About the Author
Tremendously popular in her lifetime, the books of the English author Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) have often been overshadowed by her contemporaries the Brontës and George Eliot. Yet the reputation of her long-neglected masterpiece Wives and Daughters continues to grow. Gaskell wrote six novels in all — of which North and South and Cranford remain two of the best known — as well as numerous short stories, novellas, and a biography of her great friend Charlotte Brontё.
Cranford, a humorous account of a nineteenth-century English village dominated by a group of genteel but modestly circumstanced women, has been Elizabeth Gaskell's most consistently popular work. Charles Dickens was the first of many readers to extol its wit and charm. But its place in the canon of Victorian fiction has been characterized by a peculiar irony. For much of its history there was a tendency to confuse the endearingly old-fashioned quality of the Cranford women with the novel itself, to view Cranford as a delightful but quaint book. Scholars considered it less important than Gaskell's social problem novels, even as they noted its superior style. Now, however, it is recognized as an original and, in its own subtle way, a radical text. By eschewing the conventional marriage plot with its nubile heroines and focusing instead on a group of middle-aged and elderly spinsters, Gaskell did something highly unusual within the novel genre. Through her masterful management of the novel's tone, she underscores the value and dignity of single women's lives even as she causes us to laugh at her characters' foibles. Cranford is as unique and as resilient as the community it celebrates, continuing to captivate new generations of readers.
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was born in London in 1810 to William and Elizabeth (Holland) Stevenson. Her father was a Unitarian minister who had given up his living when troubled by scruples about being paid for preaching the Gospel. He supported the family through periodical writing until he obtained a modest post in the civil service. Elizabeth's mother died when Elizabeth was one, and although her father remarried, Elizabeth was raised by her maternal aunt in the country village of Knutsford, Cheshire (the prototype for the fictional Cranford). In 1832 she married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, and moved with him to Manchester, the center of the Industrial Revolution. She said she began writing her first novel, Mary Barton, in an attempt to recover from her grief over the loss of an infant son. (Four daughters were to follow.) As a minister's wife visiting the urban poor, she had observed many scenes of working-class misery, and she drew on them in this industrial novel. Published in 1848, it proved to be both successful and controversial. She addressed another contentious topic in Ruth (1853), the story of a fallen woman's redemption. Its composition overlapped with that of the more light-hearted Cranford (1853). Gaskell returned to the subject of labor relations in North and South (1855) and experimented with historical fiction in Sylvia's Lovers (1863), set at the time of the Napoleonic wars. It is a measure of her stature within the Victorian literary world that Charlotte's Brontë's family chose Gaskell to be Brontë's first biographer; The Life of Charlotte Brontë appeared in 1857. At the time of Gaskell's sudden death in 1865, she had all but completed her magisterial Wives and Daughters, which portrays the social exchanges that structure life in a provincial town on the eve of the Victorian period.
While Gaskell's experience as a minister's wife in Manchester provided her with the background to write her social problem novels, her childhood in a country village provided the fodder for Cranford. The ladies of Cranford are based in part on Gaskell's aunts and the other women who formed their circle in Knutsford. The anachronistic customs and the endearing eccentricities of the Cranfordians fuel the story's comedy, but the novel is also an homage to the decency and compassion of the women who surrounded Gaskell in her youth. Gaskell was actually adopted by two women, her widowed Aunt Lumb and her grown cousin Mary Anne, who proposed to her mother that they take in the motherless Elizabeth. After Mary Anne's death the following year another aunt joined the household to help raise Elizabeth. The women were all single; Aunt Lumb, who had left her husband when he proved to be insane, was widowed. In Victorian England, the married state was considered women's proper destiny. But as the 1851 census showed, there were more women than men in the population, leading to public expressions of concern over the so-called "surplus" or "redundant" women. Gaskell's subtle championing of the respectable spinster resonates in this context. She does not romanticize her condition; Matty's sense of herself as a mother manquée, for example, is poignantly rendered. But Gaskell shows the worth of the single women's lives. Underneath their comical social snobbery lie strong communal values. Not only core members of the community like Matty Jenkins but also newcomers or transients like the two Brown families are aided by the community when they are in need. The ethic of care manifested in Gaskell's own adoption characterizes the women who comprise the society at Cranford. Cranford was begun when Gaskell was revisiting Knutsford in her early forties. Back in her childhood home, she wrote what would become the first two chapters of the novel, which Dickens published in the December 1851 edition of his periodical Household Words under the title "Our Society at Cranford." (Further installments appeared over the next two years in the same forum before they were compiled as a book.) Her aunt was no longer living and the community was changing, so Gaskell was recording and celebrating a moment that had passed. The role played by memory in the genesis of this work contributes to its distinctive treatment of time. Writing in the 1850s, Gaskell was a mid-Victorian describing the early Victorian period. But because part of what characterizes the women of Cranford is their retention of customs, manners, and fashions that have become outmoded in society at large, the historical moment often seems further back than it actually is. In addition, the novel is punctuated by embedded reminiscences that temporarily push back the time frame, as when Matty tells the narrator about her parents' marriage and her own early family life, or when we are given the history of the youthful courtship that was the unfulfilled romance of Matty's life. This use of flashbacks, together with Gaskell's adoption of an episodic rather than a linear structure, contributes to an effect aptly described by Gaskell's biographer Jenny Uglow as a "dreamlike shifting and sliding of planes of time."
Linear time sometimes seems to be held in abeyance in Cranford; the narrator notes on one of her visits that the traditional markers of time's passage are absent: "There had been neither births, deaths, nor marriages since I was there last. Everybody lived in the same house, and wore pretty nearly the same well-preserved, old fashioned clothes. . ." (chapter 2). But Cranford's apparent stasis is illusory. Gaskell subtly dramatizes this point by beginning the novel with an episode that occurs years before the remaining chapters. The story of Captain Brown and his encounters with the Cranford ladies, the chapters that establish for us the salient characteristics of this community with its rigid social codes and its emphasis on "elegant economy," treat a period that is already a past moment in the community's history at the time the action proper begins. Captain Brown's arrival in Cranford and his sudden death occur in the 1830s, on the cusp of the Victorian period. (He is reading Pickwick Papers, which was serialized in 1836-7.) At the end of this section, the narrator recalls that years later the Captain's granddaughter would read Johnson aloud to Miss Deborah Jenkyns, sneaking peeks at A Christmas Carol (published in 1843), whenever Deborah dozed off. The rest of the novel takes place after Miss Jenkyns'death, and events will prove that that event constituted a transitional moment in the village's history.
Deborah is survived by her sister Matty, and as many commentators have noted, Deborah and Matty exhibit differences of temperament that can be taken to stand for differences of historical period as well. Deborah, while not lacking an underlying compassion that characterizes Cranford at its best, is rigid and formal. Her veneration of Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century writer noted for his cool and elegant prose, and her exaggerated horror of Dickens, a more colorful, emotional, and contemporary writer, is Gaskell's way of humorously underscoring this point. (Though the humor that would have accrued from reading about the battle of Johnson versus Dickens in Household Words was lost. Dickens as editor changed the name of the novel that Captain Brown was reading, fearing to seem indecorously self-promoting. Gaskell was furious about the emendation.) Though the self-effacing Matty wants to be the preserver of her sister's traditions, she cannot help but be less rigid. (The copy of Pickwick Papers, we learn, was hers.) Remembering her own unfulfilled courtship (aborted by Deborah's social snobbery), she breaks with household tradition by allowing her servant to have a follower. When the maid and her husband later play a key role in the economic survival of Miss Matty, we realize that this flexibility, rather than negatively altering the town's character, prolongs it survival. While Matty is not directly responsible for it, it is during the period over which she presides that the social codes of Cranford are slightly and felicitously relaxed. Miss Barker, formerly a ladies' maid and a milliner, is allowed to receive the cream of Cranford society in her home, and Lady Glenmire gives up her title to marry plain Mr. Hoggins, the doctor the ladies had thought insufficiently genteel for their own company. All Victorian fiction inevitably engages with the issue of social mobility, and Cranford is no exception.
