Speaking Subjects and Surplus Objects: Womanly Words in Dickens and Gaskell
- Author: Li Fang
- Publish: The Journal of English Language and Literature Volume 57, Issue3, p457~472, June 2011
The word “subject,” like its apparent antonym “agent” is ambiguous. By “speaking subject” I intend both meanings: the spoken about, and the speaker, and the spoken about, in more or less that order. The paper contrasts the way women are spoken about in the 19th Century debate over the role of women between John Ruskin and John Mill, and then in literary criticism of feminists nearer our own time, Kate Millet and Elizabeth Langland. I then move on to women as speaking subjects, first in the form of an imaginary speaking subject created by a male speaker, Charles Dickens channeling the confessional journal of Esther Summerson in
Bleak House. The comparison with Elizabeth Gaskell, a genuine speaking subject, is highly instructive. I draw attention to symmetrical, in the sense of opposite, narrative strategies. Where Dickens begins in journalese, with a gritty, realistic opening that only gradually reveals a Cinderella in the ashes, Gaskell begins with a nursery rhyme, in an actual nursery, but goes on to reveal some rather sordid economic facts. Where Dickens creates a ventriloquist’s doll, Gaskell succeeds in creating recognizable, if not always admirable, female voices. I conclude that just as the novel may be read as a real utterance in a real conversation, it is also possible to read the true emergence of women novelists in the 19th Century as nothing more and nothing less than the creation of the first truly womanly words about women: women as speaking subjects in both senses of the word.
subject , surplus object , woman question , Dickens , Gaskell
This paper is primarily concerned with fictional representations of women’s words. These fictional representations of women’s words may be said to be dialogic in several senses, and the theoretical construct of dialogism laid down by M. M. Bakhtin in the 1920s is used to distinguish between them. The first sense in which the fictional representation of women’s words is dialogic is quite literal and not strictly speaking fictional at all: the books themselves are actual pronouncements on social issues by once living speakers intended for the ears of other people then living, what Bakhtin terms real utterances by real speaking subjects. What Bakhtin means is that a whole novel can be aken as a real utterance in a conversation, with the author construed as the primary speaking subject. Because the authors met, knew and read each other, their novels can be read as utterances in a conversation. The second sense in which the fictional representation of women’s words may be said to be dialogic is a more literary, and even a grammatical, sense. Just as the author is the speaking subject of the novel as a whole, the various characters may be said to be secondary speaking subjects, and their direct reported speech may be read as a form of indirect speech, projected by the narrating author’s voice.
Thus I examine both how women are spoken about, and how they are made to speak. In order to address the first part of my question, I shall consider the nonfiction debate between John Ruskin and John Stuart Mill on the “Woman Question” and how this debate was refracted in fiction by Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, and then reflected in latter day literary criticism by Kate Millett and Elizabeth Langland. In order to address the second part of the question, I shall consider whether there is any discrepancy between a woman’s words when she acts as a speaking subject in the work of Gaskell and womanly words in the work of a male author, namely Dickens. The novels I am going to focus on are Dickens’s
Bleak Houseand Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and Cranford,both because these are works which take up the themes of the Ruskin/Mill debate and because they are explicitly mentioned by either Millett or Langland. In addition, these books share a common underlying social problem, women as both speaking subjects and marriageable objects.
Disputes in literary criticism sometimes replicate disputes in nonfiction, and these are in turn reflected in literature itself. Millett points out that the debate over women in Victorian age was “carried out between two opposing camps, rational and chivalrous, and each of them claimed to have at heart the best interests of both sexes and the larger benefit of society” (121). She pinpoints the difference between Mill and Ruskin in questions of the nature, education and domestic roles of women. As a feminist writing from the late 1960s and 1970s, she champions Mill against Ruskin, lauding Mill’s “realism of sexual politics” and endorsing Mill’s proposal of liberating women from the political, social and economical power of men expressed in his work
The Subjection of Women. Like Mill, she locates power primarily in the public sphere rather than the private.
But from the late 1980s on, feminist approaches to the study of Victorian women took a different turn. Both Langland and Nancy Armstrong share a Foucauldian view of distributed power. Langland, for example, argues that the middle class women of Victorian society were not passive and silent sufferers as Mill had held them to be but instead active participants in constructing the middle class ideology of Victorian society. In the public sphere, Langland makes a convincing argument about the active participation of middle class women in the suppression of the lower class by means of charity. She points out that charity has the function of softening the harsh exploitation so that the poor will willingly stay poor. The house-to-house charity visit of middle class women also helps to isolate the poor from each other so as to prevent a strong solidarity from developing amongst them. Thus Langland claims that the middle class women were active agents in managing class questions in 19th century England.
But just as house-to-house charity visits isolate the poor and prevent their solidarity, the largely private power of being an active and willing accomplice of a husband’s class venture and the private authority of the household also atomizes women’s sphere of influence into widely distributed homes, restricting women to a private, domestic sphere and excluding them from a broader social role. What follows from Langland’s seemingly radical view of women thus borders suspiciously close to some of the most conservative views of Ruskin in “Of Queen’s Gardens” from
Sesame and Lilies. In fact, Langland’s rhetoric about the empowerment of efficient household managers bears a strong resemblance to Ruskin’s idealized “queen” of the gardens. In more ways than one, the position taken by the new trend of criticism seems to have gone back to where it all started one hundred years before. One may speculate that Langland’s differences with Millett are not simply an echo of those between Mill and Ruskin. Perhaps it is significant that Langland’s views gained ascendancy over those of Millett during a period that saw the defeat of the organized women’s movement in the United States and the rise of a small class of individually well-empowered female professionals.
Millett points out “nearly all the ‘serious’ women in Dickens’s fiction. . . are insipid goodies carved from the same soap as Ruskin’s Queens (122)” and on this point, she sees eye to eye with Langland, who claims in turn that the “ideology informing tracts such as Ellis’s and Ruskin’s also shapes Dickens’s
David Copperfieldand Gaskell’s Cranfordand Wives and Daughters” (298). I shall discuss whether this is an accurate assessment of Gaskell’s stance later. The difference lies in that Langland appears to believe that the power women exercise in the domestic setting derives social significance because it is a middle class wife’s job to display “intangible status” while the husband brings in a “tangible income” and it takes both “intangible status” and “tangible income” to securely establish a man’s social, economic standing in society (113). The way for a wife to properly display her husband’s social status is through proper household management and a full mastery of discursive practices which, borrowing Bourdieu’s terms, Langland refers to as “culture capital”(in contrast to the middle class income which she terms as the “material capital” which the husband brings in from the business world). Thus, paradoxically, Langland’s argument dissolving the boundary between public sphere of man and the private sphere of woman rests firmly on that very dichotomy. Let us turn, then, to Dickens, a male speaking subject who created a female speaking subject, Esther Summerson, in Bleak House, and see whether his fairy tale portrayal of Esther’s rise in the world lends support to Langland’s view of a woman empowered in the home.
At first glance, it may seem perverse to call Dickens’s realist novel
Bleak Housea fairy tale. The journalistic beginning “London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the street, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth. . . Smoke. . .flakes of soot. . .Dogs. . .Horses. . .Foot passengers”(49) provides readers with a byline: a real place and time in short phrases suggesting urgency and contemporaneity, stamping the novel as a realistic, almost journalistic, fiction from outset. Yet at the same time the cold weather, the dirtiness of the street and the chaos of the public sphere legitimize the male desire for a sweet home managed by a feminine nature: “a haven in a heartless world.” All the more clearly, then, the story of Esther’s love and marriage emerges as a fairy tale against this realistic backdrop.
It is important to keep in mind that this particular fairy tale of a penniless girl (in less fairy-tale terminology, a female without significant material capital) “rising up” to the status of a middle class wife by virtue of her qualities of sheer womanly goodness (viz., her cultural capital) is a male narrative. Esther’s selflessness, modesty, sense of duty (which in the view of Millet made the early feminist critics see Esther as a passive suffering figure) and more importantly her household management skills (which in the view of Langland made her an all powerful, active middle class female) are a photographic reproduction of the Victorian male’s desire of what a desirable young woman should be. Thus in the figure of a perfect Victorian “angel in the house,” one learns chiefly what Dickens thinks a woman should be: their nature, their proper role and sphere and the kind of education they should have.
Esther’s narrative highlights the ambiguity of the term “speaking subjects” for the simple reason that she is a fictional character, thus being spoken about, but she is at the same time a speaking subject in the sense that she is making self-directed speech in her diary. In one of her earliest narratives she tells herself that that she is not clever and is aware of it from the very beginning. One may interpret this modesty as self-effacing, precisely the quality that is desired in a Victorian wife. Critics have cast doubts on Esther as a reliable narrator because at one moment she is selfeffacing and in another moment she can be quite judgmental. But this apparently mercurial temperament may erely shadow the well known temperament of Dickens himself; in his letters to Gaskell he is self-effacing at one moment and brutally high-handed the next. Perhaps it is simply Dickens’s ventriloquism in Esther’s “own”voice. Within the narrative, Esther is a speaking subject. But in the public and even the private sphere that Dickens has fashioned for her, her speaking has been subjected to Dickens’s purposes.
By using Esther as a speaking subject and by giving Esther’s narrative no audience, Dickens succeeds in making it sound as if this private confession, and not simply the public modesty, is a womanly desire. When Esther in her narrative says she “would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted, and to do some good to someone, and win some love to myself if I could” (65), one is presented with a list of personal qualities that might well have appeared in a personals ad, but one is also made to think this is what Dickens’ heroine genuinely wants rather than simply what she wants others to hear her say. There is, after all, nobody listening to her—nobody but Dickens and his readers.
Through Esther’s voice, Dickens draws a sharp contrast between Esther and Mrs. Jellyby, throwing into sharp relief the latter’s lack of womanly duty to her family. By throwing her into the chaotic household of Jellyby, Dickens has the advantage of demonstrating Esther’s skills in making a home out of a pigsty of Jellyby’s household, criticizing Mrs. Jellyby’s negligence of her first duty, questioning woman’s involvement with charity outside the home, and clearly showing Esther’s sense of womanly duty, her knowledge that a woman’s place is at home, even before she has her own home to run. Dickens then recruits Mrs. Jellyby’s own children to denounce her public activities and her lack of maternalduty. Caddy, the elder daughter of Mrs. Jellyby, comes in to complain to Esther about her mother’s housekeeping as “disgraceful”; little Peepy feels so attached to Esther as to search for her in her short absence from their home. In the event of Esther’s departure from their home after just a one night’s stay, the Jellyby children are all so unwilling to part from her after tasting the sweetness of her good housekeeping that they all try to get on her barouche. Thus Dickens demonstrates by the negative example of Mrs. Jellyby the evil of having a wife who devotes herself to a public “mission.” It is bad enough that her public work interferes with her private duty of a household manager. The worst outcome is that Mrs. Jellyby outshines her husband, and has turned him into a “nonentity” (82). Dickens lets us know the reaction of other characters to Mr. Jellyby through the mouth of Mr. Kenge, “(H)e may be a very superior man; but he is, so to speak, merged . . . in the more shining qualities of his wife” (82-83). But the criticism of Mrs. Jellyby’s indifference to her immediate duty, her first call as a wife and mother is expressed more authoritatively by the voices of other women, Ada and Esther, and her own daughter Caddy.
When a woman plays too active a role outside her home like Mrs. Jellyby, she is subjected to criticism. But when a woman takes too much control of her life, especially in matters of a sexual nature, Dickens is inclined to entirely deprive that character of any voice in the narrative at all. Dickens makes the secrecy of Lady Dedlock the driving force of the narrative. A hidden romance, the tale of her former entanglement with Captain Hawdon, is always lurking behind the surface. This suppressed narrative of Lady Dedlock is what Langland calls the Pamela plot of the 18th century transported to the 19th century, where it becomes non-narratable. The way Dickens handles its non-narratability is, first of all, to leave the story largely untold. Secondly, to the extent that her story is clear to us, Dickens transforms the “Pamela” plot from a story of virtue rewarded into a cautionary tale against social aspirations. Those from lower class who aspire to rise are thus to be brought down, and even lords who dare to assist the lower class aspirant have to be taught a lesson, as in the case of Sir Leicester. Dickens knows that the mid 19th century is a time for novels of social stability rather than novels of class mobility. Although Esther is not low born in the sense that she should belong to the servant class, she is an illegitimate daughter of middle class parentage, the sort of stock that constitutes a large part of the governess population in Victorian society. Even so, she is not allowed to repeat Lady Dedlock’s error; she is not made to rise too high to disturb the dominant ideology of the middle class England reflected in its fiction where class stability is stressed over mobility and anxiety about class unrest is allowed to overpower aspirations for social progress.
Just as Esther is carved from the “same soap of Ruskin’s queen”, the male counterparts Mr. Jarndyce and Mr. Woodcourt are made of the same mold as Ruskin’s knights of chivalry. It is only the aspirant lower middle class clerk Guppy who is eager to retract his feelings for Esther when she loses her beauty to smallpox. Dickens employs Esther’s loss of her former beauty not only as a test of true love but also a touchstone for truly gentlemanly quality. Realizing Esther is in love with Mr. Woodcourt, Mr. Jarndyce is able to turn his love for Esther from that of an intended hus-band to that of a benevolent father in a suspiciously short time. He does not bear any grudge against Mr. Woodcourt or Esther for his unrequited love; on the contrary, he is chivalrous enough to help Mr. Woodcourt to achieve his goal. His chivalry reaches its zenith with his gift of a second Bleak House to the new couple. Thus
Bleak House, despite its journalistic opening and its apparent aura of gritty realism, may be read as a fairly common fairy tale.
I have shown how Dickens speaks through Esther, through Mrs. Jellyby’s children, and even through non-speaking roles such as Lady Dedlock to tell us that while a woman may aspire to lead a great house, she may not aspire to lead what is outside it, not even through charity and good works. Most tellingly of all, all the good qualities of Dickens’ heroine are really there to reflect brilliancy on the true heroes of
Bleak House: not Cinderella, but the handsome princes who surround her. But suppose that one, for the moment, allows self-effacement to rule one’s judgmental temperament and gives Dickens the benefit of the doubt. It may be, after all, that in order to describe the Victorian world realistically, Dickens has no choice but to place them in a domestic sphere and describe them in the best possible light. Perhaps Dickens’ view of the queen of the gardens is, as Langland implies, really a favorable and even empowering one? With the help of Mrs. Gaskell, I shall show that this is not so.
While Dickens begins
Bleak Housewith a journalistic byline and ends with a fairy tale happy ending, Gaskell begins Wives and Daughterswith a perfect fairy tale beginning.
Dickens’ public setting is the dirty, cold London streets in November with mud splashed around by dogs, horses and passages hurrying to somewhere, and his language stresses the fast pace of city life by the use of non-sentence phrases and fast moving images. In contrast, Gaskell’s chanting style creates the effect of dream-like timelessness. Both the setting and language in Gaskell’s
Wives and Daughtersspeak the coziness of a private home as much as Dickens’s Bleak Houseconveys the sense of discomfort and the need for a “haven in a heartless world.”
According to Langland, this “haven” is the construction of one person, namely Mrs. Gibson. She argues that the social status of Mr. Gibson, the town doctor, depends very much on his wife’s management of discursive practice. Rejecting the identification of Mrs. Gibson to Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, she claims that Mrs. Gibson “furthers the girls’s interest, thus demonstrating the social importance of the mother-wife, the semiotician of the middle class, in the fluid and shifting society of Victorian England” (300). She goes on to champion her as a heroine by saying that “Gaskell’s exposure of domestic ideology depends on making Mrs. Gibson perfectly awful as a person and completely successful in her role” (300). She suggests it is Gaskell’s intention to credit Mrs. Gibson for the advantageous marriage of both Cynthia and Molly through her “masterful negotiation of the rules of etiquette and fashion” (300).
But in fact the opening of the novel shows the state of the Gibson household
beforethe arrival of the second Mrs. Gibson. Very far from creating a “haven in a heartless world,” the new Mrs. Gibson’s arrival as the “wicked stepmother” creates a heartless world out of a haven for Molly. In order to impose “order”among the servants, she fires Molly’s nurse Betty who has been with the family for sixteen years; she rearranges family dinner time not to suit her husband’s convenience but in order not to offend the noses of some high-born ladies who may visit on rare occasions; she forbids her husband’s favorite lunch of bread and cheese because she supposedly can’t stand the smell (readers of Gaskell’s time would have known that bread and cheese are part of the common diet of 19th century working class), she changes the menu of the Gibson household dinner completely to ape the more refined taste of her former employer’s home. In other words, she embodies all the deficiency of woman’s education Mill criticizes—an education of superficiality. Yet it is precisely this superficiality Langland considers the cultural capital that makes a woman powerful. By constructing the concepts of intangible capital and cultural capital invested in discursive practice as a way of status display, Langland manages to argue that the Victorian wives are active, strong, and powerful. Astonishingly, this leads her to put Mrs. Gibson, a butt of satire descended directly from Austen’s Mrs. Bennett, in the same category as angelic Dickensian household managers Esther in Bleak Houseand Agnes in David Copperfield!
Langland calls Mrs. Gibson “a master of the signs of status, fully constituted by the discursive practice of her society” (301). Let us accept, for the moment, that Gaskell shares Langland’s view about Mrs. Gibson. Does Gaskell think that her managerial power is in fact the source of her husband’s socio-economic status and that his professional standing is in a sense dependent upon it? On the contrary, Gaskell begins by demonstrating that Mrs. Gibson has to capture a husband with tangible capital in order to invest her intangible capital. Readers are first informed that as the widow she longed to be a wife with her own elegant drawing-room provided for by a husband rather than working as a governess labouring for her own bread. Her response to Mr. Gibson’s proposal fully demonstrates the vulnerable situation she is in. She “burst into hysterical tears: it was such a wonderful relief to feel that she need not struggle anymore for a livelihood” (100). Much as Langland champions her choice of “exchang(ing) the exhausting, poorly remunerated work of school-mistress for the more rewarding labours of a household manager”(301), it appears that her power depends entirely on the doctor’s income in the first place. The doctor can always find another household manager because of his tangible capital, the second Mrs. Gibson, however, will not necessarily be able to find another household to invest her cultural capital.
Just as Dickens’ gritty beginning hides the genesis of a fairy tale, Gaskell’s fairy tale beginning hides a key social problem, the surplus of middle class women in 19th Century England. This social problem also lies at the bottom of a rather grittier view Gaskell takes of feminine attractiveness and its effect on the gentlemen of her story. Gaskell populates
Wives and Daughterswith male characters who are seriously flawed, particularly in matters of constancy. Mr. Gibson, for example, does not marry his first love, and he is more than ready to remarry after her death. Disappointed with his second wife, he comforts himself by thinking that the new Mrs. Gibson is a good chaperone for his daughter and she looks nice at the head of the dinner table. Mr. Cox, Mr. Gibson’s former apprentice, is certainly Mr. Gibson’s student in matters of male constancy. He flatters himself for being a devoted lover, yet when he comes to propose to Molly he ends up offering his hand to Molly’s more beautiful half-sister Cynthia. Nor can Roger, the knight figure, forgo the charms of feminine beauty as do Dickens’s gentlemanly suitors; he too first succumbs to the coquettish Cynthia, and only starts to see the moral goodness in Molly after her looks have improved. Osborne too, who is supposed to have married for love, dies without making any provision for his beautiful French nursemaid wife and child, leaving them at the mercy of his Francophobic father. Whereas in Dickens, the attractiveness of Esther was seen as a gilding of the lily and the loss of attractiveness the test of a true gentlemanly heart, in Gaskell, even the gentlemanly male characters judge by the surface first. Woman’s love of finery is essentially protective, a result of the consequence man gives it and an inevitable reaction to the fickle male heart.
Despite the differences between Dickens and Gaskell, they do share one thing in common: women must be chosen by men first and then, only then, can they exercise any power as middle class household managers. Historically, there were about half a million surplus middle class women in mid-Victorian England (1056) with no households to run. Under these circumstances, being a governess was actually a coveted but still sorry position; a governess could make on the average between 20 to 45 pounds a year, somewhat higher than what a cook made (12-18 pounds) although significantly lower than what a housekeeper would make (40- 50 pounds). But as M. Jeanne Peterson points out, they were neither servants nor family members; their ambiguous social position contributed to their seclusion from both the servant community and that of their masters. Their position was not only tenuous, but also profoundly paradoxical; they were supposed to teach young women feminine accomplishments to make them more desirable in the marriage market, but as women possessing all these womanly accomplishments, they rarely attracted offers for themselves, contrary to what fiction would lead us to believe. This is not difficult to explain unless one assumes, as Langland does, that cultural signifiers are what create socio-economic status rather than vice versa. While governesses have what Langland calls cultural capital, the Victorian gentleman, in seeking a wife, is also seeking a woman who can contribute to the family’s material capital. Since governesses are considered gentlewoman, they cannot marry anybody below their social rank. As a result, they end up as redundant women, “of” but not really “in”the class to which they are supposed to belong. That is why Peterson finds Harriet Martineau’s claims that governesses make up the largest single occupational group in insane asylum (13) quite a convincing one, and also why Esther’s rejection of Guppy in Bleak House is daring and perhaps not completely realistic. In talking about the “choice” that Mrs. Gibson exercises, Langland seems to forget what the choices before her really are. The England of Mrs. Gibson is a land with half a million redundant angels having no households to run. Rather than using Mrs. Gibson to convey the exultation of a powerful and competent household manager that Langland reports, Gaskell reveals the real insecurity and anxiety for unmarried womenwhich Langland ignores.
Cranfordthe social issue of surplus women cannot be ignored. Gaskell begins: “(I)n the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women” (1). In a few words, Gaskell sketches a fantasy world of woman’s community ruled by women against the backdrop of the real world ruled by men, establishing the problem of surplus women as that of the middle class from the outset by offering information about rent. The middle class nature of the surplus women problem is made even clearer a few chapters later: “if gentlemen were scarce, and almost unheard of in the ‘genteel society’ of Cranford, they or their counterparts—handsome young men —abounded in the lower classes. The pretty neat servant-maids had their choice of desirable ‘followers’” (24). But the Cranford ladies do not refuse marriage. Miss Pole is certainly ready to fall in love if there is a marriageable gentleman to fall in love with; Lady Glenmire is only too happy to stoop to marry the town doctor, Mr. Hoggins, rather than clinging to her former husband’s title. Miss Matty would have married Mr. Holbrook without the pressure from her tyrannical sister. The narrator hints in more than one place that Miss Matty would have preferred a life without having to follow the rigid rules of discursive practices of the middle class. The reason for Matty’s rejection of Holbrook is due to the tyranny of her elder sister’s rigid rule about class. Being a yeoman, Holbrook is considered socially too low for an ex-clergy man’s daughter, although economically he is better off than they are. Gaskell supplies plenty evidence to imply that Miss Matty regrets her decision. After Mr. Holbrook’s death, she immediately allows Martha to have a follower to avoid replicating the tragedy her sister’s tyranny caused in her own life. She is clearly in favor of Lady Glenmire’s marriage with the town doctor. The most obvious sign of this is that she has a widow’s cap made for herself, implicitly wearing it for Holbrook after his death. The truth of the matter is that the ladies of Cranford have no choice. They are the class of gentlewomen who are made redundant by the surplus of women in their own rank.
Contrary to Langland’s claim that middle class women in Dickens and Gaskell “emerged as makers of meanings and shapers of class in mid- Victorian England” (120), they are in fact passive subjects. In Dickens, the quiet, selfless heroine such as Esther always gets rewarded. But in Gaskell, the quiet selfless heroine is simply left on the shelf unpicked. Here in Cranford, chastity and passivity do not necessarily bring a happy life; rather, the suppressed feeling unspoken and not acted out leads to a life of remorse. Langland claims that these Cranford ladies are so good at manipulating cultural codes and controlling discursive practices, they can construct for themselves a social status by their cultural capital without substantial material capital. To read the novel in this way is to completely ignore the key source of Gaskell’s humour, which is to point out to the reader again and again the futility of attempting “discursively” to construct the signifiers of middle class life without access to the substance of a middle class income. Miss Jenkyns and Miss Matty, for example, do not burn two candles at the same time, instead they would burn one at a time but try to keep them at the same length so that people would think they are burning two all the time. After they purchase a new carpet for their drawing room, Miss Matty and our narrator chase the sunbeams by spreading newspaper on the spot that comes from a blindless window and when Miss Jenkyns gives a party, they cut and stitch pieces of newspaper on all the possible spots the guests may walk on. Although people don’t talk about money “because it is vulgar,” the truth is that money is constantly on these ladies’ minds. What Gaskell presents us is not how empowering the discursive practices are to middle class women, rather how restricting and absurd they are when they fail to create the middle class income that they signify.
In any case, the Cranford community is not as self-sufficient as Langland would like us to believe. The influence from the outside world, in this case, the town of Drumble, has already penetrated into the very heart of Cranford. The bankruptcy of Town and Country Bank where Miss Matty is a shareholder brings about her ruin. Gaskell’s treatment of Miss Matty’s bankruptcy is a clear stand against free-market principles. All the Cranford ladies donate money to have a small fund to match up Miss Matty’s old income so that she can at least stay in her old house. Despite all the kind-hearted help from the Cranford ladies, Miss Matty still cannot be saved completely from entering the market place. When she is reduced to selling tea to supplement her income, she goes to consult Johnson, her potential competitor, to see if her shop will injure his business. Mr. Johnson in turn sends his customers to Miss Matty. Rather than following the principle of free market competition, they have a small socialist cooperative. By creating a small-scale utopian community, Gaskell manages to make her social commentary on the principle of Utilitarianism and Mill’s
Principles of Political Economy.
While Dickens, Ruskin and even Langland locate woman’s sphere of action in the private home, Gaskell has clearly rejected that position. The seemingly successful household manager is not made a model for other women to follow. Gaskell does this negatively by showing us that Mrs. Gibson does not have real power even in her own home and her efforts to improve the household management are either unappreciated or disapproved by her husband and are in any case derivative rather than constitutive of his social status. But Gaskell does not limit her argument to negative examples. The Cranford community is a positive example of what women can do outside their homes. When bound together, women can create a superior community than the one advocated by male political economists. The humane Cranford is in Gaskell’s view a better place to live than the free-market-economy-oriented Drumble. Despite the fairy tale beginning and ending, Gaskell shows us a social experiment far more radical than the ideas of her male contemporaries and even more radical than the views of the feminists who would follow a hundred years later.
In this paper I have examined the emergence and re-emergence of a single question in three rather different literary contexts: Mill and Ruskin, Dickens and Gaskell in the 19th century and Millett and Langland in our own time. That question, simplifying somewhat, may be phrased as follows: should women’s voice be limited to private homes as competent household managers or should they be allowed to make their voice heard in public sphere? Ruskin, Dickens and Langland seem to think they should exercise their talents in the private sphere, while Mill, Gaskell and Millett believe they need access to public affairs. One of the key differences between Gaskell as a speaking subject and Dickens, then, is that Gaskell recognizes that it is not enough for a woman to speak; in order to be heard, she needs to be in the public sphere. It is for this reason that when Gaskell writes, she writes about social issues rather than simply matters of household management.
In one sense perhaps it is true that the 19th century was an age that empowered women. But this did not happen, as Langland claims, because they made themselves skilled household managers. It happened because for the first time women became household names—as novelists. In
Cranford, women are talking about Johnson and Dickens—male speaking subjects (and the women of Cranford are careful to express a strong preference for the higher social signifier, namely Johnson). But by the end of the century, people are talking about Austen, Bronte, Eliot, and Gaskell herself. Even by the middle of the century, Gaskell’s work appears regularly alongside that of Dickens, featuring many of the same social issues, in Dickens’s own magazine, a journal with the significant and evocative title Household Words.