Is “The Wisest Thing” a Moral Responsibility? Martineau and Benefit Clubs

In Cousin Marshall, Martineau refers to Benefit Clubs as a viable alternative to reliance upon parish relief several times, especially because of John Marshall’s use of this financial option. When the widowed Mrs. Marshall writes to Ned about his money, she says, “I quite approve your wish about the Friendly Society, knowing how my husband did the wisest thing in belonging to one, and at times could have got through in no other way” (123). Earlier, the narrator characterizes John as “a slow and dull, though steady workman” of whom his friends say “that his club served him instead of a set of wits” (73-74). Furthermore, the narrator indicates Mrs. Marshall does not fully recognize that he is not particularly bright because of this one wise choice that enabled them to be self-sufficient when his hard work was not enough to keep them financially afloat: “His wife, who never seemed to have found out how much cleverer she was than her husband, put the matter in a somewhat different light. She attributed to her husband all the respectability they were enabled to maintain…She gave him the credit, not only of the regularity of their little household…but of the many kindnesses which they rendered to their neighbors” (74). Mr. Marshall’s responsible character and Mrs. Marshall’s careful stewardship of their resources also receive attention in these passages, but Martineau stresses how the Benefit Club played a major role in their abilities to be financially responsible and stable. Additionally, Martineau makes a point of clarifying that John is not actually a smart or talented man but rather a good but average man who just had the good sense to listen to the advice of his father and invest in this safety net (73). Martineau considers wise financial decisions as being within the grasp of all the working class that are not severely disadvantaged through disability, as even an allegedly dim-witted fellow like Mr. Marshall could make that choice.

Despite the support the Benefit Club provides the Marshall family in their times of need, Burke, the doctor who presents explanations and solutions for England’s political economy, does not think that Benefit Clubs are inherently the solution and therefore should not be made compulsory. When Effingham asks him what he thinks of the idea of requiring people to join Benefit Clubs, Burke responds,

No man approves such societies more than I, as long as they are voluntary; but fellowship of this kind would lose its virtue, I doubt, by being made compulsory. There are no means that I know of, of compelling a man who will not earn to store his earnings; and the frugal and industrious will do it without compulsion, as soon as they understand the matter: so that in fact the worst classes of society would be left as free to roam, and beg, and steal, as if the institution did not exist. (115-116)

For Burke, and seemingly for Martineau, as her concluding summary echoes much of Burke’s other ideas presented in the narrative, the good, hard-working people will do the common-sense thing once they know its benefits, and the people associated with the term “undeserving poor” would not act sensibly even if they could afford to do so.

Martineau’s characterization of the Marshall family and the contrasting Bell relatives, as well as several other conversations and characters, reveal her strong belief in the difference between deserving and undeserving poor. This is best represented by Louisa Burke’s conversation with Mr. Nugent, in which she expresses her concern for the lack of separation between “blameless and culpable indigence” (29). Of course, Mr. Nugent considers her categories “somewhat too nice,” for Martineau acknowledges that this is indeed an oversimplification. However, though her views are likely more nuanced than her characters’ explanations, she considers a major difference between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor to be the willingness and wisdom to save up resources through these Benefit Clubs. By associating John Marshall, a man who is not especially educated or even smart, with the wisdom of benefit clubs, which then in turn allows him to benefit other people and his relatives, the Bells, whose financial decisions are clever but unwise and often even unethical, with those who would not have the foresight to save through Benefit Clubs, is Martineau suggesting that though Benefit Clubs ought not to be legally required, that there is a sort of moral imperative to make such wise decisions?

While financial responsibility and frugality are certainly admirable qualities that allow for greater participation in the moral responsibility of charity toward neighbors, it seems that Martineau’s fairly clear distinctions between the deserving poor and undeserving poor move financial wisdom from an admirable quality to a characteristic that helps separate the virtuous from the unvirtuous and the deserving from the undeserving in troubling ways. What about those who would have joined the Benefit Clubs had they not already been receiving relief as children or who were trying to be self-sufficient in caring for their aging parents and therefore could not set aside the necessary earnings? Ned is an extreme example of the hard-working poor, but would Martineau find those in similar situations who did not break the cycle of poverty as he did to be undeserving? While she does not explicitly portray failure to plan ahead financially as a moral failing, her characters present limited examples of virtuous people who are not able be fairly self-sufficient through wise financial decisions, and thus, she seems to ignore the possibility of those who do not clearly fit in one category or the other.

