Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Cranford Essay - Critical Essays

Cranford, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell


Cranford Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

The following entry presents criticism of Gaskell's novel Cranford (1853). See also, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life Criticism and Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Criticism.

One of the most popular writers of the Victorian era, Gaskell is principally remembered today for her novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848), which depicts the hardship of the Manchester working classes in the mid-nineteenth century, and for her artistic achievements in the English classics Wives and Daughters: An Everyday Story (1866) and Cranford (1853). In Cranford, Gaskell united her powers of observation with genial humor and gentle pathos to create a portrait of early nineteenth-century provincial life in England. Set in the fictional village of Cranford in the early nineteenth century, the work originally appeared in Charles Dickens's monthly periodical Household Words in December of 1851 as a stand-alone piece entitled “Our Society at Cranford.” At his prompting, however, Gaskell produced eight more episodes, which were later collected into the novel. Portraying Gaskell's wit and delight in the details of everyday life, as well as her lucid prose style and balance of satire and sentiment, Cranford is considered by many to be among the finest novels in English.

Plot and Major Characters

The initial episode of the novel features an incursion into the quiet, provincial village of Cranford by Captain Brown, an man initially repugnant to Miss Deborah Jenkyns—the town's tacit social matriarch, a woman nearly obsessed with decorum and the rules of gentility. Brown soon reveals his thoroughgoing congeniality, allowing Miss Jenkyns and the town's all-female social elite to accept him and his two daughters. Following Brown's demise while attempting to save a child from an oncoming train, the aging Miss Jenkyns offers to look after his daughters. The younger of the two, Miss Jessie, decides to forgo marriage to her lover so that she may care for her elder sister, an invalid. All of this changes when the sister dies and Jessie finds herself free to pursue her engagement. In the following episode, Miss Deborah Jenkyns has also died and the focus of the story turns to her sister, the lovable spinster Miss Matty. Matty has come to replace Deborah as the exemplar of morals and values in Cranford; as such she gradually attempts to change some of the isolationist attitudes that had been adopted by her sister. An adjustment in opinions toward men is already apparent as Matty meets her former suitor, Mr. Holbrook. When she sees Holbrook, Miss Matty discovers that she still loves him, and remembers rejecting him long ago because of her father and sister's objections to his social inferiority. But Gaskell shows that their chance at happiness together has long since passed, and Mr. Holbrook dies soon after the two meet. Meanwhile, Matty decides to allow her maid, Martha, to carry on a romantic relationship with a man—something unheard of while Deborah was alive. The scene shifts again and this time Signor Brunoni, a magician, visits the town and performs his conjuring act. Shortly thereafter, news of a series of robberies spreads, causing a panic, and the Cranford ladies begin to suspect that the mysterious Brunoni may be the one responsible for the crimes. Later, Brunoni's innocence becomes apparent and Miss Matty steps forward to assuage everyone's fears and end the hysteria. Sometime thereafter, Matty suffers a near total financial loss as the Town and County Bank—in which she became a shareholder on the advice of her sister Deborah and against that of her father—goes bankrupt. Confronted with poverty, Matty alights upon the idea of putting some old furniture up for sale, and later of selling tea to supplement her vastly reduced income. The community also comes to her aid as a secret meeting is called to discuss ways of helping the old woman. Towards the end of the novel, Matty's brother Peter, who had disappeared years ago, returns from India to live with her. Soon Brunoni performs again to the delight of his audience, and things seem to have returned to normal in Cranford. The novel's narrator closes the story by paying homage to its heroine, observing, “We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.”

Major Themes

Solidly based in the tradition of realist fiction, Cranford is thought to represent Gaskell's fictionalization of the small Cheshire village of Knutsford, where she was raised by her maternal aunt following her mother's death. The author describes Cranford as being in the possession of women, and the town itself displays the ideals of a feminine community run according to the principles of custom, gentility, and propriety. In sharp contrast to Cranford, Gaskell gives her readers the nearby commercial world of Drumble (Manchester), where hectic materialism threatens to erode the tranquil stability and traditional moral order of the outlying provincial town. Cranford's virtues are said to be personified in the figure of Miss Matty, who in cultivating a powerful sense of community is central to the novel's themes of fulfillment through generosity, love, and acceptance of change. Sex and gender themes also permeate in the work, with the story frequently interpreted as a series of symbolic male invasions into the otherwise serene, feminine village. Likewise, notions of lingering guilt, repressed female sexuality, and love thwarted by class figure prominently in the novel, particularly in regard to Matty, whose failure to declare her feelings for Mr. Holbrook invokes all of these themes. Additionally, while Miss Matty is generally viewed as the central, heroic character of the work, Cranford is occasionally read as a satire of habitual middle-class behavior and thoughtless conformity to custom, a minority opinion that frequently corresponds with an interpretation of Miss Matty as a figure evocative of pathos rather than admiration.

