Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Cranford Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.