The town's society and its customs are presented to us by a narrator who mediates between the anachronistic, provincial Cranfordians and the contemporary, metropolitan reader. Like Gaskell, the narrator Mary Smith belongs to a different generation than do the women whose lives she reveals to us. Mary Smith even sounds like Gaskell; one of the author's biographers, Winfred Gérin, comments that Cranford, "told . . . in a style of intimate confidence, like gossip exchanged with a friend," recalls the tone of the author's letters. The narrator's attitude and Gaskell's are similar; though she may betray her amusement at the eccentric ways of Cranford, Mary never fails to respect its residents. She often gently laughs at their foibles but does not hold herself above them, always including herself in the communal "we." Crucially, though, Mary Smith is both of and not of Cranford. A frequent visitor, much loved by the core members of the community, she hails from the nearby commercial town of Drumble (whose very name echoes with the sound of the activity that is absent in the sleepy village of Cranford). Like Gaskell herself, whose trajectory encompassed Manchester as well as Cheshire, this narrator has "vibrated all [her] life between Drumble and Cranford" (chapter 16). This gives her the perspective necessary to analyze the town; it also allows her to mediate between the values of the two places. This is crucial, for Cranford and Drumble exist in dramatic tension; they are not entirely separate, as we see when Miss Matty's precarious financial security is shattered through a bank failure. It is Mary who is uniquely equipped to find a solution for Matty at this juncture, because she combines the commercial acumen that is a product of her Drumble upbringing with the communitarian values she has absorbed in Cranford. Mary is both the person the community chooses to entrust with their secret kitty for Miss Matty and the person who can think of a way to invest it in a commercial venture that will allow Matty to make a modest living without sacrificing her gentility.
Like another distressed gentlewoman, Hawthorne's Hepzibah Pyncheon, Matty will open a shop in her home. As a tea seller Matty does not follow the strict rules of commercial practice advocated by Mary's father, but she flourishes anyway, because while she weighs the tea she sells too generously, her customers respond by supplementing their payments with offerings in kind. This vestige of a pre-capitalist ethos suggests that Cranford sustains itself through a value system distinct from that prevailing in Drumble, where Matty's father, despite his precautions and suspicions, "lost upward of a thousand pounds by roguery only last year" (chapter 15). The contrast between the value systems of Drumble and Cranford is also evident in Mary's father's response to the sense of personal responsibility Matty assumes as a shareholder when the bank fails. While the exasperated Mr. Smith views it as a mark of her ignorance of the ways of the financial world, for the reader it is evidence that that the code of gentility prevailing in Cranford involves more than empty ritual or face-saving.
Given this conflict between "masculine" commercial values and "feminine" communitarian ones, it is important that Matty's rescue is effected before her brother returns from India. For it means that the women of Cranford are largely self-sufficient; Peter's return is merely an added bonus. In her groundbreaking study of female communities in fiction, Nina Auerbach noted Cranford's "unsettling power to obliterate men . . . [and] its corresponding gift of producing them at need." While Captain Brown and Signor Brunoni are dispatched, Peter remains. But his incorporation into the community does not threaten its character; with his Indian past, Peter merely adds a bit of spice. His alignment with the female element is suggested in the episode that led to his self-imposed banishment from Cranford in the days before it became a bastion of women. Flogged by his father, he is positioned as a victim of masculine power rather than an agent of it. The flogging was provoked by an act of cross-dressing whose purport was to attack Deborah's pretensions, so he is also aligned with the more flexible values embodied by Matty. But while Matty would never criticize her beloved sister, Peter's prank-he dresses up as the unmarried Deborah and carries a pretend baby-is a curiously aggressive one. He acts out resentment that Matty has cause to feel but appears not to. We might speculate that his appearance in the book has a biographical source; Gaskell's much-loved brother, her only sibling to survive to adulthood, was lost at sea. (Unlike Peter, he never returned.)
In the novel's famous opening line Mary Smith says that Cranford "is in possession of the Amazons." The designation is comic; these fussy women are hardly warrior types. But it is also ironically apt, for they prove to have strength and endurance and to be capable of modestly heroic acts of rescue. Elizabeth Gaskell was perhaps uniquely positioned to recognize the way feminine gentleness can go hand in hand with female strength. Her work as a writer always co-existed with her duties as a wife and mother, and her public persona was that of a charming, very feminine woman, an image that contrasted markedly with that of, say, the prickly hermit Charlotte Brontë or the overtly intellectual and "masculine" George Eliot. (Until the final third of the twentieth century, she was routinely referred to in the critical literature as "Mrs. Gaskell.") Yet she never shied away from challenging topics and always knew her own mind (as Dickens would discover when they butted heads over North and South, also serialized in Household Words). The "charming" author of Cranford had a steely core. Hers was one of the most subtly subversive voices in Victorian England, and this work, which manages to be both poignant and sly, is her most disarming.