This essay situates Elizabeth Gaskell's industrial novel Mary Barton (1848) within early-Victorian discourses about natural history by studying the figure of the working-class naturalist, Job Legh. Though often regarded as a peripheral character in critical treatments of the novel, Job Legh's presence in Mary Barton suggests the possibilities and limitations that natural history presented for writers struggling to represent the turbulent social and political conditions of England during the 1840s. At times, Job's naturalist activities seem to offer a utopian alternative to the “dangerous” Chartist politics practiced by other characters in the novel. At other times, however, Job's knowledge and use of classificatory language alienates him from the working-class community in which he is embedded, a community otherwise excluded from the “republic of science.” In the latter part of this essay, I argue that Gaskell, by aligning herself with the conflicted naturalist she imagined, reveals the liminality of her own position as a novelist writing about working-class characters for an audience of middle-class readers. While Gaskell shares this liminal position with her naturalist, however, she does not share his taxonomic vision; rather, she draws on a narrative mode of natural history to develop a sympathetic account of the working classes, a mode that attends to the habits, habitats, and environmental conditions that affect the behaviors and interactions of a living thing. By situating Mary Barton within the naturalist discourses that helped produce it, this essay illustrates the limited political value of Gaskell's working-class naturalist while also suggesting the deep entanglement of novels and natural histories in Victorian Britain.
Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at College of the Holy Cross. Her essay on Dickens's Sketches by Boz appeared in SEL in 2008. She is now at work on a book-length project that studies the relationship between novels and natural history in Victorian Britain.
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Danielle Coriale; Gaskell's Naturalist. Nineteenth-Century Literature 1 December 2008; 63 (3): 346–375. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncl.2008.63.3.346
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