Critical Reception

Often dismissed by early critics, many of whom saw it as merely a collection of charming, nostalgic vignettes from provincial life, Cranford has since come to be regarded as Gaskell's most significant and representative novel. The work was extremely popular with readers upon its publication, and some of Gaskell's contemporaries among the literati did appreciate its considerable merits, among them Charlotte Brontë who described it as “graphic, pithy, penetrating, shrewd.” Indeed, most modern critics have insisted that the realistic novel additionally contains an ironic, almost subversive element, and that Gaskell does not simply idealize life in a simpler, quieter time and place. Some commentators have also appreciated Gaskell's skillful unification of the plot, even though the novel was originally intended only as a short story. Critics have also praised Gaskell's characterization of Miss Matty, said to be one of her outstanding literary creations. Others have faulted the work for its ostensible lack of structure, a flaw dismissed by many who have seen the story as thematically unified and essentially character-driven. A good deal of contemporary critical attention has also been focused on the narrative technique of Cranford, and particularly on its narrator, Mary Smith, who develops from a rather unobtrusive presence into an important interpretive figure in the novel. In more recent years, feminist critics of Cranford have endeavored to rectify Gaskell's earlier reputation as a minor novelist, and have recognized in the work themes associated with feminine desire and repression in a male-dominated culture.

Principal Works

“Sketches among the Poor” [with William Gaskell] (poetry) 1837

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (novel) 1848

“Lizzie Leigh: A Domestic Tale” (short story) 1850

The Moorland Cottage (novella) 1850

“Mr. Harrison's Confessions” (short story) 1851

*Cranford (novel) 1853

Ruth (novel) 1853

Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales (short stories) 1855

North and South (novel) 1855

The Life of Charlotte Brontë (biography) 1857

My Lady Ludlow (novella) 1858

Right at Last and Other Tales (short stories) 1860

Sylvia's Lovers (novel) 1863

Cousin Phillis (novella) 1864

Wives and Daughters: An Every-day Story (unfinished novel) 1866

The Novels and Tales of Mrs. Gaskell. 11 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, essays, sketches, and biography) 1906-19

The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell (letters) 1967

*This work was originally published as a series of sketches in the journal Household Words in 1851-53.


Martin Dodsworth (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “Women Without Men at Cranford,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 13, 1963, pp. 132-45.

[In the following essay, Dodsworth interprets Cranford as a plot-driven novel concerned with feminine repression of sexuality in a male-dominated world.]

Most readers seem to feel that the spirit of Cranford is most aptly expressed in the delicate—not to say charming—illustrations of Hugh Thomson. The world of Cranford is faded, full of small snobbery and great kindness; it is a feminine novel, not only as all the important characters are women, but as pre-eminently the work of a woman, ever held by the details of a room's arrangement or a bonnet's...

(The entire section is 5467 words.)

Edgar Wright (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Mrs. Gaskell and the World of Cranford,” in Review of English Literature, Vol. 6, No. 1, January, 1965, pp. 68-79.

[In the following essay, Wright defends Cranford’s merits as a novel, arguing against its detractors who see it as Gaskell's “reminiscences thinly disguised as fiction.”]

‘Every schoolboy knows’ that Cranford is Knutsford, the small country town where Mrs. Gaskell was brought up, and critical comments on her work all make this point. They seem to mean by this that Mrs. Gaskell draws on her knowledge of Knutsford and her memories of its inhabitants for her detail; its topography, its customs and traditions, its stories...

(The entire section is 4490 words.)

Patricia A. Wolfe (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “Structure and Movement in Cranford,” in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 2, September, 1968, pp. 161-76.

[In the following essay, Wolfe focuses on Miss Matty as the heroine of Cranford and a figure illustrating the novel's thematic progression from an initial female rejection of men to their gradual acceptance.]

The problem of Cranford's structure is central to an understanding of the book. Until Martin Dodsworth's article “Women Without Men at Cranford”1 appeared, critics generally believed that it consisted of a number of loosely-connected incidents with no underlying progression lending direction to the plot....

(The entire section is 6604 words.)

Angus Easson (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Cranford (1853),” in Elizabeth Gaskell, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, pp. 97-108.

