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Expert Witnesses: Women and Publicity in MaryBarton and Felix Holt Laura Struve Separated by almost twenty years, Elizabeth GaskelTs Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot's Felix Holt (1866) illustrate the development of the industrial novel and present similar concerns about the political power of the working class and the role of women in society. The political and class problems in MaryBarton (a bitter strike) and Felix Holt (an election riot) result in the dramatic trial scenes which effectively conclude each text. The heroines in both novels become important witnesses, testifying at crucial moments and ultimately saving the heroes. The figure of the female witness raises questions about women's ability to participate in the legal system and the public sphere. In^4 Treatiseon thePrinciplesof Evidence (1849), William Best, a Victorian legal expert, explains that Having pointed out this proneness to exaggerate as a feminine weakness, it is only just to add, that, in other respects, the testimony of women is atleast deserving of equal credit to that of men. In fact they are in some respects far superior witnesses; for first, they are, in general, closer observers of events than men; next, their memories, being less loaded with matters of business, are usually more tenacious; and lasdy, mey often possess unrivalled powers of simple and unaffected narration (172). Best establishes women's capability to testify as witnesses, and although he finds them subject to certain "ferninine weaknesses," he argues that their testimony may have more credibility than men's due Victorian Review (2002) L. Struve to their natural powers of observation and narration. Nevertheless, Best's defense acknowledges that the weight of women's testimony is subject to debate in the nineteenth-century. This article takes up the question: can women be good witnesses and be good at the same time? Eliot and Gaskell demonstrate that women are capable of effectively participating in the legal system, and women in Felix Holtand MaryBarton are spectacular witnesses in many ways, strengthening the claims for women's testimonial abilities. The heroines' testimony helps acquit the men on trial; however, it also makes these women public spectacles. Society's perception of women's inherent moral virtue allows these characters to testify about their own feelings and the feelings of others, yet the public act of testifying places diis virtue in jeopardy. In these texts, women are not incompetent to testify; they are potentially compromised by their testimony. When the act of testifying seems morally questionable, why do these novels portray women as such effective witnesses? Nineteenth-century domestic ideology depicts a woman's public appearance as a sexual spectacle, informing many readings of these texts. Traditionally, the courtroom scenes in MaryBarton and Felix Holthave been read as a retreat from public, political plots about the working class to the private, domestic plots of courtship and romance. This line of criticism starts with Raymond Williams and can be seen in Ruth Barnard Yeazell's claim that "to substitute the narrative of the conventional heroine for one of politicalviolence is ... to shift from the public history of class conflict to the private story of an individual courtship" (143). Other scholars, such as Rosemarie Bodenheimer or Debarah Nord, have argued that the courtroom scenes connect the political and courtship plots, but they still see the heroines, especially Mary Barton, as tainted by their public appearance.1 I propose that, contrary to nineteenth-century ideas about separate spheres, women's knowledge of the human heart and their moral authority are strengthened by their entrance into the public sphere and potential contamination by it The trial scenes in MaryBarton and volume 28 number 1 Expert Witnesses Felix Holtillustrate that the heroines are not completely protected by their virtue or irreparably damaged by the public sphere. In fact, the scene of a woman's virtue jeopardized by her public appearance is dramatic and compelling. Sympathy and sexuality are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they are expressed by these women at the same time. The very things that prompt the public to perceive these characters as sexual spectacles make their testimony about the human heart persuasive, powerful, and authoritative. Barbara Leah Harman's recent book, The Feminine PoliticalNovelin England...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 1-24
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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