“Living Encounters” and the Problem of Charity

Third Blog Post:

Anderson’s “Melodrama, Morbidity, and Unthinking Sympathy”

            Amanda Anderson’s chapter takes two of Gaskell’s novels, Ruth and Mary Barton, to explore the theme of the “fallen woman” and, at least in the case of Mary Barton, it intersects with the novel’s political concerns. She begins by noting “Gaskell’s recurrent ambivalence toward the workers she wants to help” (109), which manifests itself in both the in-novel depictions of characters such as John Barton and in the author’s extra-literary attitude toward reformist movements in her day. For the latter, Anderson draws a contrast with Dickens in particular. According to Anderson, Gaskell placed her hopes in individual charity rooted in the “actual encounter between living persons” (110), linking the suspicion of systemic or “depersonalized” reform to Unitarian belief and practice. I frankly don’t know enough about Victorian era Unitarianism to comment on the accuracy of this characterization. It does raise a question germane to the themes of this course, however. Within Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox contexts, the sources for conceptualizing both hospitality and charity arguably privilege precisely these “encounters between living persons.” The Scriptures that we examined earlier in the course featured biblical persons such as Abraham receiving the three Strangers in a highly personal manner, cooking for them, making his home available to them. This also reflects the Near Eastern cultural context standing behind the text, in which individual hospitality is highly prized. One might also think of moments in the Gospels—Mary and Martha’s frequent receptions of Jesus, the anonymous homeowner who makes the “upper room” available for Jesus to eat with his disciples, the wealthy women who support Jesus’s ministry out of their means, even Joseph of Arimathea’s donation of a tomb—that exemplify this sort of individualized, “face to face” charity. Jesus was nothing if not the “worthy poor.” On the other hand, the Hebrew prophets frequently called for a broader, more systemic approach to poverty. We rarely find prophets advocating for this or that poor person. Rather, they call on kings and those in authorityto address the conditions that create poverty in the first place. It is no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quoting the prophet Amos.

The two streams, personal and systemic, run throughout Christian history as well. The traditional sources that we’ve examined so far have centered on the tales of saints and monks who received individual travelers (including a few who turned out to be far more than they seemed!). Charity in high and late medieval western Christianity was highly individualized as well. From about the fourteenth century on, it was strongly rooted in beliefs concerning merit and the afterlife. The explosive growth of ecclesial—and charitable—structures connected to the doctrine of purgatory has been identified by historians such as Eamon Duffy as thedefining characteristic of late medieval Christianity. “Charity” often meant endowing masses to be sung for suffering souls, who naturally were the worthiest of the poor (their very presence in purgatory rather than hell guaranteed that they were destined for salvation, eventually). Sir Thomas More authored a polemical treatise, “Supplication for Souls,” in 1529 that essentially argued that that to donate alms for departed souls was a far greater deed than relieving the hunger of bodies (early English evangelicals like John Frith and Simon Fish were arguing the opposite).  Social historians such as Carter Lindberg have also noted the increasing and occasionally violent tensions between pre-Reformation city councils (i.e. Strasbourg) and the clerical establishment precisely on this point: cities wanted to feed their hungry poor and were developing elaborate “poor relief” systems to accomplish it. The church wanted to succor souls (and, well, endow large clerical foundations). Which project would claim the territory’s limited resources?

This historic detour is my attempt to show that the tension that Gaskell experienced in the nineteenth century between “personal” and “systemic” approaches to poverty was not at all newin Christian thought. Indeed, the text of Mary Barton arguably serves as a forum in which this tension is negotiated. Anderson dwells at length on the ambivalent character of Esther. In traditional terms, she is “fallen,” the undeserving poor. Nonetheless, Gaskell has the virtuous Jem regret his paltry efforts at aiding her. Anderson attributes this to the nature of Esther’s character; her presence in the novel represents “the kinds of sympathetic encounters and acts of mutual cooperation that [Gaskell] believes can heal a class-divided social world” (119). On the other hand, the “melodramatic” tropes scripting Esther’s story essentially doom her; no amount of sympathy or individual action can ultimately recall her from her fallenness. She hovers as a sort of specter over the text, complicating the notion that personal encounters are sufficient for reform. Her burial side-by-side with John Barton—the novel’s spokesperson for systemtic and political action—becomes emblematic for the unresolved tension between the two approaches. Gaskell seems neither comfortable with fully endorsing Barton’s Chartist vision nor does she allow Esther to be “saved” (at least in a this-worldly sense). The novel’s conclusion may thus leave the reader questioning just what can be donefor the industrialized poor the author depicts. Anderson points to the “reconciliation” of Mr. Carson and Barton as embodying the problem. Carson recognizes to some extent his sins, and yet there is little suggestion that the fundamental system over which he presides will change. Meanwhile, Barton is still corpse (120).

