurse, unnamed save that title given for her first office, as Gaskell notes, holds a “rather an anomalous situation in the family.”[viii] She is not family nor is she friend, but, because of her length of service, she has some level of intimacy with the Carson family. She is a mother-like figure to the Carson sisters, a nurturer and caretaker of the family—even in death. Yet throughout the scene the nurse remains an anomaly, still to the end when she is called away: “It seemed strange to Sophy to hear nurse summoned from her mother’s side to supper, in the middle of the night, and still stranger that she could go.”[ix] The nurse is both present and absent; a person who knows the family, cares for them intimately, but yet is not part of the family. What, then, characterizes the fittingness of her role as mediator? What does it say about how knowledge shared or conveyed between classes?


[i] Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Mary Barton, Kindle edition, 262.

[ii] Ibid., 251.

[iii] Ibid., 252.

[iv] Ibid., 253.

[v] Ibid., 254.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., 252.

[ix] Ibid., 262.

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