The English village of Cranford is dominated by women. Elizabeth Gaskell describes Cranford as being "in the possession of the Amazons." The men have little or no power, either financially or socially, and the women control the majority of the community's affairs: "the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient." The villagers generally believe that everyone has sufficient means of support, and those who do not keep that information to themselves.
The first-person narrator, Mary Smith, who is visiting for a month, states that to speak of money in Cranford is considered indecorous, and displays of wealth are generally frowned upon. Accordingly, the citizens of Cranford never indulge in ostentation and entertain their friends and neighbors sparingly. Mrs. Jamieson, for example, although her brother-in-law is an Earl, hosts only modest parties which confirm her practice of "elegant economy":
We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic. . . .
"Elegant economy!" How naturally one falls back into the phraseology of Cranford! There, economy was always "elegant," and money-spending always "vulgar and ostentatious"; a sort of sour-grapeism which made us very peaceful and satisfied.
Much of the plot concerns Captain Brown and his two daughters who come to live in Cranford. Initially, he has difficulty fitting in, primarily because he violates the local standards by speaking openly of his impoverished status. Through Captain Brown's perseverance—consisting generally of his even temperament and his impassivity in ignoring the townspeople's snubs—the citizens of Cranford come to accept the Brown family.
Mr Brown's daughters are both adults; the elder, referred to as "Miss Brown," is "plain and hard featured" while the younger, Miss Jessie, is "about twenty shades prettier" than her sister. Miss Brown, it turns out, is suffering from a malady that makes her grouchy, and the expense of caring for her accounts in part for the family's financial hardships:
Miss Brown was seriously ill of some lingering, incurable complaint, the pain occasioned by which gave the uneasy expression to her face that I had taken for unmitigated crossness. Cross, too, she was at times, when the nervous irritability occasioned by her disease became past endurance. Miss Jessie bore with her at these times, even more patiently than she did with the bitter self-upbraidings by which they were invariably succeeded. Miss Brown used to accuse herself, not merely of hasty and irritable temper, but also of being the cause why her father and sister were obliged to pinch. . . . All this was borne by Miss Jessie and her father with more than placidity—with absolute tenderness.
Another important family, the Jenkynses, also consists of two adult daughters: Deborah and Matilda (Matty). Their late father had been a rector, and as a guest in their home, Mary Smith speaks kindly of them, even while...
(The entire section is 735 words.)