Ultimately, I don’t believe that Gaskell “answers” the question of charity. Her novel wonderfully narrates its complexities, however. I should also add that I don’t think that “personal” and “corporate” charity must be in competition; a Christian ethic may and should embrace both. But it’s also helpful to recognize that the church has historically struggled with just how to conceptualize that balance. For example, the rise of “liberation” thought in Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century and the initially quite negative reactions from some in the hierarchy (including a young Joseph Ratzinger) suggest that the tension remains with us. In our discussion of Mary Barton’s conclusion, I will be eager to explore how the novel presents these questions to us and how the text might serve as a resource for reflection.  It will also be worth asking how “charity” relates to hospitality—they are distinct concepts, and yet I doubt whether they can be wholly disentangled either.

Anvilicious Narm in Mary Barton?

With dramatic phrases and pauses, with rhetorical flourishes and sensational descriptions, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton veers dangerously close to that scorned genre, melodrama. Chapter twenty-eight, in particular (the chase after HMS John Cropper), is a fast-paced, emotional, adventuresome, high-stakes, life-and-death escapade full of tears and breathlessness. Similarly, the courtroom chapters stage scenes of sentimental theatricality climaxing in a last-minute entrance and a fainting woman. The novel wraps up with a deathbed confession and reconciliation, a long-delayed marriage for love, and the curing of blindness. These are sensational events indeed.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, melodrama is a work of literature that excites its audience “by exaggeration and sensationalism,” or, “More generally: any sensational incident, series of events, story, etc.; sensationalist or emotionally exaggerated behaviour or language; lurid excitement” (OED). With the exception of “lurid” excitement, these descriptions fit Mary Barton, particularly the chase scene. Chapter twenty-eight, “John Cropper, Ahoy!” is full of sensational diction. There is even a gothic tone to Mary’s fear when “a kind of nightmare dread and belief came over her, that every thing animate and inanimate was in league against her one sole aim and object of overtaking Will…. she sat silent with clenched hands…. But she was sickening all the time with nervous fear” (370). Here is the damsel in distress, motionless in a boat, at the mercy of men and nature. Yet the girl’s suffering is in the context of a high-speed inverted escape trope nearly as pulse-pounding as a “Follow that car!” chase scene in a modern heist movie. The little river-boat struggles to catch up with the ship, and “as they looked with straining eyes, … they saw her sails unfurled and flap in the breeze, till, catching the right point, they bellied forth into white roundness, and the ship began to plunge and heave, as if she were a living creature, impatient to be off” (371). Dramatic sensationalism is located in the elements, as the wind picks up, and in the vessels, as boat and ship compete against each other and against time, tide, and tempest. Such an unconventional vehicle chase is certainly an example of a sensational incident heightened by exaggeration.

Furthermore, not only the situation, but also Mary’s emotional actions during this hot pursuit are dramatized and sensationalized. Not content any longer to sit still and await the men’s initiative, “Mary stood up, steadying herself by the mast, and stretched out her arms, imploring the flying vessel to stay its course by that mute action, while the tears streamed down her cheeks” (371). Those outstretched arms, those tears streaming down cheeks, are the classic stuff of melodrama, as is the diction of what happens to Mary next. The captain shouts down to see what she wants, but “Her throat was dry; all musical sound had gone out of her voice; but in a loud harsh whisper she told the men her errand of life and death, and they hailed the ship” (372). The adjectives here are themselves melodramatic—dry, musical, loud, harsh—especially ‘musical,’ which hearkens back to the origins and etymology of melodrama as musical theatre. The captain’s harsh rebuff and Mary’s traumatized, religiously-tinged response also heighten the tension and enlarge the scale of ordinary interactions:

He swore a dreadful oath; he called Mary a disgraceful name; and he said he would not stop his ship for any one, nor could he part with a single hand, whoever swung for it. The words came in unpitying clearness with their trumpet-sound. Mary sat down, looking like one who prays in the death-agony. For her eyes were turned up to that Heaven, where mercy dwelleth, while her blue lips quivered, though no sound came. Then she bowed her head and hid it in her hands. (372)

This purple passage seems dangerously close to ham-handed bathos, and indeed “melodrama” is typically used as a term of insult, suggesting ineptitude on the part of the author or poor taste on the part of the reader. However, Mary Barton’s reception is not that of a dime-story bodice-ripper or cheap true-crime thriller. It is treated by academics as a serious work of literature and enjoyed by thoughtful readers as a lively but sophisticated novel. However, then, does it escape from being melodrama?

