Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Glazed Expression: Mary Barton, Ghosts and Glass

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Glazed Expression: Mary Barton, Ghosts and Glass

Article excerpt

I begin with some problematic sightseeing. In its 1855 survey of charitable activity in London, The Quarterly Review described the spectacle of freshly opened dark space brought to light in the recent street clearances:

   The reader may, perhaps, have seen the house in West-street, built
   on the side of Fleet ditch during two centuries the notorious haunt
   of felons for many went to see it previous to its demolition, when
   its mysteries (far surpassing those of Udolfo) were exposed to the
   public gaze, with all its sliding-panels, trap-doors, and endless
   devices for concealment or escape. But in London there are many more
   miserable dens than this. In 'Jacob's Island," surrounded  and
   intersected by the tidal ditches of Bermondsey, and in the
   neighbourhood of glue-manufactories, are rows of houses built on
   piles. The little rickety bridges that span the ditches, and connect
   court with court, give it the appearance of the Venice of the Sewers.
   There is

      'Water, water everywhere,

      But not a drop to drink,'
   or rather, not a drop that ought to be drank. "It was (says Mr.
   Mayhew) the colour of green tea in the sun, and in the shade the
   motionless mass looked as solid as black marble. ("The Charities
   of London" 430)

To surpass Udolfo is nevertheless to remain curiously in its debt; thus, the ruinous and encrypted architecture of West-street remains nothing so much as an implausible, Radcliffean entertainment. Similarly, the privations of Jacob's Island are apparently only imaginable with recourse to Coleridge or figured as a kind of abysmal anti-Venice. These descriptions, brief as they are, suggest a failure, if not an actual inability, to visualize poverty. Whatever specificity is intimated the cold, the stench, the danger is almost instantly obliterated in the shift to the more comfortable terrain of literary allusion, a move from writing about space to the self-regarding space of writing: look at who I have read, and where 1 have been. The resulting prose mixes domains, extending to the abject the peculiar charms of the salon, indicating something of the force with which the middle classes begin to lay claim to both the contents of sight and the right to re-shape them. Engels was among the first to identify the markedly aversive viewing habits of the middle classes, how calculated their efforts to conceal the life world of the poor behind commuter corridors lined with shops (Engels 86). (1) But, I would suggest the Quarterly Review's description of West-street reveals a problem not so much of deliberate aversion but of perceptibility. The occulted world of the poor cannot be visualized even when the examining gaze is, as it would appear to be here, direct. In place of detail, one finds literary product. The pleasures of the Gothic imaginary occupy the space reserved for the habitual findings of sanitary epistemology. Flow many occupants per square foot of dank flags'? Of what age, sex and level of debility? What quantity of waste surrounds them and with what degree of certitude does it analogize their moral condition? We do not get that. Instead, we get Valancourt, the Ancient Mariner, the sepulchral haunts of the Doges. In short, the spooky overwhelms the statistical. Accustomed as we are, post-Foucault, to the savoir-pouvoir account of history, such a dreamy, preoccupied gaze cast over an unruly quarter is peculiar.

This essay casts a look at Elizabeth Gaskell's reading of a visual system that routinely fails to see the poor. In Malt Barton, this is identified as a central threat to political stability. But Gaskell complicates this problem, drawing connecting lines between the imperfectly glimpsed, if not spectral bodies of the poor, the emaciations of famine and the concurrent removal of labor-traces from the spectacular display of commodities set behind glass. Severally these problems of imperfect visibility haunt the text as well as provide a possible remedy. …

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