LOVE IS (not) BLIND: Marriage, Melodrama, and Medicine in Mary Barton
"Of all the things that sight can see, it often does not observe the intimate relation
between sight and blindness as ways of being in the world."
Charlotte Brontë and her friend, Elizabeth Gaskell, published their first novels within months of one another: Jane Eyre in 1847 and Mary Barton in 1848. Both novels attracted widespread attention, the identities of their pseudonymous authors were quickly revealed and the careers of two influential Victorian novelists were launched. Gaskell's social problem novel drew both fire and praise from contemporaries for questioning the ethics of Political Economy and encouraging empathy with Chartists. Nevertheless, while Mary Barton may have had an immediate impact on social reform debates, it has been somewhat eclipsed in literary history by its predecessor. Jane Eyre has preoccupied feminist and psychoanalytic critics, theorists of the gothic and post-colonial literature, and many other varieties of critics. Significantly, Jane Eyre also figured prominently in the emergence of Disability Studies literary criticism. At roughly the same time post-colonial critics were drawing attention to the racialization of Bertha Mason, Disability Studies critics spotlighted the "stone blind" Edward Rochesteras a particularly potent example of the oppressive attitudes towards blindness that we had inherited from the Victorians. In Disability Studies, Victorian literature as a whole has not come to be known for progressive portrayals of disability, in general, and blindness and visual impairment, in particular. For example, Martha Stoddard Holmes's groundbreaking Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture provides an extensive list of such sentimental and sensational depictions that linger on today in popular ideas of blindness1.
Yet, in the months leading up to the publication of their first novels, Brontë and Gaskell shared an experience of blindness and its treatment, detailed in their correspondence. Charlotte and Emily Brontë brought their father, Patrick, to Manchester for cataract surgery. Though Elizabeth Gaskell lived in Manchester, there is no evidence that she met her friend Charlotte in person during the period of Patrick's treatment and recovery. But in letters to Gaskell, Charlotte did describe in graphic detail Patrick's progressive impairment, the medical examination, the surgical procedure and the lengthy recovery process. In other words, both Brontë and Gaskell had blindness on their minds as their novels were taking shape. So memorable was this correspondence that, years later, Gaskell would choose to reproduce much of it verbatim in her Life of Charlotte Brontë. One might say that it had helped her to "observe the intimate relation between sight and blindness as ways of being in the world" (Titchkosky 53).
I will argue here that this engagement with blindness not only led Elizabeth Gaskell to a very different understanding of blindness from that represented by Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre, but also was integral to the development of her narrative methods as a pioneer of realism in social problem fiction. Most obviously, Gaskell devotes a key plotline to Margaret Jennings and the process by which this working-class woman loses her sight. Informed by Disability Studies, we can see that Margaret Jennings' character development challenges sentimental and melodramatic representations of blindness, including those that were established withinmedical models of blindness. Significantly, Gaskell gives blindness a plot; it is not a singular event or a tragedy that results in total darkness or a character's demise. Narrating blindness as a process leaves room in the novel for Margaret's agency. This is true to a considerable extent even when Margaret's sight is surgically restored at the novel's close. Indeed, Margaret's agency is key to my further claim that Gaskell also offers an alternative to the medical model of disability. Mary Wilson Carpenter has demonstrated how Victorian doctors in the rising specialty of ophthalmology promulgated melodramatic representations of blindness to enhance their own professional stature. Refuting this potent coMBination of medical authority and imaginative force has been a key objective for Disability Studies. In their place, as Georgina Kleege writes in Sight Unseen, contemporary Disability Studies offers a "new image of blindness [which] is blander and more mundane, a mere manner of seeking practical solutions to everyday inconveniences" (Kleege 228). I will argue that something very much like Kleege's practical and even, one might say, realistic image of blindness can be found in Mary Barton. Margaret counters Mary Barton's overwrought sympathy for her friend's plight with matter-of-fact accounts of her practical challenges and graphic descriptions of her changing vision. Moreover, whatever melodrama is associated with Margaret's restored vision, Gaskell's narrative methods have prevented readers from marginalizing or exoticizing her. She is not a helpless victim to be saved by a heroic medical man.
