This is the second song on the Aqualung album and sets the idea that this might be an album where all the characters are interrelated. They might or might not be but certainly the reference to the character Aqualung kind of puts these two and probably all on the same plane of existence. I prefer to believe it a time period. Here is what SongFacts had to say about the song:
As in the title song Aqualung, Anderson presents an unsavory character for our consideration. He does this with driving rock ballads as if he is singing about characters to be admired. Certainly applying the analogy of "Robin Hood" to Cross-eyed Mary makes this a song about an outcast or criminal to society who is to be seen as a hero.
The first lines of the song seem to refer to a man. It could be hinting at something about Mary's gender, but I think only subtly. To me it is sort of the teller of the story or a barker asking questions of his audience almost as upon a stage introducing the next freak on stage.
Who would be a poor man, a beggarman, a thief - if he had a rich man in his hand?This is one of the things that sets the album, Aqualung, back in time, I believe, into a Dickensian world. Even at the time of its writing women's issues were in the public's eye. One would not expect an audience to be surprised that the hero or attraction is a woman as it appears here. If Anderson had just wanted to be grammatically or politically correct, it would be very simple to change "he" to "she."
And who would steal the candy from a laughing baby's mouth if he could take it from the money man?
Mary definitely has a thing against rich folk (similar to my thing about rich folk so I usually sing these lines with heightened emotion when I sing along.)
Mary takes her lumps as long as she is doing something to take from the undeserving rich man. This hints of a confrontation with the wealthy in the past and it is likely a personal one, so Mary may be a fallen charge of an aristocrat.
The lyrical answer to the barker's question:
Cross-eyed Mary goes jumping in again.
She signs no contract but she always plays the game.
She dines in Hampstead village on expense accounted gruel, and the jack-knife barber drops her off at school.
Mary is in an illegitimate business. She doesn't have set contracts or prices no doubt but she is flexible and always "plays the game."
One can see easily that if Mary is a prostitute, her clients woo her with food charged to their employer's expense accounts. That would be a simple way of garnering elicit sex without having to explain to the misses where the money went. Then the reference to jack-knife barber might or might not be referring to abortion as the earlier Website made note of. Either way, her parents are out of the picture and an unsavory fellow takes care of her and is probably her pimp, making sure the laws are being followed with Mary attending school.
I would leave abortion out of the mix but it would certainly not be out of the character for Ian Anderson to write about these types of rude things. After all, the character Aqualung is a right old lecher around the school yard. And it doesn't matter. No matter how low down Mary is she is a hero in the way she views the world and one cannot blame her for her lack or understanding or pragmatism in surviving the lot of the poor and wretched. She knows why she is what she is: the even more morally deprived wealthy man has put her in her place.
She's a poor man's rich girl
and she'll do it for a song.
She's a rich man stealer
but her favour's good and strong:
She's the Robin Hood of Highgate --
helps the poor man get along.
To the poor man she is a rich girl with no need for payment...because she steals from the rich man. "Her favours's good and strong" can of course be one of the many phrases Ian Anderson uses throughout his work that appear as double entendres of a lowly kind, but I prefer to think this part is simply saying Mary is a generous sole to those she respects, who are certainly not the wealthy.
The "rich man stealer" phrase has a bit of a twist to it as well. Mary is grabbing their money and favors but also steals these rich men themselves from their well heeled wives. In that way she must be also a hero to the poor working folk who know the wealthy are not what they appear as the majority of their encounters with them in their area of town show them to be frauds. In fact, if we throw out the theme of Mary giving goods or herself to the poor man, the latter of which may not be intended at all, Mary's character alone makes her a hero of the poor as she raises their level up to that of the wealthy by showing that all classes of men are the same. Those who lord their wealth over the poor are no better men.
This combination of traits makes her the "Robin Hood of Highgate" in helping the poor with her dealings with the rich. This particular reference also appears to place Mary back in time, most likely in Victorian times, as [I do not pretend to know that much about the UK but] I believe Highgate is a rather posh place in current times but was the home of the notorious Dick Turpin in the olden days (a highwayman or romanticized thief of the day).