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.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. 1851-53. New York: OUP, 1998.
Puckett, Kent. Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel. New York: OUP, 2008.