Analysis of Elizabeth Gaskell’s A Manchester Marriage

This story was first published in the extra Christmas number of Household Words (edited by Charles Dickens) and was republished in Elizabeth Gaskell’s collection Right at Last and Other Tales (1860). It tells the story of Alice Openshaw, who moves from Manchester to London with her children and second husband, Thomas. Alice is an orphan brought up by relatives; she escaped their house by marrying her cousin, Frank Wilson. When he is lost at sea, she must make a living to support herself and her baby daughter. With her mother-in-law and loyal maid, Norah Kennedy, Alice opens a lodging house. Quiet, undemonstrative Alice attracts the notice of Thomas Openshaw, a well-to-do but gruff lodger. He and Alice marry and, after her mother-in-law’s death, move to London.

Openshaw’s relatives, the Chadwicks, come to visit. One evening they all go out, leaving the servants to take care of the house and children. A strange man calls and insists on talking to Norah. To her horror, she recognizes him as Frank Wilson: After being held captive by “savages” for many years, he has returned and is desperate to find his wife. Norah must relay the shocking news that she has remarried, but to placate him she lets him see his sleeping daughter. Unfortunately, little Ailsie wakes up and the next day reveals that Norah has had a male visitor. When Mrs. Chadwick’s expensive brooch goes missing (it is later found that Mrs. Chadwick has only mislaid it), suspicion falls on Norah and her male visitor. While Thomas Openshaw does not suspect her of theft but of gullibility in letting the man into the house, her refusal to explain the strange man’s visit angers him. Distraught, Norah flees to Wilson’s hotel room but he is gone: Inconsolable over the loss of his wife and child, he has drowned himself. Eventually Openshaw finds Norah, and she confides the secret of his wife’s unwitting bigamy. Mortified that he has unknowingly so hurt another man, Openshaw resolves to give him a proper burial and to keep the truth from Alice.

The dreadful secret of inadvertent bigamy at the heart of this story was soon to become a mainstay of the genre of sensation fiction that burgeoned in the 1860s and focused on “sensational” wrongdoing. It is a crucial part of the plot of such immensely popular works as Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1862–63). Like so many sensational tales, “The Manchester Marriage” makes the role of the servant prominent and draws attention to tensions between middle-class employers and their lower-class servants at a time when the majority of the middle class employed domestic staff.

Victorian middle-class employers wanted to see themselves as surrounded by servants who worked out of a sense of devotion rather than for money. However, they could not escape the reality that their staff had to be paid and that they tended to change positions frequently. In fiction, servants therefore tended to be portrayed either as sinister, self-serving professionals (for example, Crawford in Gaskell’s “Right at Last”) or as loyal but inept retainers, like Norah. Unable to explain her behavior without revealing the secret from which she is protecting her employers, Norah brings their suspicions and anger down on herself. But through this twist of irony, she becomes the means by which the middle-class characters are judged: The saintly Alice Openshaw never doubts her character and never discovers the truth about her marriage; Thomas Openshaw suspects Norah not of theft but of breaking domestic rules by having a lover and allowing him into the house. It is he who has to bear the burden of the secret Norah reveals, and it is he who must make amends to Frank Wilson. He must also learn to treat his wife with a new “reverence” and “tenderness”—and is rewarded by making “a large fortune” in business. As for the Chadwicks, their certainty that Norah is dishonest (they even hire a detective to follow her) and their part in provoking the crisis by misplacing the brooch in the first place means that their moral character becomes tainted.

At the end of the story, Norah is rewarded for her loyalty by being welcomed back into the household with her reputation intact and by being allowed to continue serving her employers. Devoted servitude, the story implies, is not just a duty the lower class owes to the middle but is a role the lower class treasures. In a sense, “The Manchester Marriage,” like many other stories that feature servants, uses Norah to carry out the “dirty” work of discovering and helping resolve middle- and upper-class secrets. Just as in real life maids were responsible for the dirtiest of housework— for instance, cleaning fireplaces, scrubbing floors, and emptying chamber pots—so in fiction they take on a similar task: They are the ones who come across secrets and expose them. Although this means that wrongs can be righted and it forces the middle and upper class to live up to the moral superiority they use to justify their social status, it is also a way of keeping the lower class in its place. Servants not only clean up the real-life dirt, the dust and refuse, but also deal with the metaphorical dirt of their employers’ secrets. In both cases, the dirt servants have to deal with helps explain their low social position: the dirt makes them dirty (even though it is not their own), and therefore they deserve to be the ones who serve rather than the ones who are served. In “The Manchester Marriage,” the unfairness of the accusations against Norah points to Gaskell’s sympathy for working women, but ultimately, the story is one about middle-class characters—their flaws and their redemption— not about the plight of the many thousands of women who worked as servants.

Davidoff, Leonore. Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. “The Manchester Marriage.” In Nineteenth Century Short Stories by Women, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, 93–116. London: Routledge, 1998.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: