Monday 19 August 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Mary Barton

A nineteenth-century divorce court
The court, much like the theatre, is a place of revelation and display, and trials, inquests and other court hearings play a prominent role in Victorian fiction, providing great opportunities for dramatic action and the analysis of ‘truth’. When women appear in fictional courts they are subject to the same concerns about performance that I have discussed in relation to the theatrical. Some authors choose to use the court as an arena in which true feelings can be revealed, as loquaciousness is demanded from female witnesses, rather than the usual emotional repression; others – largely sensation writers – do the opposite, depicting the court as the perfect stage for deceptive performance, with its corresponding associations with sexual deviancy. Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at several women who appear as witnesses in fictional trials – looking at how the theatricality of the justice system is played against its ‘detective’ role, in uncovering truth. First up is Mary Barton.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s eponymous heroine in Mary Barton (1848) finds herself as a witness for the prosecution against her lover Jem in a murder trial, although he is (of course) innocent. She asks the advice of her friend Job for dealing with this situation. His answer indicates an idealised view of the law court as a place where performance is futile:

‘Thou canst do nought better than tell the truth. Truth's best at all times, they say; and for sure it is when folk have to do with lawyers; for they're 'cute and cunning enough to get it out sooner or later, and it makes folk look like Tom Noddies, when truth follows falsehood, against their will.’

Job’s answer may be a pragmatic and practical one, with a humorous overtone (truth is necessary when dealing with educated lawyers). But his belief in the essential supremacy of truth in the justice system sets the tone for Mary’s appearance in court and testimony. Not only does the truth about the murder win out, but the court even gives Mary the opportunity to speak a further truth - about the romantic feelings she would otherwise be unable to express. The moment at which Mary chooses to speak truthfully is a personal climax, prompted by a very public scenario. Asked if she loved Jem or the victim, we have access to her inner reaction:

‘And who was he, the questioner, that he should dare so lightly to ask of her heart's secrets? That he should dare to ask her to tell, before that multitude assembled there, what woman usually whispers with blushes and tears, and many hesitations, to one ear alone?

‘So, for an instant, a look of indignation contracted Mary's brow, as she steadily met the eyes of the impertinent counsellor. But, in that instant, she saw the hands removed from a face beyond, behind; and a countenance revealed of such intense love and woe,—such a deprecating dread of her answer; and suddenly her resolution was taken. The present was everything; the future, that vast shroud, it was maddening to think upon; but NOW she might own her fault, but NOW she might even own her love. Now, when the beloved stood thus, abhorred of men, there would be no feminine shame to stand between her and her avowal.'

Mary’s virtue here is demonstrated not only by her truthfulness, but by the lack of concern she shows for how she will appear in her conclusive thoughts. Her initial questions deal with this worry about self-revelation, but this is subsumed by her love and concern for Jem which is greater, as her focus shifts to looking at him and thinking about how he appears to the rest of the courtroom ‘audience’. Throughout this chapter Gaskell is at pains to demonstrate how closely connected Mary’s appearance is to her thoughts and feelings – the way she looks is no act, but the organic manifestation of her emotions. The ‘look of indignation’ which crosses her brow can reveal to those watching the feelings which the narration gives us access to, and, a few lines earlier, Mary has been shown to disappoint those looking for a woman who plays up her beauty in her courtroom ‘performance’:

Many who were looking for mere flesh and blood beauty, mere colouring, were disappointed; for her face was deadly white, and almost set in its expression, while a mournful bewildered soul looked out of the depths of those soft, deep, grey eyes. But others recognised a higher and a stranger kind of beauty; one that would keep its hold on the memory for many after years.’

This passage is interesting in several ways. Mary, although beautiful, is disassociated from fleshy beauty with its carnal implications. Her beauty provides direct access to the soul (and so truth). The artificiality of the other imagined woman is indicated by the use of the word ‘colouring’, which suggests make-up, while Mary’s almost fixed expression is a direct contrast to the fluid expressiveness praised in stage acting of the period. Mary is still on display in court, and is an object of admiration. But she does not set out to be attractive. She has little concern for how she appears at all, so focussed is she on Jem. In these ways, she is not so much shown to be opposed to the theatrical – she is a natural actress, who allows her body to become a vessel for the expression of emotion, giving the kind of a natural, artless but affective performance which garners praise.

Which fictional Victorian trial should I write about next? Let me know here, on Facebook, or on Twitter (@SVictorianist)!

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