With a narrative strategy that depends so much on sensory perception, particularly sight, Gaskell significantly gives prominence to a character who is going blind: Margaret Jennings. Gaskell's development of Margaret resists the conventional Victorian portrayal of the of the disabled female character2 . By constructing a narrative around the process of going blind, Gaskell shifts our perspective of and our response to her disability. Her narrative generates a process of blindness which enhances the novel's plot and establishes Margaret's agency.
In Mary Barton, Gaskell offers an alternative lens for reading blindness. In reflecting on Jane Eyre as an example, it is difficult to conceptualize a character with an impaired visual field that is going to turn out to be anything but an object of pity, inspiration, or marginalization. In contrast to Jane Eyre, however, in Mary Barton, Gaskell is not attempting to represent blindness in any particular Victorian convention. Instead, she is illustrating the intricate transition from sightedness to sightlessness through Margaret's varying stages of blindness. Gaskell illustrates Margaret's blindness with a kind of scientific accuracy that flourished mid-century3 . Margaret's vivid and graphic account of her vision loss illuminates new and meaningful ways to understand sight and blindness.
Matter-of-fact tone, graphic word choice, and precise detail give Margaret's description of her vision even more realism and allow readers into an unsentimental experience of disability. With Margaret's account of her gradual blindness, readers can better understand vision as a process: "Vision is a series of discrete activities, not a constant, seamless, pervasive ebb and flow of information" (Kleege 114). Individuals with more limited visual fields are perhaps accustomed to understanding "vision" as a "series of discrete activities" that depends on our vision because we often cannot use all of our remaining sight at the same time. Vision is therefore a fragmented process; when light, shadow, depth, and distance change, so, too, does the information our eyes and brain receive. Gaskell uses Margaret's tone and vivid details to illustrate her experience of blindness. For example, when discussing her visual acuity with Mary, Margaret explains,
"Yes, pretty near as well as ever. Th' only difference is, that if I sew a long time together, a bright spot like th' sun comes right where I'm looking; all the rest is quite clear but just where I want to see. I've been to both doctors again, and now they're both o' the same story; and I suppose I'm going dark as fast as may be. Plain work pays so bad, and mourning has been so plentiful this winter, I were tempted to take in my black work I could, and now I'm suffering from it." (MB 51)Margaret describes blindness in graphic, even clinical detail. The "bright spot" explains to sighted readers what her remaining vision looks like from her perspective. Margaret's account could perhaps parallel the cataracts that Patrick Brontë experienced4. Regardless of the specific eye condition Margaret has, however, her self-explanation directs our attention to the complexities of blindness. For example, when Georgina Kleege describes her own blindness, she writes, "In my attempt to specify my own visual experience, I distort it" (Kleege 103). In a world structured around sight, it is often difficult to explain experiences of not seeing. Margaret's discussion of the mourning dresses and her doctor visits seem at first like an arbitrary list; however, it is precisely Gaskell's use of this detail that highlights the unique process of Margaret's visual experience. Margaret ends her discussion of her blindness by saying, "I were tempted to take in my black work I could, and now I'm suffering from it" (MB 51). In Margaret's description, the word "suffering" signifies practicality over pathos. From staring at the black linen for so long, her eyesight is quickly fading. Here, Margaret does not feel badly for herself; she does not "suffer" from her disability. Gaskell inverts our expectations in this passage. We expect Margaret to feel sorry for herself, to resent her blindness, and to lament upon her newly (dis)abled body. Instead, she maintains her work ethic and wants to live with her disability rather than run from its perceived reputation. Although her desire to work also reflects bourgeois Christian stoicism, Margaret deviates from the conventional disabled female character. Her serious desire to earn a living resists the genre conventions of the period. She declares to Mary, "'I think I should go blind any way, and I darn't tell grandfather, else I would leave it off, but he will so fret'" (MB 51). With Margaret's narrative, we can see that Gaskell is insisting on Margaret's agency, her autonomy, and her productivity, which extends the project of Gaskell's social problem fiction.
