What are we to make of Job Leigh and his entomology? On the one hand, they create a cookie cutter image of the working class intellectual portrait that Elizabeth Gaskell paints in the opening of chapter 5 “There are entomologists, who may be seen with a rude-looking net…” This shallow portrait, however, doesn’t seem to explain the prominence of science and insects in the novel, which even appear in the closing lines.
As a narrative tool they position Job as a disinterested character, unaligned with either the hand-loom weavers or the masters. They also create some endearing interactions with Margaret and William, and just generally make Job Leigh seem like a cute and kooky old man who’s not quite on the right page. However, what more can we learn about the meaning they create by utilizing Elaine Freedgood’s metonymic Lens?
Outside of class I have done some research on colonial writing and discovered Mary Pratt’s book Imperial Eyes where she details her theory that the emergence of natural sciences had a significant role on colonial exploration following the publication of The System of Nature in the 18th century. The same book which is responsible for latin naming method Job Leigh is so infatuated with.
While I do think there is an interesting reading where Job’s scientific drive can be seen as a colonizing force (he supports Williams imperial expeditions and wants him and other sailors to bring him back specimens) that doesn’t have much impact on our understanding of Mary Barton itself. Instead, I would direct our attention to another way Job’s specimens serve as metonymic device: they stand in for international competition. Reading Gaskell’s propagandizing description of Mancunian already makes it clear that she is proud of Job’s entomology, but I think this lens helps to understand why. Entomology is not just a silly hobby for an old man, it is the space race of the colonial age. Traveling the world, naming plants and animals, that was how colonial power’s fought their intellectual battles, and little old Job Leigh was a player! Poor working class Manchester was a player! In very small ways of course, but still, readers at the time would have associated Job’s hobby, not like we might, with our cliche’d old man hobbies like gardening, but with a scientific pursuit of national importance.