One possible feature that raises this novel above heavy-handed sentimentalism is Mary’s active, heroic role. She is not the standard, passive, damsel-in-distress of Gothic horror, macho Westerns, or lurid warning tales like The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall with its defenseless maidens and their infamous virgin bosoms “that rose heaving above the border of lace” (Lippard 73). Instead, Mary Barton is a proactive, sensible protagonist who makes plans and executes them in order to save her helpless lover and help her guilty father. I recently heard a very persuasive paper by my colleague Nichole Bouchard arguing that Mary Barton is a remarkable example of a nineteenth-century heroine who overcomes hysteria, manages the bodily symptoms of anxiety, and retains her wits under great strain (in the courtroom scene), and that Gaskell made this character choice at a time when most other writers were showing their female characters as victims of these very ailments. Perhaps such fortitude is what raises Mary Barton above melodrama.

There are other possibilities, of course. Perhaps Gaskell does not shy away from melodrama in this book, but rather shows that the genre has been unfairly maligned. Or, more subtly, she may use Mary Barton to reveal hypocrisy in the hearts of many academics, who claim to have exalted literary tastes, but who really like a cheap, page-turning, romantic beach novel as much as anybody else. Such a strategic move would be in keeping with Gaskell’s social agenda throughout the book, as she strives to arouse in middle-class readers sympathy with and understanding for their economically underprivileged neighbors. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Gaskell cleverly drawing her snobby, bourgeois audience into enjoyment of a much maligned, supposedly low-class genre.


Many thanks to that inestimable site of wisdom, TV Tropes, which I consulted freely while writing this post.

The Carson Women

Harry Carson’s death is first introduced in the Carson home. Though he makes sense as a target for the union’s assassination plot, Gaskell does not provide this information in that scene. Instead, we only really know that Jem and Harry have had a fight in the streets, that Harry has shown himself to be particularly unconcerned with the plight of the working men, that someone has been chosen to assassinate a factory owner, and that John Barton has been acting strangely. While John’s murder of Harry neatly ties the already interwoven plots together in ways that make it almost predictable, it is not given to the reader. Part of the reason for Gaskell’s careful presentation and revelation is likely from a desire to create some suspense, but her decision to first reveal to the readers that Harry was the target of the union’s plot through his family’s discovery of his death also suggests that the Carson family’s reactions to his death are of greater significance than his actual moment of death. Given the importance of the event in Mr. Carson’s growth and reconciliation at the end of the novel, it makes sense that his initial reaction would be pertinent in moving the reader toward sympathy so that the resolution is believable. However, Harry’s mother and sisters receive considerable attention in this scene but never reappear. In a novel whose narrator asks readers to consider “the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street,” what do Sophy, Amy, Helen, and Mrs. Carson reveal to readers (101)?

The Carson women are only mentioned or appear in a few moments in the text: Amy is present when George Wilson asks Mr. Carson to have Ben Davenport admitted to the infirmary, one sister was mentioned as being with Harry when he sees Mary, and their extended scene in which they discover Harry’s death. When the scene opens, Amy, Helen, and Sophy are discussing Harry’s behavior toward a popular girl in their circle and criticizing his flirtatiousness. At least one of the sisters has seen his attentions to Mary, but they only consider his attentions to girls of their social standing (177). The readers have seen the full extent of Harry’s flirtatiousness and know that he had shown Mary affection without intending to marry her, which would likely shock his sisters if they knew, considering how they respond to his more subdued efforts with Jane Richardson (187, 266). Amy defends Harry against Sophy’s criticism simply because he is a good brother, to which Sophy replies, “…He is a good, kind brother, but I do think him vain, and I think he hardly knows the misery, the crime, to which indulged vanity may lead him” (266). Here Sophy shows herself to be the more level-headed of the three sisters, but it is also an interesting rhetorical technique to have the family criticize Harry’s actions right before he is revealed to have been murdered. The rest of the scene shows the family in extreme and understandable grief, but Gaskell reminds readers that Harry is not a particularly upright man, though Sophy uses similar language about vanity and flirting that the narrator uses to describe Mary Barton’s own actions. At his death, he cannot be seen as a villain but simply errant — readers are reminded that he is no angel but that his death is still a tragedy. This is in keeping with Gaskell’s portrayals of people as flawed but redeemable and of violence and suffering as tragic no matter who they affect. Yet, to have his sisters unknowingly speak ill of the dead creates an uncomfortable tension.

