The Nineteenth-Century Book Club: Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848)

Welcome to the Nineteenth-Century Book Club. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, our discussion today is focussed on the fabulousness that is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. As Gaskell’s first published novel, Mary Barton set her on a trajectory of success, and put her firmly on the map as a ‘Nineteenth-Century Woman Writer’. Before we start our discussion in earnest, I should come clean. I happen to unashamedly love Elizabeth Gaskell. I researched and wrote about her novels and short stories (along with those of my other favourite, Margaret Oliphant) for my PhD thesis. As a result of this, while I will try my best to be completely balanced and fair in my discussion of her work, there is every chance I will not be able to see any faults at all. So, with that in mind, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. I’d love to hear from you. I promise to share my soap-box.

While much has been written about the novel’s representation of industry and class divisions, for me, one of the most interesting aspects of Mary Barton is its representation of women’s experience, particularly that of ‘fallen women’, in the nineteenth century. One of the novel’s key characters, Mary’s aunt, Esther, has all the hallmarks of the ‘fallen woman’. Though Esther appears to nicely fit into the ‘fallen’ trope (she is seduced, made pregnant, and falls into prostitution and a life on the streets), Gaskell’s representation of her is anything but typical. At a time when unmarried, sexually aware women, are viewed as dangerous and subversive, Gaskell gives Esther a voice. She uses her novel, and Esther’s situation within it, to highlight the plight of women who veer away from the conventional wife and mother construct. She proves that, rather than subversive, these women are a product of their mistreatment, and of society’s strict conventions. She even (shock, horror!) demonstrates through Esther (and through several of her other characters, including Ruth Hilton from Ruth , but that’s for another day) that female sexuality is not the root of all evil, and that there are many more complexities to be considered before ultimate condemnation is meted out.

Esther’s identity as a prostitute is displayed through her clothing. Once expensive and beautiful, her tattered and faded finery has passed through many hands before it reaches hers. As a result, Esther’s clothing suggests she is a street-walker, and she is condemned as such by Mary’s father, John Barton. For Barton, Esther’s out of place (and indeed, out of class) clothing demonstrates her identity as a fallen woman, aware of her sexuality. By longing for ‘finery’, Esther, in Barton’s eyes, inevitably loses all of her ‘respectability’.

Crucially (and this is, I feel, one of the most interesting aspects of the novel), Esther plays a central role in the novel. Firstly, she does her level best to prevent her dressmaker niece, Mary, from seduction at the hands of mill-owner’s son, Harry Carson. Her street-wanderings also allow her to reveal Jeb Wilson’s innocence when Carson is killed. Each time, Esther returns to the saving power of the domestic space. Though, as a prostitute, she has essentially been banished from the home, Esther’s returns to it in order to save Mary. For Gaskell, domesticity is a crucial tool for the recuperation and rehabilitation of sexually experienced women. As if to highlight this, Esther has an intensely close resemblance to her deceased sister, Mary’s mother. Though Esther is, essentially, an outcast, her physicality renders her as a clear member of the family. One who could be given another chance if only she was given permission to enter the family home once more.

I think, for now, this is where I will stop. There is obviously much more to cover on the wonderful Mary Barton and if you have any thoughts from your own reading, I would love to hear them! Next week, I’m going to be very self-indulgent and look at another of Gaskell’s novels, Ruth (1853). I promise that we will look at other authors too, I hope you’ll allow me just one more….see you next week.

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