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.
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.