Analysis of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

An episodic novel of linked stories set in Cranford, a fictitious country town in northern England. First serialized in Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens, between December 1851 and May 1853, Cranford appeared in volume form in June 1853. An additional episode, “The Cage at Cranford,” was published in Dickens’s All the Year Round in November 1863.

Cranford is based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s childhood memories of the small town of Knutsford, Cheshire. As a fond record of an old-fashioned backwater, the story has primarily been praised for its charm, domestic detail, and vivid creation of a rural society dominated by a close-knit group of impoverished gentlewomen. Recent interest in the material conditions of domestic life in Victorian Britain has revealed that industrialization, imperialism, and the new consumer society are central to the story’s treatment of class and gender issues.

Cranford has thus been read as an insightful point of entry into discussions of the 19th-century transport system and commercialism and of developments in the patterns of production, distribution, and consumption (Hall). This new interest in the story’s socioeconomic background, however, has also accentuated the intriguing ambiguity of its representation of gender relations. In its exploration of sexual politics, it has been alternately interpreted as a satire on embittered spinsters and as a fond detailing of middle-class feminine gentility. The opening sentence propels the reader into the center of this ambiguity: “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.” In Ancient Greek mythology, the Amazons are warrior women who live without men, and while the genteel ladies of Cranford form a community of women in which men of their class are practically nonexistent and not necessarily welcome unless they are first successfully domesticated, or feminized, the comparison of these women to a race of warrior women is replete with fond ridicule. As Nina Auerbach pointedly puts it, at first sight “the appellation ‘Amazons’ seems simply to chuck these sweet ladies under the chin; but the Amazons bob up repeatedly in Victorian writing, usually to be banished as soon as evoked.” More recently, Eileen Gillooly has likewise endeavoured to account for the aggressive humour of this charming tale by showing how “in possession of the Amazons” can be read differently: While Cranford seems to be a town that belongs almost exclusively to women, Cranford also possesses the Amazons by locking them away from the world.

The narrative situation is significant for the story’s many paradoxes. The first-person narrator, Mary Smith, is a much younger woman than the majority of Cranford ladies and is a visitor. She is intimately familiar with the ways and means of Cranford, but nonetheless she is an outsider or, at best, a partial participant. She can even be seen as an anthropologist who observes the cultural context of her anecdotes with an outsider’s bemused, or amused, fascination (Schor). Residing with her widowed father in “the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble,” with which preindustrial Cranford is repeatedly contrasted, Mary undertakes extended visits to some of the central characters, notably to Deborah and Matty Jenkyns and Miss Pole. With a mildly aloof sense of detachment she recounts that every inhabitant of Cranford has “her own individuality, not to say eccentricity, pretty strongly developed.” Mary’s own personality, however, is treated with a similar irony. Her somewhat stiff conservatism, especially in terms of dress, provides a comical contrast to Matty Jenkyns’s endearing youthfulness, if not childishness. This comes to the fore in the episode “Signor Brunoni,” as Miss Matty expects Mary to import a fashionable seagreen turban into old-fashioned Cranford. Her desire exemplifies the strangely comical representation of attempts to domesticate the exotic, the alluringly but threateningly foreign male seemingly embodied by Brunoni, alias Samuel Brown. Instead, Mary purchases “a pretty, neat, middle-aged cap”—“anxious to prevent [Miss Matty] from disfiguring her small gentle mousey face with a great Saracen’s-head turban.” The later chapter “The Cage at Cranford” takes this even further as Mary proves as ignorant of new Paris fashions as the Cranford ladies. The promised French “cage”—a skirtshaped construction worn under the dress when extensive skirts became fashionable—is misinterpreted as a new habitation for Miss Pole’s Polly-Cockatoo. Such double irony pervades the stories.

Not initially intended as a novel, Cranford contains episodic anecdotes, and their most prevalent characteristic is indisputably their humor. Among the most memorable episodes is an Alderney cow dressed in flannel after its fall into a lime pit, which causes it to lose all its hair: “Do you ever see cows dressed in grey flannel in London?” Considering that the cow’s owner is an old lady who “looked upon [the cow] as a daughter,” Captain Brown’s initial jokes about the necessary flannel waistcoat and drawers harbor the aggressive humor that ruptures the seemingly smooth idyll. One of the few men temporarily admitted into Cranford society, Captain Brown, like Brunoni, embodies a disruptive male element. Given the captain’s literary debates about Dickens’s Pickwick Papers—significantly the fictional chronicles of an all-male club—as opposed to the old-fashioned pomposity exemplified by Deborah Jenkyns’s reading of the 18th-century essayist Samuel Johnson, his death becomes doubly symbolic: He is run over by a train shortly after reading the Pickwick Papers but also while saving a child, thereby atoning for his identification with industrialization and progress. Likewise, Peter Jenkyns’s transvestism at once is extremely funny and has a sinister side to it as he impersonates his masculine sister Deborah in a pose of feminine weakness: nursing a mysterious infant with maternal effusion.

In contrast to this carnivalesque moment, Peter’s later return from India to save his sister Matty from comparative poverty incongruously reasserts male dominance. Impoverished after the failure of a Joint- Stock Bank in which the Miss Jenkyns are shareholders, Matty has discreetly been selling tea, vacillating on the borderlines of gentility, of the “elegant economy” in which trade figures as vulgar: “ ‘Elegant economy!’ How naturally one falls back into the phraseology of Cranford! There, economy was always ‘elegant,’ and money-spending always ‘vulgar and ostentatious.’ ” Peter’s fortuitous return replenishes domestic gentility, yet this use of the colonies as an offstage source of fortune is more intriguingly counterpoised by Mrs. Brown’s narrative of having carried her last surviving child “from station to station, from Indian village to village.” This multilayered use of India, Indian muslin, the East India Company, and fashionable turbans has led Raphael Samuel to single out Cranford, in his analysis of the interplay of the imperial and the domestic, as a central counterexample to Edward Said’s seminal discussion of appropriating European orientalism. Like its intriguing insights into the domestic effects of industrialization and the new consumer society, its self-conscious and self-ironic portrayals of Orientalism and Orientalia prove that Cranford is much more than the comical idyll that has alternately been praised and condemned for its sentimental charm.

Auerbach, Nina. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. Edited by Elizabeth Porges Watson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Gillooly, Eileen. Smile of Discontent. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999.
Hall, Catherine. “The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick maker: The Shop and Family in the Industrial Revolution.” In The Victorian City, edited by R. J. Moris and Richard Rodger, 307–321. London: Longman, 1993.
Schor, Hilary M. Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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