When the family enters crisis mode, Sophy plays a significant role in spreading the news and caring for the other family members. Once they receive the news from the nurse, she is assigned to tell Mr. Carson (269-271), and she later takes action when Mrs. Carson’s grief prevents her from recognizing the reality of Harry’s death (274-275). Mrs. Carson’s reaction certainly inspires readers to sympathy and compassion, but what about the sisters? Shortly after telling her father, he sends her back so that she does not see the body. The narrator states, “Miss Carson went. She could not face death yet” (271). However, after Mrs. Carson has seen Harry’s body and believes him to be simply sleeping, the narrator describes the sisters’ reactions: “Then the three sisters burst into unrestrained wailings. They were startled into the reality of life and death. And yet in the midst of shrieks and moans, of shivering and chattering of teeth, Sophy’s eye caught the calm beauty of the dead; so calm amidst such violence, and she hushed her emotion” (275). One particularly striking phrase in this passage is “They were startled into the reality of life and death” (275). The Carson family, until now, had four children survive past childhood. Readers have learned of the deaths of Tom Barton, Mary Barton’s unborn sibling, the Wilson twins, and Esther’s child, as well as the deaths of many adults, like Mrs. Mary Barton, Margaret’s parents, George Wilson, and Ben Davenport. While the surviving working class characters are certainly grieved by the loss of their friends and relative, “the reality of life and death” has been perpetually present for them throughout the novel. The reaction of grief does not differ between classes, but the regularity of it seems to plague the working class more than the employing class.

Gaskell seems to be using this scene to accomplish a wide variety of aims: to remind readers that Harry’s death is still tragic despite his flaws and to remind readers that death itself is a tragedy, no matter the class of the person who died. Using the sisters to illustrate these concepts and speak to these concepts works well to remind the readers to be sympathetic toward the Carsons in this moment, but why do they disappear after this? Where are they in the trial or in their father’s new approach to the working class at the end of the novel? Why do they appear to inspire a moment of difficult compassion only to fade completely from view during their father’s character growth? Their function within their scene raises some questions, but what is their function within the novel as a whole?


Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Broadview, 2000.

Gentelman Pip

The societal class of a gentleman is a controversial topic at the time Dickens writes Great Expectations. So, how does the filtered voice of Pip show the conundrum people made of the matter? A major study beyond the scope of this post might explore how we are to see the stakes presented in Great Expectations. Alternatively, on a minute scale, the text gives plenty of context and contrast to make this argument of what beholds a gentleman come to life. Through the bias of the author’s desire to be called a gentleman, Pip is a true captain of the vessel.

The craft of writing a gentlemanly character probably came second nature to Dickens due to his own chronological placement in history. Attributes that Pip displays, his personal knowledge of his societal placement by birth, the environmental conditions and social inadequacies are put on full display for the reader to understand the intentional starkness of separation.

An example, [“Whom have we here?” (Jaggers) … “A boy,” said Estella. “Boy of the neighborhood? Hey” said he. … “Well! Behave yourself.” (p. 117)] The answer given by Estella is a degradation of personage given on the heels of another social slight by the adults in attendance, “…they all looked at me with the utmost contempt,” (p. 116). The address given by Jaggers is equally degrading as he infers that ‘boys of the neighborhood’ do not know how to behave properly in the society of the higher classes.

In the third volume, Dickens presents the wonderment of Pip as an unobserved reaction when Magwitch presents himself as Pip’s benefactor. In the historical context of the novel, Magwitch being unobserving of Pip’s trembling at his presence may well be intentional by Dickens. The purpose of the omission shows how a gentleman is known to show true sensitivities, hence Magwitch’s lack of reaction. In the Broadview appendix C, a gentleman of pure breeding is arguably superior in sensitivity to those of mixed heritage. “…fineness of structure in the body, which renders it capable of the most delicate, sympathies” (p. 565).

Dickens shows the contrast between the higher class and common folk as given great weight by one’s actions rather than breeding. The images of Mrs. Havisham’s actions are far from a sensitive nature. Dickens gives Pip equality to the higher class in this, and many other, ways. An example of Mrs. Havisham’s character, “But perhaps you can never believe, now, that there is anything human in my heart?” (p. 419)

Therefore, the image of Pip is elevated as one of a gentleman in the end of the novel when Dickens has Pip and Estella meet in the dilapidated garden of the old house. Estella is an heiress of familial fortune, though, it is known now that she is not of a higher society’s definition of pure bred. Pip is not wealthy, a working man, a noble endeavor to not be an idle person of wealth, as is the ‘code’ of a true gentleman. In this way, I believe, Dickens intends to show that the Estella and Pip can be elevated with her wealth and there gentile manners to that of higher society as defined by those outside of a pure bred culture.

Gentleman, Pip.

Purity; In the Eye of the Beholder

Image result for purity

Hardy’s description of Tess in his sub-title to the book, calling her “a pure woman”, getting lots of criticism does not surprise me. However, I think it’s important to think about the adjective, “pure” that Hardy uses. What is pure? What are the constraints of being pure? I believe Hardy was not only speaking in terms of sexual purity, but a sense of purity in being a well-rounded human being, a sense of purity in being a loving person, and a sense of purity of one’s mind.

