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  • Trials of Embodiment:Being a Gothic Body in Mary Barton
  • Lucy Sheehan (bio)

I do assure you it was from just such an involved set of thoughts that Jem drew the resolution to act as if he had not seen that phantom likeness of John Barton—himself, yet not himself.

Mary Barton, 347

Mary Barton is, above all, the story of characters who are themselves, yet not just themselves. As Elizabeth Gaskell’s characters move through the social world of the novel, from parliament to union meetings, from local riots to courthouse scenes, they become representative figures—characters who embody not only themselves but a multiplicity of others. For Gaskell, political, novelistic, and Christological acts of representation deform the individual body, so that even after it expels this multiplicity of others, individuals remain haunted by their encounter with the social. While the novel’s characters encounter opium, madness, disease, and dream-states, the narrator weaves her way in and out of so many different identities (character and author) and positions (middle class, working class, immediate, retrospective) that the narration becomes a model of distorted subjecthood, moving through distinct bodies and sometimes inhabiting many at once. The fundamental instability of industrial England is reflected in the narration’s tenuous distinction between the real and the fantastic—in other words, in its Gothic narration.

Industrial novels, a set of mid-century Victorian novels that includes Mary Barton, North and South, Sybil, Alton Locke, Hard Times, Felix Holt, and Shirley, document the social problems arising from industrialization, urbanization, and the extreme destitution that swept the country in the 1830s and 1840s. The novels are widely regarded as a response to Chartism, a short-lived political movement of the same period that sought to expand political representation of the working classes in England.1 Traditionally, studies have emphasized the genre’s insistence on individual morality and the consequent failure to produce political solutions to social problems, particularly in industrial novelists’ denial of the expansion of working-class suffrage.2 Likewise, critics fault Mary Barton for its retreat into generic forms that obscure historical social reality and render the novel unable to sufficiently depict class politics within its narrative scope. Ruth Bernard Yeazell and Catherine Gallagher argue that the courtship plots in Mary Barton and other industrial novels deploy romance in order to divert [End Page 35] attention from the political, while Gallagher adds that Gaskell offers tragedy, religious homily, and melodrama as forms that retreat from political reality.

Little attention has been paid, however, to the Gothic mode, despite the frequent appearance throughout these novels of conventional Gothic figures: ghostly nuns in Shirley, doubles and degenerative families in Felix Holt, opium addicts in Mary Barton, the delirious in North and South, dreamers in Alton Locke, and the murderously violent in Sybil.3 While David Ellison’s account of ghosts and spectres in Mary Barton revises Gallagher’s claim that “although [Gaskell] does not find a narrative form that satisfactorily reveals the reality of working-class life, she does identify several conventional genres that hide the reality” (67), Ellison nevertheless posits that spectral figures serve as a displacement of, rather than a direct engagement with, working-class politics (486–90). But what if we were to take appearances of the Gothic seriously? Indeed, Gaskell’s novel demands we do so by invoking the spectre of the Gothic not to conceal or mediate the political but rather to engage in a critique of representation as a shared literary and political form. Gaskell uses Gothic metaphors to suggest that political and novelistic representation stretches the bounds of individual and social bodies until they become deformed, monstrous, and fantastical. In so doing, the novel imbricates fantastic and realist modes in order to broaden, rather than constrict, our view of social reality in mid-century England, granting access to the ghastly conditions that underlie industrialized society and that cannot be adequately captured by non-fantastic narration alone.

This essay begins by examining Gaskell’s particular use of the Gothic mode as a means of casting doubt on three systems of representation—political, literary, and Christological—that form the basis for social interactions in the world that her novel inhabits...


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