Surprisingly, in the middle of Margaret's narrative, Elizabeth Gaskell inserts a hyper-sentimentalized love story
that adds a touch more melodrama to the novel. This problematic section of Mary Barton is entangled with conventions
of disability, desire, and the domestic novel that we have seen from my analysis of
Mary was amused to see how the young sailor sat entranced, mouth, eyes, all open, in order to catch every breath of sound. His very lids refused to wink, as if afraid in that brief proverbial interval to lose a particle of the rich music that floated through the room. For the first time the idea crossed Mary's mind that it was possible that the plain little sensible Margaret, so prim and demure, might have power over the heart of the handsome, dashing, spirited Will Wilson. (MB 166)In his "entrancement," Will Wilson is completely captivated by Margaret's singing. Such a dramatic shift in sensory input ("mouth, eyes, all open, in order catch every breath of sound") allows the sentimental to take over. Mary, and subsequently, the readers of the novel, are then confronted with some unlikely plot twists: the sentimentalization of the non-disabled man falling in love with the disabled woman. Suddenly and shockingly, the novel's social problem narrative shifts to a conventional Victorian courtship plot.
Moreover, this section of the novel shores up complex emotional concerns about desire, conventions of Victorian marriage plots, and disability. In Sight Unseen, Georgina Kleege argues, "If the girl is blind, she will be that much more unattractive, or that much less able to control her own sexuality" (Kleege 43). Georgina Kleege's word choice illuminates the precarious position blind women (in fiction and in reality) often face: they are either "more" or "less" desirable, depending on the cultural perceptions that surround them. Moreover, it is important to note that this section of Margaret's narrative is told through Mary Barton's point of view, which only further places Margaret in light of pathos:
[Will] had fallen deeply in love with the quiet, prim, somewhat plain Margaret: [Mary] doubted if Margaret was aware of it, and yet, as she watched more closely, she began to think some instinct made the blind girl feel whose eyes were so often fixed upon her pale face; that some inner feeling made the delicate and becoming rose-flush steal over her countenance. (MB 188)Mary's observations are tinged with sympathy and jealousy and in turn, shape how we perceive Will's attraction to Margaret. Margaret is thus limited to Mary's point of view. The absence of sensory details when Mary is sentimentalizing Margaret demonstrates that Mary is following the readers' expectations. By describing Margaret as "quiet, prim" and "somewhat plain," and then concluding by narrating "the delicate and becoming rose-flush" that covered her face, Mary's observations anticipate the readers' ideas of how Margaret should appear as the less than desirable blind woman in a marriage plot. Furthermore, Mary's observations echo the resentfulness women can feel toward one another in the Victorian marriage market. Therefore, although Mary initially describes Margaret as the "quiet, prim" and seemingly a non-threatening rival in the marriage market, her words hint at the jealousy she feels toward Margaret that we have previously seen with her feelings about Margaret's singing. In turn, Gaskell inverts the conventional structure of the Victorian marriage plot by placing Margaret on level ground with Mary. Despite Mary's perspective, the two women are equally involved in the progression of the novel's courtship plot.
Elizabeth Gaskell concludes Mary and Will's conversation by first leaning upon readers' expectations—the strong sailor falling in love with the innocent blind girl—then destabilizing readers' perception by announcing that Margaret is in fact, happy without Will. In a conversation with Will about Margaret, Mary argues, "she's the only one I know, I believe, who seems free from care. Her blindness almost appears a blessing sometimes; she was so downhearted when she dreaded it, and now she seems so calm and happy when it's downright come. No! Margaret's happy, I do think'" (MB 207). Though Mary's last observation is not without some residual sentimental tones, "her blindness almost appears as a blessing" and the use of "No!" with the exclamation mark, Gaskell shifts Mary's and readers' attitudes toward a more nuanced experience of disability.
