Mermaids and Mary Barton

Heather Hind recently completed her MA in English Literary Studies at the University of York. She has given conference papers on locks of hair in M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Tennyson’s “The Ringlet”, and temporal dislocation in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Her research interests include Victorian popular fiction, hair and hair-jewellery, and the relations between texts and textiles. You can find her on twitter @BrknVictoriana

In August 1842, P. T. Barnum exhibited the “Fejee Mermaid” in New York to an expectant public. Having been authenticated by “Dr. J. Griffin” of the British Lyceum of Natural History (Levi Lyman, Barnum’s partner in the hoax) and advertised in numerous newspapers with various images of beautiful mermaids gazing into mirrors or combing their hair, disgruntled spectators were quick to proclaim the shrivelled half-monkey half-fish concoction to be the “twin sister to the deucedest [sic] looking thing imaginable” (The New York Sun, August 5, 1842). Accusations of misrepresentation and fraud soon put an end to the mermaid’s tour of the Southern States.

“[T]he very incarnation of ugliness” (Charleston Courier, January 21, 1843)

“[T]he very incarnation of ugliness” (Charleston Courier, January 21, 1843)

For this blog, I wish to consider another mermaid of slippery specifications. In Mary Barton (1848), the chapter in which Will Wilson tells the story of a mermaid sighting is aptly named “A Traveller’s Tales”. Both literally true (there will be a tale told by a traveller) and implying a rather unlikely story, this title promises a tale from afar and a farfetched tale, a story of reality and fantasy born from experience and exaggeration. Like Barnum’s Feejee mermaid, a fabrication of “real” parts that were falsely verified and misleadingly advertised, Will’s mermaid tale treads the line between the real, the false, and the falsely taken to be real.

Barnum's 'Fejee Mermaid' advert

Barnum’s ‘Fejee Mermaid’ advert

Many factors combine to render Will’s tale of mermaid encounter a most unlikely story. Even the nomenclature of the original eye-witness of the mermaid, Jack Harris, suggests an unreliable everyman figure prone to exaggeration, with Jack’s “many and many a time” (Gaskell 146) told story being an anecdote, told more to entertain than inform. Will’s mermaid is, like Barnum’s, a being synthesised from existing lore and suggestive materials. Indeed, the epigraph of the chapter itself is taken from a work by W. S. Landor, in which the song is said to be “that ancient one which every boy in most parishes has been singing for many years, and perhaps his father before him” (Landor 268). This appropriation of not only another kind of discourse, but one which draws on oral tradition, foreshadows Will’s verbal recirculation of Jack’s mermaid encounter. Will’s tale is a fiction created from and interwoven with other fictions, both formally in the novel as an inset tale alongside this epigraph, and as a retelling and repurposing of a fellow traveller’s tall tale.

Epigraph from a digital open archive edition of Mary Barton (1848).

Epigraph from a digital open archive edition of Mary Barton (1848).

Although Jack’s mermaid sighting may be fictitious, what Will has seen for himself—the comb, “I’ve often seen with my own eyes, and I reckon it’s a sure proof of the truth of their story” (148)—is a fact of his own visual perception. The other second-hand account of a mermaid which Will relates develops this sense of the relativity of sight and the personal conviction of the eye-witness: “he saw her swimming round the ship, and holding up her glass for him to look in; and then he saw the little cottage […] and his wife standing outside, shading her eyes as if she were looking for him” (148). Like many of the distorted images and illusions in the novel—Alice Wilson’s relived childhood memories after her stroke, Harry Carson’s caricatures of the unemployed, drunken Esther’s visions of ghosts at her bed, Mary’s fever dreams—the reflection in the mermaid’s dark mirror problematises the notion of being “true to life”. The lore of the mermaid’s mirror having the power to show the future, or even just a scene from far away, amplifies the association between mermaids and distorted reflections. Further still, this particular encounter implicates what is being seen with personal experience. The mermaid shows the man a picture from his own life, an image that only he would see in her mirror. The man’s telling of the image seen in the mermaid’s mirror is thus not necessarily a distorted or inaccurate representation, but one which can only belong to an individual.

