Bookery: A Quick Skim of Mary Barton (and a touch of Bronte)

Ladies and gentlemen, I have done the impossible: I have read, or rather skimmed, a 500-page-book in two days, but before I get into that, I have completed The Tenent of Wildfell Hall and must say that the conclusion is significantly different from other “Fallen women” novels in that Helen is redeemed into society’s fold. Somehow, I think this has more to do with the fact that the blame was clearly placed on Huntingdon than the fact that she willingly revealed her duality to Gilbert, who unveiled it to society and decided to marry her, thereby becoming the heroic ideal husband and reinforcing the princess-in-the-tower mentality that only men can rescue a girl trapped in a run-down tower (or manor, in this case) who has estranged herself from her husband for the sake of maintaining the morality of her infant son. Okay, the whole “princess-in-the-tower” thing does not involve all of that, but seriously… it kind of reminds me of Snow White/Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty sans the absolute purity, the harem of tiny men, the glass slipper, and the giant witch/dragon (COOL).

And now, cue rant mode… despite the fact that I have a separate blog for that.

The ending of Mary Barton pissed the living hell out of me, and here is why: the entire novel, like many Victorian novels, involves the precarious morality of the title character who is influenced by her Aunt Esther’s ideas of becoming a lady of society. It is later revealed that Esther was the mistress of an officer, bore a child who fell ill, and, in a failed attempt to save the child’s life, becomes a prostitute. As if all of this were not enough, Esther returns to be assaulted verbally and physically by John Barton (Mary’s father) due to his blame of her for the death of other Mary Barton (John’s wife). She surfaces at several other points, mainly in relation to Mary’s morality and why she has the immoral thought to (God forbid!) raise her position in society (except that the guy she had eyes for was a complete douche who never really wanted to marry her and who thought they “could be happy enough without marriage” (169). Esther returns at several other points in the narrative, first to see Jem and notify him of the danger Mary is in, then to visit Mary herself, but not as a prostitute. No, in order to go before Mary, she must provide a moral facade, and she chooses to be “Mrs. Fergusson” of “Angel Street,” the innocent wife of a mechanic (299).

Now, relying on Jem for help was one thing since Jem had prior to professed his love for Mary, and disguising herself was pretty inventive, too (it also fits in well with my whole duality thing). What I absolutely cannot stand is the way Gaskell builds up the conclusion for Esther’s salvation (Mary and Jem, now married, and Jem, having unveiled Esther’s true profession, resolve to take Esther in and remind her of her morality) only to literally throw the whole thing in the gutter and leave it there to die. After searching for Esther, they find her by chance (three cheers for coincidence!) as she wanders to the place of her better days to die. They take her upstairs, chuck her on the bed, and wait for the inevitable end, and when it comes, I could not BELIEVE that it was not nearly as moving as John Barton’s. I mean, come on… he shot a rich guy! …granted that guy was a total jack-ass and an unidentified threat to his daughter’s morality, but that’s beside the point! To make matters even worse, they bury Esther with John in the same grave and inscribe it not with the names of the deceased but a very fitting Bible verse.

Ultimately, the conclusion says that the good will be rewarded, the bad will be punished, and the fallen woman can never ever be redeemed in the eyes of society even if there are people willing to do it. She can’t even have her own grave that tells of her redeeming points, something like, “Here lies Esther ‘Butterfly’ Barton-Fergusson, Devoted Mother, Mistress, and Wife… Sort of.” (I know that would never happen in the Victorian period… trust me.) It also equates the crimes of murder and prostitution in a sense, but to me, John is elevated above Esther in that he is provided with the forgiveness of the victim’s father in his dying moments and is even held by the mourning father as he passes from one world to the next. Esther cries herself to death, and after the funeral, everyone lives happily ever after… in Canada. The end.

The feminist in me is very frustrated. I’m almost afraid to read “Lizzie Leigh,” but the show (and the thesis) must go on!


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Filed under Books, British, Bronte, Gaskell, Literature, Progress, Thesis

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