Disabled female characters are rarely given opportunities in Victorian fiction to become anything but inspirational figures, and yet, Gaskell continues to resist cultural and literary representations by moving from the sentimental to sensory details. This is especially apparent when Will Wilson asserts his points of view. Here, Mary becomes the advocate for change. Mary's conversation with Will transforms her perception of blindness and indicates Will's limited perspective. Will comments to Mary:
"I could almost wish it had been otherwise," said Will, thoughtfully. "I could have been so glad to comfort her, and cherish her, if she had been in trouble." [Mary responds] "And why can't you cherish her, even though she is happy?" asked Mary. "Oh! I don't know. She seems so much better than I am! And her voice! When I hear it, and think of the wishes that are in my heart, it seems as much out of place to ask her to be my wife, as it would be to ask an angel from heaven." (MB 207)Will argues here that he wishes that Margaret were unhappy so that he could take care of her in her own "sullen woe" as Jane does for Rochester in Jane Eyre (JE 497-498). Drawing from Mary and Will's conversation, there is a parallel between Victorian depictions of disability and modern reality, as Georgina Kleege writes,
Is marriage to a blind person really so different? I ask my sighted husband this, but he can't really answer. He's only been married to me. Would he be threatened by a completely independent wife? Does my blindness unman him, forcing him to take on the caretaking role traditionally reserved for females? Behind these questions is the assumption that blind spouses bring nothing to the union except utter dependence, and, if the sighted partner is lucky, a cloying gratitude. Blind people are so needy, so defined by their need, that they must be incapable of nurture, affection, love, loyalty, laughter, companionship, comfort, conversation, support, sympathy, or any of the other qualities people seek in a life partner. (Kleege 24-25)Margaret's contentment with her blindness clearly alarms Will, and, presumably, the novel's readers. In response to Will's exclamations, Mary offers a reply that is quite unlike her previous observations, "Mary could not help laughing outright, in spite of her depression, at the idea of Margaret as an angel; it was so difficult (even to her dress-making imagination) to fancy where, and how, the wings would be fashioned to the brown stuff gown, or the blue and yellow print" (MB 207). Mary's laughter at Will's perception of Margaret signals to readers how they should also react to his emotional assumptions. Gaskell shifts the narrative from Will's sentimental statements in favor of the sensory-details Mary provides. The visual attention to the sartorial renews our awareness to Margaret's physical appearance. Margaret's "brown stuff gown" thus has more reality than the overly sentimentalized perceptions from characters like Will.
In Mary Barton's conclusion, love is, in fact, not blind. Margaret must regain her sight in order to achieve the "traditional" heroine's ending: marriage. Interestingly, however, Margaret is completely absent from the novel's conclusion. As with the ending of Jane Eyre, in which Jane's perspective of Rochester's blindness is dominant, we only encounter Margaret's experience through Mary Barton and Jem. Victorian literature is often unable to conceptualize an autonomous disabled character that not only must Margaret be "cured" of her blindness, but she also must be removed from the narrative as a double erasure.
In the end, Mary and Jem are married and, soon, Margaret and Will also marry, "Will and Margaret are married?" to which Jem replies, "Not quite, but very near" (MB 417). In order for Mary to discern why Margaret and Will are not married yet, Jem asks her to guess: "He covered his little boy's eyes with his hands for an instant, significantly, till the baby pushed them down saying in his imperfect way, ‘Tan't see.' ‘there now! Johnnie can see. Do you guess, Mary?'" (MB 417). This momentary and metaphorical blinding of the child's eyes infantilizes blindness. Furthermore, Johnnie's gestures and his "imperfect way" of speaking reflect the notion of innocence that we are supposed to associate with Margaret. Gaskell caters to the readers' expectations and, to an extent, the readers' desires for Margaret's narrative trajectory. As Martha Stoddard Holmes argues, "Regained sight is usually the only circumstance in which blind nineteenth-century women characters become sexual and marry" (Stoddard Holmes 86). Readers are placed in the position of Will, Mary, and Jem, all of whom wish Margaret to regain her sense of sight through a medical cure. Jem concludes, "They have. She has been couched, and can see as well as ever. She and Will are to be married on the twenty-fifth of this month, and he's bringing her out here next voyage" (MB 417). In order for Margaret to marry Will, she must have her vision restored, thus problematizing the novel. With her sense of sight repaired, Margaret can achieve the conventional marriage-plot ending reserved for non-disabled Victorian women. The final scene of Johnnie, Jem and Mary's child, demonstrating Margaret's restoration of sight sentimentalizes and subsequently erases the blind woman's narrative.