[In the following excerpt, Easson considers the sources and episodic structure of Cranford, Gaskell's skill in rendering emotion and character in the work, and the novel's enduring qualities.]

If stationary men would pay some attention to the districts in which they reside, and would publish their thoughts respecting the objects that surround them, from such materials might be drawn the most complete county-histories, which are still wanting in several parts of this kingdom …

Gilbert White,...

(The entire section is 5342 words.)

George V. Griffith (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “What Kind of Book is Cranford?” in Ariel, Vol. 14, No. 2, April, 1983, pp. 53-65.

[In the following essay, Griffith details the problematic generic unity and narrative technique of Cranford.]

“That a book is a novel means anything or nothing; the practical question relates to its character and contents.”1

For so slight a thing Cranford is a problematic book. Everyone loves it, although no one is quite sure how it works or what it is. A glance at its printing history and the history of its critical reception confirms the problem. Whereas Mrs. Gaskell's other novels have seen no...

(The entire section is 4945 words.)

Hilary M. Schor (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Affairs of the Alphabet: Reading, Writing, and Narrating in Cranford,” in Novel, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 288-304.

[In the following essay, Schor analyzes Cranford as an experimental woman's narrative concerned with the cultural factors of women as writers and readers.]

Elizabeth Gaskell's third novel, Cranford, which is most frequently discussed by critics and nostalgic readers as a potpourri, a bouquet of impressions, an elegiac tribute to passing ways in a dying English village,1 is in fact better read as a woman writer's experiment with narrative, an extended commentary on the ways women are taught to read...

(The entire section is 9270 words.)

Wendy K. Carse (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “A Penchant for Narrative: ‘Mary Smith’ in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford,” in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 20, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 318-30.

[In the following essay, Carse investigates the character and interpretive role of Cranford's self-effacing narrator, Mary Smith.]

Readers must wait until chapter twelve before the narrator of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford finally promises to “say a word or two here about myself” (117). What then follows, however, is not at all a revelation about herself, but only a brief comment, necessitated by the plot, explaining why she has extended her recent visit to Cranford. This reticence...

(The entire section is 6669 words.)

Dennis W. Allen (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “‘Peter Was a Lady Then’: Sexuality and Gender in Cranford,” in Sexuality in Victorian Fiction, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993, pp. 60-83.

[In the following excerpt, Allen studies Victorian anxieties concerning sexuality and traditional gender roles as they are represented in Cranford.]

In the first place, if the town of Cranford is “in possession of the Amazons,” Cranford, the novel in which it appears, may be in the possession of the feminists. Ever since Martin Dodsworth's charge that the novel expiates Elizabeth Gaskell's unconscious hostility to men through a recognition of the insufficiency of women (1963, 132-45), women...

(The entire section is 10122 words.)

Adrienne E. Gavin (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Language Among the Amazons: Conjuring and Creativity in Cranford,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 23, 1994, pp. 205-25.

[In the following essay, Gavin discusses how the Cranford women create oral fictions while their male counterparts are merely readers and quoters.]

My dear Mrs. Forrester, conjuring and witchcraft is a mere affair of the alphabet.

(Cranford 84)

In the town of Cranford conjuring and witchcraft are affairs of the alphabet. It is their arrangements of the alphabet, in speech and in writing, that enable the women of Cranford to sustain and protect...

(The entire section is 9086 words.)

Margaret Case Croskery (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Mothers without Children, Unity without Plot: Cranford's Radical Charm,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 52, No. 2, September, 1997, pp. 198-220.

[In the following essay, Croskery probes the charming, complex, and experimental narrative technique of Cranford, arguing that the work represents a significant development in nineteenth century sympathy and reform novels.]

Early in the modern critical reappraisal of Elizabeth Gaskell, John Gross perceptively warned that Gaskell's charm might lead critics to undervalue her work despite the fact that “her reputation has held steady for a hundred years.”1 This is both an odd...

(The entire section is 8213 words.)

Further Reading


Auerbach, Nina. “Elizabeth Gaskell's ‘Sly Javelins’: Governing Women in Cranford and Haworth.” In Modern Language Quarterly 38, No. 3 (September 1977): 276-91.

Relates Gaskell's creation of Cranford to her imaginative obsession with the Brontë sisters.

Cass, Jeffrey. “‘The Scraps, Patches, and Rags of Daily Life’: Gaskell's Oriental Other and the Conservation of Cranford.” In Papers on Language and Literature 35, No. 4 (Fall 1999): 417-33.

Considers the encroachment of market forces and foreign influences on the conservative and tranquil village of Cranford.


(The entire section is 500 words.)