Cranford presents two kinds of femininity that interact throughout the novel. Mary Smith's youth, coupled with her arriving in Cranford from the city, aligns her with new notions of femininity to which the older matriarchs of Cranford are not accustomed. The response of these women to their counterpart is to treat her as a child—to become a collective maternal figure to Mary, whose own mother died years before. They assume this maternity over Mary not to belittle her but rather to better comprehend her. In their eyes, her independence and willingness to engage in behaviors which are not what they consider "genteel" are most readily associated with the energetic activities of a child, and they even provide her with picture books to keep her occupied.
However, as the novel goes on, Mary is able to reconcile her modern outlook with the traditions of Cranford. For instance, she is able to influence Matilda, a woman who embodied the old world notion of femininity that was characterized by modesty and inactivity, into taking an active occupation selling tea and earning her own keep.
Mary's relationship to the habits of the Cranford women is shown to be symbiotic, as she herself comes to take on some of their habits and customs while also influencing their behavior. Ultimately, she comes to the belief that the new world that she represents and the old world that they represent might be able to co-exist happily.
Cranford is a small village, and the lives of the women who live there are necessarily routine as a result. With the exception of Mary, the women live within the close and intimate confines of the village, and their conversation is taken up almost exclusively with the village's concerns. The women of the village concern themselves with tasks as superficial as protecting a carpet with newspaper, but given the simplicity of their lives, such tasks take on an almost existential importance.
Moreover, Mary is struck by the minute detail of the routines that the women follow; they are so steadfast about maintaining customs rigidly that it almost becomes irrational. On one occasion, Mary was the only woman innovative enough to use a knife as opposed to a fork to eat her...
(The entire section is 551 words.)