The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford is presented as an isolated community rooted in the past and inwardly focused on the minutiae of domestic routine and etiquette, yet the town has a railway; a dynamic force which undercuts the inward focus and inertia of this suburban space. Railways are the symbol of modernisation, progress and a connectedness, pointing to a vibrant and changing world beyond the walls of Cranford’s middle-class drawing rooms. The railway is an agent of change, and the first stage of this change is marked by the death of Captain Brown, on the railway.

Captain Brown, one of the few male characters in this community of ‘Amazons’, is an anathema to the Cranford ladies with their ‘elegant economy’ and social reserve. He:

[o]penly spoke about his being poor – not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed, but in the public street! In a loud military voice.

Moreover, his death brings the public domain into the private world of domesticity and causes these two spheres to interact. Miss Matty leaves the interior space of her sister’s drawing room and sallies forth into the public street in search of news. Her informant is a working class man, a carter, who is subsequently dragged into this respectable middle-class drawing room, replete with its new and treasured carpet, which to Miss Jenkyns represents household pride and social status. Carpets were expensive items and this one probably stretched the household budget, despite the fact that Mary, the narrator, treats the incident of facilitating its protection from sunlight with a light hearted and satirical eye. The narrator also carefully notices the detail of this workman’s ‘wet boots’.

With the death of Captain Brown, this treasured carpet’s imminent soiling is forgotten in the ladies’ desire for information, and thus this very ordinary incident carries a wealth of symbolic meanings. It is not just the interaction of public and private worlds that is precipitated by the captain’s death; it is also the interaction of gender and social class. Moreover, it causes Miss Deborah Jenkyns to reach out with genuine sympathy towards Captain Brown’s family – she even becomes active in facilitating a marriage between his surviving daughter, Jessie, and Major Gordon. The first marriage noted in Cranford since the narrator’s return.

Death, therefore, becomes an important agent of change. Captain Brown’s death marks the first change and the death of Miss Jenkyns, in Chapter Three, marks the second. As the head of the family, Miss Jenkyns takes on a traditionally male role of patriarch and there is definitely something slightly masculine about Gaskell’s descriptions of this old woman. At Captain Brown’s funeral she is seen sporting a strange bonnet, about which Mary remarks: ‘I no sooner saw the bonnet than I was reminded of a helmet; and in that hybrid bonnet, half helmet, half jockey-cap, did Miss Jenkyns attend Captain Brown’s funeral.’ A bonnet is a female item of dress and yet it described as a strange ‘hybrid’ of male attire. Miss Jenkyns is also guardian of the family’s values and polices her sister’s behaviour in line with religious principles and social mores. While Miss Matty dearly loved her sister, the presence of this matriarchal older woman was constraining. With Miss Jenkyns’s death comes some degree of freedom, but freedom is largely dictated by economic independence, a major concern in Cranford.

The ladies have some independent means, although Gaskell makes it clear that they are not wealthy and have to practise ‘elegant economy’. However, when there is a financial crash, change must follow as Miss Matty loses her income. This incident allows Gaskell to explore ways in which women might support themselves financially, while still retaining their respectability; a difficult problem, certainly for Miss Matty.  After a résumé of all the employment available to respectable women, such as teaching and  sewing, nothing proved suitable for Miss Matty, until Mary suggests a tea shop. This is an employment which will literally bring the male world of commerce into the Victorian drawing room, a room which is transformed into the a place of commercial enterprise. This tea shop is seen as an ideal way of generating income without breaching propriety:

… always supposing that Miss Matty could get over the degradation of condescending to anything like trade.  Tea was neither greasy nor sticky – grease and stickiness being two of the qualities which Miss Matty could not endure.  No shop-window would be required.  A small, genteel notification of her being licensed to sell tea would, it is true, be necessary, but I hoped that it could be placed where no one would see it.  Neither was tea a heavy article, so as to tax Miss Matty’s fragile strength.  The only thing against my plan was the buying and selling involved.

Gaskell also elaborates on how separate spheres were often socially debilitating for women, making them wary of male company, seeing themselves as inferior in any dealings with finance. Miss Matty admits: ‘it was of men particularly she was afraid.  They had such sharp loud ways with them; and did up accounts, and counted their change so quickly!’. Yet at this point in the text, men are beginning to take a greater prominence in the narrative. For example, Mary’s father arranges Miss Matty’s business and financial affairs, the rector purchases t
he Rev. Jenkyns’s library and Mr. Johnson supports the tea shop by recommending customers.

Finally, the tea shop becomes a success and Miss Matty is once more able to assert a small degree of financial independence through the help and support of her friends, both male and female. But perhaps the most important and welcome change that comes to Cranford is the reappearance of Miss Matty’s long-lost brother, Peter. The entrance of this particular male into the town  illustrates not just a national but also an international connection in the text as Peter returns from India, thus again undercutting the apparent  isolation of Cranford  established in the initial chapters. Peter’s return offers a compromise. Miss Matty can give up her employment and return to the security of domestic life without experiencing any of the legal restrictions on property and independence which were attendant on marriage.

Thus from Mary’s initial comments that: ‘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’, great changes had taken place.  After Jessie Brown’s marriage came the birth of her daughter, Flora; Martha married Jem; and Lady Glenmire married the doctor, Mr. Hoggins (even taking his name and becoming plain Mrs. Hoggins, to everyone’s consternation). Martha became pregnant and Peter Jenkyns returned home. The stasis was broken and Cranford could move forward.

Diane Duffy