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 Poor Scanties: The Economy of Sexuality

“I’ll do it as you tell me, ma’am,’ said Martha; ‘but I like lads best.”


We felt very uncomfortable and shocked at this speech of Martha’s; yet I don’t think she meant any harm; and, on the whole, she attended very well to our directions…Martha, to be sure, had never ended her staring at the East Indian’s white turban, and brown complexion, and I saw that Miss Matilda shrunk away from him a little as he waited dinner.”

What struck me upon reading Cranford is the initial purity of the setting. Though to think of the womanly body as “lacking” a phallus rather than in possession of full sexuality in solitude is uncouth at this point in Feminism’s history, the absence of men in Cranford is seen as a lack. Though snug and womanly in their drawing rooms with their elegantly economical tea trays and card tables, the women of Cranford are lacking. They are not lacking kindness or gentility, but there is a lack of frankness and sexuality that can only be brought about by one kind of person in Cranford’s society: The Vulgar. T

In Cranford, The Vulgar are menfolk, and “ignorant” maid servants. The coarse and frank sexuality of Martha is a breath of fresh air in the quaint beginning of the novel. Martha’s sexuality is further heightened and highlighted by Gaskell by placing that scene so closely to the description of the Hindoo servants; the warmth of their skin, their exotic presence, coupled with the ignorant, hot, low-class sensuality of poor Martha seems to boldly embody the repressed sexuality, and — in Victorian society — the absent phallus. The men of Cranford cannot be the men of the world, and when the male, the vulgar, the sensual appears in the figure of Captain Brown, it is quickly tamed by a woman’s sickness and cut off by the great representation of masculinity, the loud, terrifying, industrial, capitalist train, speeding the death of a child and inadvertently emasculating Cranford further.

One can notice in the above quote that Martha, a woman “vulgarly” attuned to her own sexuality, is fascinated by the foreign servants (buying unpleasantly into the objectification and sexualization of dark complected peoples), while Miss Matty is horrified, repulsed by and shocked by the nearness of their bodies, the difference, the quiet existence of not only foreigners representative of non-Cranford repressed sexualitites, but of male servants not bound to the sexual codes of conduct with which Miss Matty is bound.

In these three characters Gaskell writes in a phallus for Cranford; in the absence of men, we find variations of masculinity in the vulgar, the servants, the exotic, the brown, the train — all that is meant to shock and remain mysterious in Victorian society. These Others serve as Cranford’s scanties, representing both the necessaries of a society and the primness of such hidden gems enfleshed in the subordinate classes.

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.

Who are you, Miss Smith?

In the opening chapters of Cranford, I found it curious that it was difficult to place the role of the narrator. She seemed to have a feminine voice, and then slowly she revealed that she wasn’t an omniscient eye in the sky, but rather a participant in the narrative.

In chapter one, the first paragraphs suggest an omniscient narrator. She speaks in the first person, but makes generalized observations about Cranford and its inhabitants—everything from their dress, to their manners, to their quarrels. Such an opening seems to suggest that the focus of the novel will be on the lives of these women (which indeed it is).

However, then the narrator begins to align herself with the people she describes, saying “we none of us spoke of money” (emphasis mine 7). She includes herself with the Cranford women and their idiosyncrasies: “If we wore prints, instead of summer silks, it was because we preferred a washing material…we were, all of us, people of very moderate means” (emphasis mine 8). The repetition in these lines even draws particular attention to the narrator’s inclusion. She is part of this “we.”

As the narrative begins to pick up with descriptions of Captain Brown and his daughters, the narrator makes it clear that she is very much a part of the story, saying, “I was surprised to hear his opinions quoted as authority, at a visit which I paid to Cranford…My own friends had been among the bitterest opponents of any proposal to visit the Captain and his daughters” (9). With this the narrator becomes a person present (as well as absent at times) from Cranford with personal connections to the inhabitants. Indeed we find out that she is staying with Miss Jenkyns—the party detailed in the first chapter is thrown in her honor—and she begins to enter into the story at small moments (to fetch a book etc.) that begin to increase throughout the novel.

However it seems that her role in the novel is always odd—a blend of outsider and insider. By the end of chapter one, we don’t really know who she is, though she does seem important as the voice by which Gaskell delivers her satirical commentary. Indeed, we don’t even learn that her name is Mary Smith until nearly the end of the novel in chapter fourteen.

Despite this precarious role, though, Miss Smith (or rather perhaps Gaskell) certainly wants to emphasize her authority for assuming the position of storyteller. The second chapter begins with the assertion that “It was impossible to live a month at Cranford, and not know the daily habits of each resident; and long before my visit was ended, I knew much concerning the whole Brown trio” (16). Her presence, her observations, make her an alleged authority on the people of the town.

But when she isn’t present, correspondence becomes her conduit for truth. Several times she speaks of letters written to her, of “several correspondents who kept me au fait to the proceedings of the dear little town” (18). She trusts these letters as means for obtaining truth when her own observations cannot be made. She describes the letters of several of the women, characterizing their usefulness, and even including a selection from Miss Jenkyns’. In particular, she emphasizes that “in spite of a little bad spelling, Miss Matty’s account gave me the best idea of the commotion occasioned by his lordship’s visit…,” giving the impression that while the letters are key for keeping track of the goings on—they aren’t infallible.

Overall we ought to carefully consider how Gaskell begins the odd narration of this novel of observations. Martineau was certainly concerned with how one ought to observe and the origins of truth etc., and here we see Gaskell—in the midst of these comical vignettes—considering these questions of epistemology and objectivity. Who is this Mary Smith who begins as an outsider and yet is revealed to be a participant? Why does Gaskell give her the narrative voice? Are we to see her as merely a conduit for hearing the story? And perhaps if she’s primarily a conduit, we can indeed consider more closely Gaskell’s method of telling the stories through observations both epistolary and personal. Throw satire into the mix, and Gaskell’s given us quite the experiment with what it is to determine and interpret the truth.