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  • Mutiny in the Public Sphere:Debating Naval Power in Parliament, the Press, and Gaskell's North and South
  • Michael D. Lewis (bio)

When Elizabeth Gaskell returned to the genre of the industrial novel in North and South (1855), it struck her contemporaries as penance for the sin of radical politics committed in Mary Barton (1848).1 Her first novel's sympathy for the working class, in general, and for the quasi-heroic murderer John Barton, in particular, led W.R. Greg to describe the novel as "mischievous in the extreme" (Easson 165). This understanding of the two novels persists in twentieth-century assessments, as the novels' differences in focus have motivated readings of North and South as an attempt to repress her sympathy for the working class and to retreat from Barton's radicalism. Felicia Bonaparte, for example, identifies criticism from the likes of Greg as Gaskell's central motivation for shifting away from "the plight of the suffering workers": "She had been severely criticized, by those who had read the subtextual narrative on the pages of Mary Barton, for identifying too completely with the workers of the book" (167). Bonaparte argues that such criticism and the 1848 revolutions forced Gaskell to avoid "help[ing] foment a revolution at home" (167).2 In this essay, I take issue with the attempt to dismiss Gaskell's persistent radicalism and sympathy for sufferers of tyranny, while acknowledging significant differences between the two novels (the class of the heroine, the intellectual capabilities of the central working-class figure, the moral improvement of the capitalist). But these changes include new forms and sites of rebellion, as she displaces the issues of oppression and violence, carrying them from land to sea, from mill owners and workers to captains and sailors. While Thornton and Higgins, capitalist and labourer, are able to come to a condition of mutual respect and understanding, Captain Reid and Frederick Hale stand on either side of a gap too wide to cross, a divide that foments a revolution at sea, if not at home.

This essay pushes the seemingly minor plot of Fredrick's mutiny to centre stage.3 I contend that Gaskell continues to wear the badge of subversive scrutinizer; she just employs more discriminating tactics, attempting to satisfy readers like W.R. Greg and her own radical impulses. As Patricia Ingham has observed, North and South is "more covert in its subversion of the social status quo" than Mary Barton (55).4 Lacking the unification of radicalism and violence in the central agent of John Barton, the later novel pushes such violence to the narrative and geographic periphery. Gaskell again sympathizes with violence as [End Page 89] a final measure taken only after attempts at compromise have failed. Shifting resistance from a domestic and industrial context to an international and naval one, she chooses a setting perhaps less startling to middle-class readers fearing revolution.5 This subplot resembles much of Gaskell's corpus, which, as Nancy Henry has written, "addresses fundamental philosophical questions: when does violent resistance to tyranny become justified?" (149). This specific act of resistance also parallels and sheds light on the Reverend Hale's defection from the Anglican church, the union strike, and Thornton's disdain for a despotic and meddling parliament; the novel fractures armed and unarmed resistance into multiple arenas.6 This essay does not weave together the strands of North and South's political program; rather, it emphasizes the radicalism and relevance of the naval skein. I place the mutiny subplot in the context of debates surrounding naval law, courts, and power discussed by Parliament and the press. The naval subplot focuses on tyrannical captains and unjust courts martial, precisely the objects of nineteenth-century radical critiques of the navy. Such debate led to a pair of 1847 laws that attempted to curtail abusive naval power by addressing flogging and the powers of courts martial. In this essay, I summarize the calls for reform that reached a boiling point in the 1840s and then juxtapose Gaskell's naval plot with both the new laws and the case of an actual captain that captured the nation's attention. This detailed picture allows us to...


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