The Female Witness and the Melodramatic Mode in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton“


  • Alison Moulds (Birkbeck, University of London)



This essay examines Elizabeth Gaskell’s use of the ‘courtroom scene’ in her debut novel Mary Barton“ (1848), focusing on the testimony delivered by the eponymous heroine. It situates the passage in the wider context of real-life nineteenth-century court cases, and subsequent criticism about the relationship between legal proceedings and realist fiction. Countering claims that Mary’s appearance has a chiefly didactic purpose or that it is simply a leaden part of an otherwise dramatic scene, it argues that her role in the proceedings has an inherently melodramatic appeal, which Gaskell exploits. Reflecting on the way in which the courtroom is cast as a liminal space between the public and private spheres, this essay interrogates the ways in which Mary’s aims – to protect Jem Wilson and conceal the identity of the real murderer (her father) – necessitate both the discourse of emotion and an act of deceit. It examines the ways in which Mary may be seen as a ‘performer’, telling a feminised ‘love’ story cast in the melodramatic mode. Arguing that Mary uses the genre to both forestall expectation and guy it, this paper looks at the ways in which Mary’s tactics may mirror Gaskell’s own strategies as a first-time female novelist.