The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

For April’s ‘This Month in Writing’ I have chosen to discuss Cranford as two episodes of the story were published in Household Words in April 1852 and April 1853. These were ‘Visiting at Cranford’ and ‘Stopped payment at Cranford’.  However, as these episodes are towards the middle of the collection, which manages to hold together as a story through unity of character and narrative, I decided to take a theme instead. What better subject for a town ‘inhabited by Amazons’ than women?

Cranford is unusual in so much as it is peopled by unmarried women but has no marriage plot as such. The only marriage takes place early on in the narrative, thereby clearing the way for a very different kind of story – one that privileges and celebrates the lives of these unmarried, and therefore socially redundant, women.

During the 1850s there was a superfluity of unmarried women: a dangerous social situation! Single women did not live in ‘blessedness’; they were looked down upon, criticised for being social failures or even viewed as masculine and unlovable. Even in the later twentieth century there were whispers of ‘What is the matter with her that she can’t get a man?’. No-one asked whether she might even want one!

Many middle-class women of independent means had to think hard about whether they wanted to sacrifice their fortune and their independence to their husbands. Yet marriage was a way to keep women under male control and therefore it had to be seen not as an option, but as a necessity.

Miss Deborah and Miss Mathilda Jenkyns are two of the central characters of this collection of tales. As young women both considered – even expected – that marriage would happen, as they saw it as a social requirement. The narrator, Mary Smith, another unmarried woman, states that Miss Deborah believed she:

should like to marry an archdeacon, and write his charges; and you know, my dear, she never was married, and, for aught I know, she never spoke to an unmarried archdeacon in her life.

This was an idealised picture of family harmony that was never to be realised. Miss Matty, on the other had: ‘did not think I should have been only Miss Matty Jenkyns all my life’. The connotation of ‘only’ here is immense. An unmarried woman, a spinster, has no social status, she is a ‘nobody’. Women’s social function was to marry and have children, otherwise they were considered ‘unwomen’, if I can borrow a term from Margaret Atwood.

Elizabeth Gaskell presents this situation much more succinctly that any written explanation can: she presents a visual image for us to read. Peter Jenkyns dresses up as his elder sister, Miss Deborah, and parades through the streets of Cranford carrying a pillow as a baby – the baby his sister will never have. This is meant as a joke, and it is humorous, but while we laugh, we also see the sadness inherent in Deborah’s deep humiliation at her social failure made public – she is mortified! Gaskell is also showing us the way childless women become masculinised by society: the man inside the female garb. It also shows us the woman inside the man, a possible side to Peter that would be equally unacceptable to Victorian social mores. Perhaps this is why he is so violently beaten by his father the Rector, the upholder of moral values, and immediately decides to leaves this inward-looking society.

As the incident concerning Peter illustrates, unmarried women were stigmatised and ridiculed, derisively named old maids and described in derogatory terms. In her letters   Elizabeth draws attention to the stereotype of ‘old maid’ : ‘particular & fidgety and tidy and punctual’, repeating ‘and’ to draw out the description and create an impression of slow deliberacy;  women tied to the habits of a lifetime who have little to do, thereby  fidgeting with nervous energy, yet unable to break free. The town of Cranford is itself in such a time warp:

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.  The greatest event was, that Miss Jenkyns had purchased a new carpet for the drawing-room. (Chapter 1)

This is a world anchored in the past, but change is just off-stage, symbolically represented by the railway. Cranford is about to overturn its own carefully constructed stereotypes.

Diane Duffy