Philosophy and Literature 30.1 (2006) 102-117
[Access article in PDF]
Gossip and Literary Narrative
Since its murky origins in Grub Street, a specter has haunted the novel—the specter of gossip. In its higher-minded mood, literary narratives have been very snobbish about gossip and the snobbishness is unfair. Even the most casual reader of social fiction will recognize that gossiping is what characters do most passionately. However, they can neither admit nor be aware of it. Only minor or morally compromised characters are allowed to indulge in its pleasures. Matronly middle-aged women, chatty maids, little girls, and effeminate fops are the ones who gossip; their more reflective counterparts—the men and women designated as heroes and heroines—only briefly tolerate such idle chatter. Gossip is derided, decried, condemned, and maligned. It is womanish, low, slavish, servantish, silly, pert, loose, wanton, jiggetty, mean. It is the "tittle-tattle of Highbury" in Austen's Emma, an activity for the old maid Miss Bates and her even older, blind, and senile mother. In Middlemarch, although the world is "apparently a huge whispering-gallery," the greatest gossip of all is Mrs. Cadwallader, a matron with a mind like "phosphorous, biting at everything" (Spacks, p. 194). In Richardson's Clarissa, Lovelace—a man not known for his indifference to social information—airily dismisses gossip as "the female go-round." (In novels, the male equivalents of the "female go-round" tend to be such despised modes of exchange as business letters, gambling, chess, and games of chance.) Gossip has always been a part of charivari with the power to turn the world upside down. It also has the power to destroy lives (Les Liasons Dangereuses) and to derail love (when it becomes the "prejudice" of Pride and Prejudice). If it ever innocent, it is only because it is meaningless.
Gossip is all of these things even—especially—when it powers the [End Page 102] whole narrative. This paradox is evident almost anywhere we choose to look. Social novelists view the stuff of direct, unmediated social information as so intense that it requires special handling—even disavowal. I will briefly survey examples from French, English, and Russian fiction. The first is a lurid and overheated speech by Henri de Marsay, the peculiar hero of Balzac's short novel, The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1815). De Marsay is a dissipated aristocrat in love with a mysterious young girl who, he finds out much later, is the sexual slave of de Marsay's long-lost sister. But first, after a night of passion that "had begun with a slow trickle of pleasures and ended in overflowing torrents," de Marsay realizes, when his lover accidentally lets slip the name of his rival, that the person he is competing with is female. The next day he becomes consumed with a bitter plan to kill his faithless lover. He reflects to his friend Paul "Upon my honor, man is a clown dancing on the edge of a cliff. We're told about the immorality of Les Liaisons dangereuses, and some book with the name of a chambermaid. But there is one ghastly, dirty, dreadful, corrupting book that is always open and never closed, the great book of the world—not to mention another book, a thousand times more dangerous, that consists of everything passed on by word of mouth between men or women behind their fans at the ball."1 Even though de Marsay is a corrupt aristocrat, his sentiments are little different from those the narrator expresses in the book's opening chapter, a panoptic survey of Parisian life as a glorious mosaic of infection, rot, and moral disease.
In Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff's new tenant Lockwood breaks his self-imposed exile from social life by pressing the housekeeper Nellie Dean to do what housekeepers do best and launch into an aggrieved saga about her master's family. He wants her to serve up the gossip hot. "I ate . . . , hoping sincerely she would prove a regular gossip, and either rouse me to animation, or lull me to sleep...