19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 18 (2014)

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‘The screaming streets’: Voice and the Spaces of Gossip in Tales of Mean Streets (1894) and Liza of Lambeth (1897)

Eliza Cubitt


In the proliferation of periodical literature in the 1890s, gossip columns carried positive, masculine connotations and worked across male class boundaries. Oral gossip in this period was defined as negative and female, and had a critical role in regulating behaviour. This article discusses late-Victorian narratives which represent urban places defined and managed by gossip. These sites use the power of gossip to assert their communality and their separation from the world of the printed word. Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets (1894) and W. Somerset Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth (1897) are set in London streets characterized by homogeneity and monotony. Their inhabitants exist in ‘the nightmare of a world that is all streets’. Gossip plays an essential role in these spaces. Residents demonstrate anxiety about living at the borders of slum spaces, and manage their separation from slums by using gossip to attack those who threaten the narrowly defined boundaries of these places. In these works, gossip is not idle chatter but a formidable mode of speech which has serious effects. In representing sites governed by this ostensibly everyday form of speech, Maugham and Morrison simultaneously disenchanted previous romanticized visions of the working-class streets, and represented them as other places, with a lack of written culture. In their representations of the determination of place by gossiping voices, Maugham and Morrison concomitantly convey the impossibility of the absorption of such places into mainstream culture, and assert the privileged position of the late-Victorian realist who can access the otherwise inaccessible.

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