If we first look at this prudish form of purity that many Victorians of the time would have wanted, it’s not a secret that Tess is pure until her rape by Alec. BUT, even though technically she has lost her sense of sexual purity, I would call her still pure because she did not want that to happen to her and we indefinitely see that in the naming of her child, “Sorrow”. To me, that name goes against societal archetypes which could only make sense to someone in her sincere grieving position.

Next, if we look at Hardy’s “pure” adjective as someone who is a well-rounded, loving person, I think Tess fits pretty well. Although, in retrospect, Tess was used and abused by those in society, particularly men. Tess finds love and eventually opens up her feelings. She helps those she comes across and likes to enjoy the smaller things in life, like nature. She’s not a bad person.

Lastly, if we think about Tess having a pure mind, I can’t completely agree with Hardy giving her the title “pure”. I only say this because she is always at a war with her thoughts. Whether it be her rape, Sorrow, or hiding this secret from Angel, she is not free from the guilt in her mind enough to say she has a pure mind.

However, no matter what, she is more pure than the men who use and abuse her in the society. Tess began her life as a nice girl who trusted men, and didn’t associate her body with sexual desire. Tess got victimized, and essentially trapped by the men in this novel which makes society and the ability of men to manipulate her innocence what was not pure, not Tess.



The Artist and the Other

In “The Natural History of German Life,” George Eliot complains of the idealized portraits of the peasantry that so often appear in the arts. She argues that in order to truly fulfill their calling “of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot” (110), artists who depict the Other of the lower classes must do so accurately. As she writes, “our social novels profess to represent the people as they are, and the unreality of their representations is a grave evil” (110).

This standard of creating “Art [that] is the nearest thing to life” (110) is high, and places the calling of the artist in a noble light. Her role becomes more than that of creating things that are beautiful to the senses; instead, she must also be accurate at a historical, sociological level in order to expand the experience of the one who is enjoying her work of art.

We can assume that Eliot held these criteria for her own artistic creations as well as those of others. Indeed, the subtitle of her novel Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, indicates that she approached this work at least as an opportunity to consider and critique the real experiences that her novel depicts. But does Eliot measure up to the standard of accurate reflection that she has set?

There is one scene in Middlemarch that is especially relevant to and in which Eliot seems especially aware of the standards that she set out in “The Natural History.” In this particular scene, Mr. Brooke approaches the homestead on his property that he has leased to the degenerate Dagley family. The narrator remarks at the opening of the scene on how “it is true that an observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people’s hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freedman’s End” (327). The farm itself seems to match perfectly those found in the “idyllic literature” that Eliot critiques in “The Natural History” as “always express[ing] the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life” (109).

However, as she continues with the scene, it becomes evident that the hardships of the Dagleys are anything but delightful to the members of the family. The Dagley family is not composed of the happy, healthy, clean and cooperative peasantry that the picturesqueness of the scene might initially suggest. Mrs. Dagley is “[o]verworked … a thin, worn woman whose life pleasures had so entirely vanished that she had not even any Sunday clothes which could give her satisfaction in preparing for church” (329)—very far from the “usually buxom” depictions of peasant women to which Eliot objects (“Natural” 108). Mr. Dalgey himself is brusque and irritated with his landlord. He refuses to listen to Mr. Brooke’s (perhaps unreasonable) complaint of his son’s poaching, insisting that “you’d better let my boy aloan, an’ look to yoursen, afore the Rinform has got upo’ your back” (Middlemarch 329-30). In fact, Dagley is, after a meal at a public house of which he has partaken much to his wife’s chagrin, rather drunk. And the jovial Mr. Brooke, after mentioning this fact, you know, retreats with the promise of returning another day.

Though Eliot thus succeeds in presenting the socioeconomical Other in a (presumably) accurate light, her depiction of the national Other slips into the same over-dramatized stereotyping that she protests against in “The Natural History.” This is evident in her account of Lydgate’s first love interest Madame Laure, the French actress. Though the majority of Eliot’s characters are realistically complex, Madame Laure is nothing more than a beautiful “Provençale, with dark eyes, a Greek profile, and rounded majestic form” (Middlemarch 145)—and a murderously independent character. In this case, rather than painting a realistic portrait of the Other, Eliot falls into presenting the stereotypical French character that was common in contemporary novels.

Thus, though Eliot appears to be aware of the value of accurately presenting the socioeconomical Other, she fails to carry her conviction of the necessity of accurate artistic representations of the lives of others into other forms of Otherness. As a result, though Middlemarch may help to widen the reader’s experience of social classes in Victorian England, it should not be consulted if one desires to understand anyone outside that particular context.


Works Cited

Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Ed. Gregory Maertz. Orchard Park: Broadview, 2004. Print.

—. “The Natural History of German Life.” 1856. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 107-139. Print.

Un-idealized Generalizations: George Eliot’s Implicit Criticism of Riehl in “The Natural History of German Life”


Idealized painting of Russian peasant life, 1889. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History,'” Fionnuala Dillane challenges those who would seek to forge a unified theory of writing for Eliot from her comments about realism in “The Natural History of German Life.” She quotes Michael Wolff, stating that Eliot “does not have a ‘theology of aesthetics'” (261); rather, Eliot’s “discomfort with the role of authoritative cultural commentator” and questioning spirit shrunk from spouting certainties in an uncertain world (241). While I believe that Dillane rightly urges critics to avoid proof-texting Eliot, I believe that Eliot’s thesis statement affirms her implicit criticism of Riehl’s generalization and her desire to see a more realistic portrayal of the poor.
Dillane argues that Eliot’s editors at the Westminster assigned her the review of Riehl, and that Eliot passively complied– because, like most journalists today, she probably wanted to keep her job. However, I don’t believe that her editors’ constraints stopped her from passively critiquing Riehl. The oft-quoted passages on writing and realism, I believe, stretch beyond what Dillane calls “an attempt to win over an English audience often hostile to relatively unknown German writers” (248-249). In these passages, she sets up her criteria for a successful representation:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals found on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such a s a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves. (110)
Eliot goes on to list several artistic (not sociological) works, and writes that these stories of individuals do more “towards linking the higher classes with the lower… than hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations” (110). If falsification is, as she goes on to claim, the cardinal sin of representation, then the author who generalizes unfairly is duly condemned.
A couple points here are noteworthy: First, why acclaim the novelist and the artist in a review of a sociological treatise? Second, why condemn generalization so strongly, and then proceed to glowingly summarize an author who does just that? While Eliot praises the author who can engage her readers’ sympathies with individuals through art, she characterizes Riehl’s work as doing just the opposite. She summarizes and highlights his generalizations at length (e.g. “The peasant, in Germany as elsewhere, is a born grumbler” (123) or the Communist peasant living near the city who “has here been corrupted into beastiality by the disturbance of his instincts, while he is as yet incapable of principles,” (125) etc.) Far be it from us to sympathize with such lower, animalistic human beings, who are somehow incapable of morality or justified grievances! Rather than the sympathetic but realistic (and individualized) picture of the poor that Eliot envisions in the realist novel, Riehl’s poor are too far removed from the reader, and too far generalized in a corrupt direction.
If she was indeed bound by her editors’ constraints to write a positive review, Eliot subversively leaves her readers to draw their own conclusions, to tease out the latent dissonance between words and actions. Thus, while “The Natural History of German Life” should not perhaps be the sole proof-text for Eliot’s theories of representation, it should not be completely discarded, either.
Works Cited
Dillane, Fionnuala. “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History’: Marian Evans, ‘the People,’ and the Periodical.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42.3 (2009): 244-266.
Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” In Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Wagging Tongues, Working Women: Gossip in Cranford and Mary Barton

People will talk.

Elizabeth Gaskell understood firsthand that gossip was a common feature of Victorian society, and she uses it to narrative advantage in both Cranford and Mary Barton. Yet the kinds of gossips she employs are very different: in Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous and even redemptive; in Mary Barton, gossip becomes the twisting and the destruction of the truth. These different kinds of gossips reflect two contrasting communities: the mutually supportive small-town community of idle women, and the hardened, desperate, and uneducated community of the working class.

American WWII propaganda poster. "Tell NOBODY - not even HER" by The National Archives UK - Tell NOBODY - not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

American WWII propaganda poster. “Tell NOBODY – not even HER” by The National Archives UK – Tell NOBODY – not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous, although Gaskell sometimes uses it as an instrument of humor. For example, when the ladies of Cranford are panicking about being robbed, “every time [Miss Pole] went over the story, some fresh trait of villainy was added to their appearance” (Cranford 95). The story becomes so exaggerated that it turns into a fabulous fiction, as entertaining to the storyteller as the listeners. However, her exaggerations have merely comic consequences.

Likewise, Gaskell takes the opportunity to “redeem” gossip when Miss Matty falls on hard times. In the ladies’ show of generosity, there are still several little confidences: “Of course this piece of intelligence [from Miss Pole] could not be communicated before Mrs. Fitz-Adam,” and then Mrs. Forrester approached the narrator “at the entrance to the dining parlour; she drew me in, and when the door was shut, she tried two or three times to begin on some subject,” and then “Mrs. Fitz-Adam… had also her confidence to make” (136-137). These instances of private communication do not have any detrimental effects on Cranford society; they are merely a fact of life, and Gaskell expects us to smile along with the development of her characters’ wagging tongues.

