Elizabeth Gaskell began writing Cranford in 1851 when Charles Dickens invited her to send him tales for his new weekly journal, Household Words. Dickens and Gaskell were so pleased with the first two Cranford stories, which depicted a community of genteel single women in a retired country village, that Gaskell went on to write fourteen more, and what she had initially intended as a lighthearted sketch developed into one of her most subtle fictional creations.
Gaskell’s first two novels, Mary Barton (1848) and Ruth (1853), which she had begun before starting Cranford, were both greeted by controversy, Mary Barton for what some Victorian readers perceived as an alarming siding with the working class against the employing class, and Ruth for its sympathetic treatment of an unwed mother. Cranford seemed safer, more distant from such troubling nineteenth century issues. It became particularly popular after Gaskell’s death, its biggest sales coming at the turn of the century, and it was praised with such words as “charming,” “delightful,” “delicate.” Well into the twentieth century it continued to be read as a nostalgic portrait of a quaint, old-fashioned, feminine world.
The quaintness and charm are there, and so is some nostalgia, for Cranford’s narrator, Mary Smith, writes with a constant awareness that the life she describes is already anachronistic and likely soon to disappear altogether in a rapidly modernizing society. However, the novel is also marked by a clear-sighted probing into the conditions of its female characters’ lives in a society that expected the genders to occupy separate spheres.
The opening sentence—“In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons”—implies that separate spheres might mean immense power for women. Cranford’s circle of widows and single ladies pride themselves on their self-sufficiency; they rule their world, and it is one in which men are superfluous.
If, however, the image of Amazons leads readers to expect warrior-women who challenge Victorian orthodoxies about pursuits appropriate for females, Gaskell quickly sets them right in her descriptions of the most conventional of ladies. They may own their own houses—a right denied married Englishwomen until the Married Women’s Property Acts passed after 1870—but their economic power is severely curtailed. They glory in their “elegant economy,” but such economy is required of them because they live on very small inherited incomes and because they devote themselves to preserving the social rules with which they maintain the class status determined for them by their relation to fathers or husbands. They visit one another and play cards, they fantasize about threats from thieves who turn out not to exist, they read little and are vastly ignorant about the wider world, and in real crises they need help from men.
Gaskell develops the pathos and grotesqueries of the Cranford ladies’ lives by focusing on the Jenkyns sisters. The older sister, Deborah, had devoted herself to her authoritarian clergyman father; she never married and was always available to read to him and to help him with correspondence. Gaskell portrays her as something of a social tyrant devoted to preserving the cultural status quo, whether this be a matter of literary style (she scorns any deviation from the formal eighteenth century sentences of Samuel Johnson, her father’s favorite author) or social status (she has prevented her younger sister, Miss Matty, from marrying the farmer Mr. Holbrook, a free spirit who cares nothing about social advancement). After Deborah’s death, Miss Matty, who has been allowed no independent will or intellectual development, seems nearly helpless.
The narrative nevertheless leads readers to feel admiration and considerable sympathy for the Cranford ladies. Gaskell’s narrator, Mary,...
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contrasts significantly with the women whose lives she describes, for she lives not in Cranford but in Drumble, an industrial city. She is a young woman still residing with her father yet in possession of independent opinions. She responds enthusiastically to modern culture—standing up for Dickens, for example, against Miss Jenkyns’ advocacy of Dr. Johnson, and cheering when the visiting Lady Glenmire outrages her status-conscious sister-in-law Mrs. Jamieson by marrying a mere surgeon with the plebeian name of Hoggins. Mary easily sees through the Cranford ladies’ snobberies and subterfuges, yet she also loves them. The Jenkyns sisters are her particular friends; she visits them often, and for her the limited lives of the Cranford ladies are full of human interest. Moreover, she sees not only the limitations but the largely good-humored strength with which Cranford’s women make the best of these limitations. Above all, she recognizes Miss Matty’s sweetness, kindness, and integrity, and she is a perceptive reader of the hidden pain in Miss Matty’s life. The novel’s climax comes when the women rally around Miss Matty after her livelihood is threatened by the failure of the bank in which Deborah had invested their inheritance. At such points, the narration emphasizes the importance of the kind of mutual support the Cranford ladies, despite their frequent competitiveness, can give one another. The novel’s great achievement is the blending of tones with which Mary tells her stories: ironic, satiric, amused, sad, and deeply loving.
That Mary is both an outside observer and an engaged participant also gives her an important role in the novel’s action. When Miss Matty loses most of her income, Mary is able to persuade Miss Matty and the other Cranford ladies that she will not lose social status by setting up a shop and earning money. Furthermore, as someone willingly belonging to the wider world, she manages to get a letter to Miss Matty’s long-lost brother Peter, who returns from India and, evading suggestions of marriage, establishes a household with his sister. Peter has a particularly interesting relation to the novel’s concern with Victorian separations between men and women. He left Cranford in a spirit of rebellion against his father’s sternness and his sister Deborah’s sexual prudery; he returns as a man comfortably able to express the “feminine” qualities of kindness and loyalty that are Cranford’s great strength. In this, he is like male characters who appeared earlier in the novel: Mr. Brown, the proponent of Dickens in the first two chapters; the surgeon Hoggins; and Miss Matty’s lost love, Holbrook. If Cranford gives something of the impression of a utopian fiction, this is the product not only of its nostalgic love for an older world but also of its proposal that the best human society will cease to insist that men and women construct themselves as different kinds of beings.