A further issue arises as Will does not merely state the hard “facts” of these sightings, but elaborates upon the tale with his own thoughts as though picturing the mermaid through his own eyes: “I suppose in the calm she felt it rather chilly, and had come up to warm herself” (147). In this, there comes a clear disconnection between the mermaid sighting and its representation. And, as Barnum himself comments, some people will “make no allowance for poetic licence even in mermaids” (91). Yet while Job Legh’s mocking aside, “I thought you said she beckoned with one hand, and combed her hair with another, and held a looking-glass with a third” (147), draws attention to Will’s inaccuracies of narrative, Will’s candid retelling captivates and convinces despite its evident embellishment. For Mary, not thinking Will’s green-haired mermaid “pretty” and disappointed with the plain comb having expected one of “coral” and “studded with pearls” (148), these thwarted expectations render Will’s fantastical depiction all the more vivid and real to her mind.

Job’s scepticism towards Will’s mermaid tale, as marked by his “sneered” (148) interruptions of “Pooh, pooh!” (146), is equally shown to be more a matter of individual perspective than objective judgement. Will parodies the extent to which Job’s sense of the true and the false concerns taxonomy and nomenclature. Stating that “if I’d ha’ known it, I’d ha’ christened poor Jack’s mermaid wi’ some grand gibberish of a name” (149), Will suggests the arbitrariness of Job’s formal ticketing of specimens, as well as the potential deceptiveness of this kind of evidence. Perhaps, like Barnum’s “Fejee” specimen, Jack’s mermaid might be taken as real if narrated with “some grand gibberish” distorting and disguising the creature behind the name.

As Danielle Coriale comments, Will’s “Mermaidicus Jack Harrisensis” (149) mimics the way in which Job “flattens the miraculous story into Latin words” (Coriale 367), but it also illustrates the disconnection between the thing and its name, which conveys more of its discoverer than the creature itself. As Will argues, Job dresses creatures “in Sunday clothes” and fails to recognise the same beings “in their work-a-day English” (149), appealing to the way in which one same creature may be advertised, verbally dressed, for different audiences. Thus, Job’s is not merely a “flat, inexpressive language” (Coriale 367) compared with Will’s spirited storytelling, but one which may equally obscure the truth or falsity of the creature this is represented.

Will’s blending of real artefacts and personal experience with second-hand accounts and plain invention renders his mermaid tale as much an amalgamation of parts as Barnum’s forged and falsely represented mermaid. The question surfaces: what is the place of this curious and incredible patchwork of a tale in relation to the rest of the novel? I would like to end by tentatively suggesting that, while Mary Barton was charged by some critics with “wilful misrepresentation” (Vaughan 132) of the poverty of the working-class in Manchester, and accused of being “materially at variance with the truth” and full of “inaccurate descriptions” (Greg 411 and 404), Will’s highly visual and personal mode of tale-telling goes some way towards subverting such criticism. Telling Mary of the “things I saw with my own eyes, that some people would pish and pshaw at” (149), Will’s mermaid tale reflects darkly upon the novel within which it is contained, calling into question the boundaries between the real and the false, experience and fantasy, and fact and fiction.


Works Cited

Barnum, Phineas Taylor. The Autobiography of P. T. Barnum, Clerk, Merchant, Editor, and Showman; With His Rules for Business and Making a Fortune. 2nd ed. London: 1855. Google Books. Web. 20 Dec 2014.

Coriale, Danielle. “Gaskell’s Naturalist.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 63.3 (2008): 346–375. CrossRef. Web. 4 Dec 2014.

“The Exhibition at the Masonic Hall”. Charleston Courier. January 21, 1843. The Lost Museum: The Feejee Mermaid Archive. Web. <  lostmuseum/lm/181/>. 12 Dec 2014.

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. Mary Barton. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Greg, William R. “Mary Barton”. The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal, January 1849 – April 1849, Volume Lxxxix. Google Books. Web. 20 Dec 2014.

Landor, Walter Savage. Imaginary Conversations. Citation and Examination of W. Shakespeare. The Pentameron. Pericles and Aspasia. Minor Prose Pieces. Poems: Hellenics. Gebir. Acts and Scenes. Miscellaneous. Chapman and    Hall, 1868. Google Books. 20 Dec 2014.

The New York Sun, August 5, 1842. “Scientific American, the Imaginary Mermaid Zone”. Darwin Then & Now. Web. < 2011/06/scientific-american-the-imaginary-mermaid-zone/>. 12 Dec 2014.

Vaughan, Robert. “Mary Barton”. The British Quarterly Review; February and May, 1849: Volume IX. Hodder and Stoughton, 1849. Google Book Search. Web. 26 Nov 2014.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s