However, Gaskell complicates the medical "cure" of Margaret's sight and the novel's marriage-plot ending by creating a double marriage plot, in which Mary Barton marries Jem. Mary and Jem's marriage deflates the pathos of Margaret and Will's union. In Fictions of Affliction, Martha Stoddard Holmes calls this dual marriage plot a "twin structure," in which melodramatic fiction of the late nineteenth century often pairs a disabled female character with a nondisabled female character, and each of their trajectories diverge with the marriage plot:
Melodrama's use of a ‘twin structure' that pairs a disabled woman with a nondisabled one and gives them distinctly different physical, emotional, and marital futures may have offered a way to tap into emotional excess with all its interesting possibilities safely anchored to a few distinctive, visibly disabled female bodies with no danger of marrying. (Holmes 37-38)Mary Barton precedes and even anticipates the "twin structure" that Holmes discusses in melodramatic fiction of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Moreover, Mary Barton offers a different form of this "twin structure" by having both the disabled and nondisabled female characters marry. What is perhaps more significant, is that when Mary and Jem are discussing Margaret and Will's marriage, they are living in Canada, and not in Manchester. Margaret and Will remain in Manchester, which suggests that Margaret's plot, rather than Mary's, will continue. Holmes provides a list of authors she believes cultivate a nuanced approach to the "twin structure" when she writes, "Collins's novels construct disabled women as figures of eros rather than pathos. Like Craik, Yonge, and the later Dickens, Collins imagines disabled women as potential wives and mothers" (Holmes 76). I would like to add Elizabeth Gaskell to the list that Holmes provides. In a period where marriage plot endings were abundant and almost necessary in Victorian literature, Gaskell's parallel plotline is an act of resistance and reinvention.
As a result, Mary Barton's conclusion is not distinctive to Gaskell's treatment of Margaret, but rather, it is a broader consideration of the implications of the Victorian marriage plot, female autonomy, and cultural expectations and values. Consequently, the novel's conclusion raises more questions than it answers. Scientific innovation and social convention collide as Margaret is cured of her blindness and then enters the marriage market. Although this kind of closure can be frustrating, these questions are Gaskell's point. Throughout the novel, readers have learned to question our own views the marriage plot, sight, and blindness. Gaskell's "twinning" of the marriages of Mary and Jem and Margaret and Will is inherently inconclusive, drawing on disability, specifically, blindness, as a process rather than a definitive ending.
1. For other examples of blindness in Victorian literature, see Wilkie Collins's <.em> Poor Miss Finch <./em> (1872) and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). See also the Appendix in Martha Stoddard Holmes's Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture, pages 197-198 for a complete list of blind characters in Victorian literature. For contemporary reflections and critical focus on cultural perceptions of blindness, see GeorginaKleege's "Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eyewitness Account" in The Disability Studies Reader (4th ed.) and her book, Sight Unseen.
2 See Deborah Kent's essay, "Disabled Women: Portraits in Fiction and Drama" in Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images (1987); also see Adrienne Asch and Michelle Fine's chapter, "Nurturance, Sexuality, and Women with Disabilities: The Example of Women and Literature" in The Disability Studies Reader, first edition (1997) for discussions about portrayals of women with disabilities.
3. In the mid-nineteenth century, expertise in medicine and medical practice began to increase. Specifically, doctors who specialized in studying the eye and ophthalmology were prominent. See Mary Wilson Carpenter's "A Cultural History of Ophthalmology in Nineteenth-Century Britain" for more details.
4. In The History of Ophthalmology, scholars examine the rise of scientific study of the eye throughout history. Primarily, the study of the structure, physiology, and functions of various parts of the human body, including the eye, became more professionalized and prominent during the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, ophthalmologists developed surgical techniques as they gained greater awareness about particular eye diseases like cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration.