A Guest Post by Emily Simmons

At the recent VSAWC/VISAWUS conference I heard a fascinating paper on the cultural signification of the muffin in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. The presenter, Susan Cook, offered a nuanced account of the muffin’s origins, its ingredients (I had no idea they were made using potatoes), and, of course, the dubious connotations of the muffin man’s residence on Drury Lane (very much an area of mixed social repute in the 1830s).  In Nicholas Nickleby the muffin is on an upward social trajectory, yet it still speaks to an economic disconnect between the muffin sellers and their own product, which they cannot afford.  After the paper I began thinking about another Victorian novel that is a favourite of mine for its food —  Cranford.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s shorter text (which I am often tempted to call a collection of stories as much as a novel), is obsessed with edibles. From the very thinly-buttered pieces of bread that exemplify “elegant economy” at the ladies’ evening gatherings, to the oranges Miss Jenkyns insists must be sucked in private, along with Mr. Holbrook’s delicate peas, the cream given to Mrs. Jamieson’s dog instead of to her guests, the almond confits Miss Matty generously apportions in her shop, and, of course, Martha’s triumphant lion couchant pudding prepared after Miss Matty’s bankruptcy, the stories of Cranford abound with scenes of eating and attenuated descriptions of things eaten.  Moreover, these scenes often resonate with the text’s larger attention to materiality as an index of taste and position, as well as careful consumption as a mode of economy; as Kent Puckett has recently suggested, the scene of eating peas with knives at Thomas Holdbrook’s dinner table registers a contemporary display of ‘bad form’ as well as “a troubling difference between the old-fashioned and the newfangled,” which only Mary’s “exceptional narratorial purchase” can supersede in order to ensure that the good peas do not go “untasted” (Puckett 27-28; Gaskell 33).

And yet, it strikes me that Cranford the text, and Cranford the town, are entirely devoid of muffins. What can this mean? Other baked goods are present: there is Tea-bread a-plenty, sponge cake and seed cake, but the muffin is absent. Perhaps, as Susan Cook pointed out in her paper, the muffin had not assumed enough middle-class respectability by the period in which Gaskell sets Cranford to warrant its appearance. I suspect, given the careful placement of foodstuffs throughout, that the muffin’s absence from Cranford is not merely accidental.

Emily Simmons is a doctoral candidate studying Victorian Literature at the University of Toronto.


Works Cited:

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. 1851-53. New York: OUP, 1998.

Puckett, Kent.  Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel. New York: OUP, 2008.

Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel


4 thoughts on “Muffin, anyone?

  1. I finally started watching the recent BBC adaptation of Cranford (after having it on my shelf for nearly a year), and the scene with Miss Matty sucking her orange is wonderful. I think Dench (or the director) cleverly makes this scene of eating one of pure, childlike pleasure, rather than a truly sensual or sexual moment.

    I’ll look out for muffins as I watch the series to see if any slip into the contemporary reworking of the novel!

  2. I know that much has been made of the of the homonymous taste (flavour) and taste (aesthetic preference), but I’d never thought about the taboo about letting a dish go untasted… I only half mean to be trite: where does un-taste fit in, I wonder?

  3. Connie, thanks for this, what a good way to think about un-tasting as an implicit declaration of rejection. Again there seems to be two registers at work: not tasting the peas is unmannerly both because it is wasteful and because it would suggest a distaste for the kind of food being served by the host. (I can’t help hearing my mother’s voice admonishing me that it’s impolite, as a guest, not to eat everything on your plate!) If so, then in this scene Gaskell seems to escape the latter offense when she suggests that Holdbrook does not even notice that the peas aren’t eaten. Which brings us back to wastefulness, a supreme Cranfordian sin given the text’s repeated insistence on use being made of “fragments and small opportunities,” the value of “elegant economy” and the like.

    And yet, as your comment suggests, all wastefulness is not the same as ‘un-taste,’ or an absence of experience of the thing wasted. We might be more willing to condone wastefulness carefully considered (i.e. I know I don’t like peas) than ignorant wastefulness (i.e. if you’ve never tried the peas … ), but I wonder if the ethos of Cranford would recognize this distinction. The text does a lot to maximize the use-value or consumption potential of many ‘things,’ be they gossip, caps, or peas. And in other spheres, especially fashion, it disregards aesthetic taste, so perhaps this scene suggests that flavour is also being eschewed? mmm … I mean hmm …

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