In Mary Barton, however, gossip becomes a malicious force, capable of destroying Mary. The gossip centers around Sally Leadbitter and the girls at the dress shop, and it becomes (figurative) vitriol. At the beginning, Sally’s gossip eggs Mary into the love affair with Henry Carson, which becomes the central factor responsible for Jem’s arrest in the murder case and the central tarnish on Mary’s character. When Mary wants to break up with Carson, Sally twists the truth, encouraging him to keep pursuing her. She “laughed in her sleeve at them both, and wondered how it would all end– whether Mary would gain her point of marriage, with her sly affectation of believing such to be Mr. Carson’s intention in courting her” (135). Because Sally is incapable of innocence, she is unable to recognize it in others; thus, her gossip continually twists the truth to fit her own character and entertainment.

When Carson is murdered, Sally turns the weapon of gossip against Mary, blaming her in front of all the girls: She “made no secret now of Mary’s conduct, more blameable to her fellow-workwomen for its latter changeableness, than for its former giddy flirting. ‘Poor young gentleman,’ said one, as Sally recounted Mary’s last interview with Mr. Carson….’That’s what I call regular jilting,’ said a third. ‘And he lying cold and bloody in his coffin now!'” Mary’s character assassination is now complete, and the reader is left with the feeling that if such is said to Mary’s face, much worse must be said behind her back.

What makes the difference between these two gossips? Is it that Sally Leadbitter is not constrained by the rules of aristocratic society? Is it merely that more is at stake in the melodramatic and murderous gossip of Mary Barton than in the quotidian everyday happenings of Cranford? Or is the survival-of-the fittest society in Mary Barton to blame? Perhaps, for Gaskell, it is a combination of all these factors. Either way, she seems to accept gossip as a fact of society– people simply will talk about one another– and to draw the line in the content and intent of the gossip itself.

Cranford’s Economy of Friendship

The laissez-faire captitalist industrialization of the Victorian era created a strange, cold new world of railroads and factories, the rise of new money and the fall of old blood. Yet the inhabitants of Cranford launch a conscious subversion of the inhuman “invisible hand”– in staunch British conservatism, the females of Cranford refuse to believe that the free market acts entirely in their interests. Through the ladies’ “little economies,” Elizabeth Gaskell levels a critique against London society’s consumption and frivolity. She instead constructs a society where one can lose one’s fortune without losing one’s dignity, an economy of friends and community that withstands the economic pressures of the larger world.

In the first chapter, “Our Society,” narrator Mary Smith proclaims that the “gentlefolks of Cranford” who had fallen on hard times “concealed their smart under a smiling face. We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic” (4). This elaborate charade is held up by societal consensus; for example, Mrs. Forrester “now sate in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up; though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes” (5). Despite the pointlessness of the charade, the women maintain it, as their “Spartan” resistance to the forces outside their society and control.

As the narrative continues, the outside economic pressure becomes more and more apparent. Captain Brown’s entrance into Cranford society is introduced as his views on money are contrasted with those at Cranford: In Cranford, “economy was always ‘elegant,’ and money-spending always ‘vulgar and ostentatious;’ a sort of sour-grapeism, which made us very peaceful and satisfied…. Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about being poor– not in a whisper… but in the public street! in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house” (5). His financial situation, as “a half-pay Captain,” is no “disgrace” to him; yet later we find out that “unless Captain Brown has some reason for it, he never speaks about being poor” (17). His situation, as part of the railroads, is hardly enough to support his daughters, yet he bears up bravely even when he is literally crushed by “them nasty cruel railroads” (17-18). Though the market triumphs over Captain Brown in one sense, his spirit lost none of its nobility.

Miss Matty’s lost living allowance demonstrates the triumph of Cranford economy. Despite the confusing, impersonal machinations of the financial market which deprive her of her living, it is the personal economy, the economy of Cranford, that she falls back upon. Though any kind of responsibility for the bank’s collapse certainly does not rest with her, she finds the need to repay whom she can with the little money she has left. The secret gifts of the inhabitants of Cranford offer another example of the insular economy of friendship and community. While the free market economy limits Miss Matty’s options, the economy of friendship sustains her. Her little tea shop sustains a sudden demand– “the whole country round seemed to be out of tea at once”– and rather than competing with her, the owner of the general store gladly sends her his customers. She is sustained not by her adaptations to the market, but by the society of friendship that she has built.

Despite the gentle criticisms that Gaskell offers of the Cranford community, she presents a world untarnished by outside economic forces. Cranford offers a solution to the changing economic world of the Victorian age, a solution that values people over paychecks and friendship over figures.