How does 'Cranford' represent Victorian society in microcosm?
‘Cranford’, a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, was written in the Victorian era and is based on the author’s own experiences of growing up in Knutsford - How does 'Cranford' represent Victorian society in microcosm? introduction. Written in the first person, the narrator, Mary Smith, is no longer a resident of Cranford but is an outside observer writing an account from her point of view about the happenings that have occurred over the years in this small town.
The themes of gender, class, religion, dress, manners and behaviour in this novel, are all reflections on the values of the Victorian era and Cranford could be one of numerous towns across the country ‘Cranford’ is also a heart warming story of friendship that extends beyond the rigid boundaries that governed the Victorian way of life. Upon the opening of the novel, the narrator introduces the reader to the inhabitants and the correct social practices that must be adhered to in Cranford.
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It is said to be ‘in the possession of the Amazons’ (p5), a clear indication that this is town controlled by strong women, however, as with any tribe, there is a hierarchy of social status and a code by which they are governed by. However, the word ‘Amazons’ is so strong it is sarcastic, Amazonian women, in Greek mythology, were a group of strong, fearless warrior women who lived independently from men. This description is such a severe contrast to the middle aged women of Cranford it is comical as well. Indeed Charlotte Bronte wrote to Gaskell stating “satirical you are I believe a little more than you think” (1).
Bronte recognised that Just as importantly, the narrator also makes the point that there are no men of social stature resident in Cranford and, if one does come to live there, he does not last long. ‘If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man at the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble’ (p5).
This point is again reinforced as the narrator informs us that she recalls one of the ladies saying to her ‘A man is so in the way in the house’. (p5) Although Gaskell makes many points in this novel about the emancipation of women this reinforces the role of women in the Victorian Era, a woman’s place was in the home whilst men went out to work. Symbolically the world of commerce is not mentioned. ‘We none of us spoke of money, because the subject savoured of commerce and trade’ (p7)
As well as making a point of gender roles in Victorian times Gaskell, also highlights the importance of class, manners and behaviour in the opening of the novel. The social hierarchy is known by all and the residents of Cranford are all fully aware of where they belong in this structure. Although Mary’s place in Cranford society is never clearly defined, it is apparent that she is on the same social level as the elite for all cordial invitations are extended to her.
Social status played an important part of everyday life and very much determined the way you were treated as an individual and Gaskell clearly shows this in the novel. For example Miss Betty Barker feels it would be improper to invite Mrs Fitz-Adam to tea stating “I have the greatest respect for Mrs Fitz-Adam – but I cannot think her fit society for such ladies as Mrs Jamieson and Miss Matilda Jenkyns” (p77). Other works of the time such as Charles Dickens’s ‘Bleak House’ also reflects the changing times.
Set in the foggy, industrialized capital of London, it portrays Dickens’s world at that time: sanitary reform, slum clearance, orphans schools, the new detective branch of the Police Force and female emancipation. Mrs Jellyby, who is said to have been based on Mrs Caroline Chisholm who pioneered an ill fated expedition in 1841 to establish a colony in Africa, has her home described as dirty and unsanitary and the children there dirty and unkempt. She is clearly the dominant partner as her mild-mannered, long suffering husband sits in silence as she pours her and her family’s efforts and money into her cause.
However, this is a clear contrast to Esther who is the depicted as the idealistic Victorian woman. Neat, tidy, plain and humble she selflessly devotes herself to her husband and her family’s happiness much like the Cranford ladies. Therefore it could be argued that Gaskell seems to ignore the most significant aspect of the times, the industrial revolution and how this was changing society. The outside world is barely mentioned in ‘Cranford’ and when it is mentioned, it brings devastation like the death of Captain Brown.
In doing this, Gaskell makes a very subtle point. She believes society is changing for the worse. Again, this is a complete contrast to ‘Bleak House’ were Dickens makes blatant satirical points about the class, politics and the legal system. Although Gaskell’s approach is more subtle than Dickens the themes and motifs still make ‘Cranford’ a example of Victorian Society in microcosm. In the first chapter, the narrator sets the scene clearly by going into great description about the ‘rules and regulations’ (p6) that have to be adhered to in Cranford.
The calling hours, the length of time of a call, the time for bed, how the provision of anything expensive at the ‘evening entertainments’ (p8) was considered ‘vulgar ‘ (p8) and how money or being poor should never be spoken about. There are many references to how each member of the Cranford society is frugal in their own way throughout the novel: Miss Matty is described as ‘a chary of candles’ (p52) and Mrs Forrester retrieves her fine lace from ‘pussy’s insides'(p95).
Many people lived with very little means and frugality was commonplace. This was a quality to be admired as the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, said to a practical woman who was not frivolous or extravagant and it was fashionable to imitate her. As well as highlighting the traditional values of Victorian women, Gaskell also highlights the difficulties that they face in leading independent lives. When Miss Matty is facing bankruptcy and has to support herself, her lack of formal education means she struggles to find employment.
This highlights the problem of a lack of education for women in the Victorian age as Peter, Mattys’ brother, was sent away to school which allowed him to make a living in India whereas Matty and Deborah were not allowed the privilege of an education. Although Gaskell shows how women are expected to behave there are moments when the women act against convention, for example the attendance of Miss Jessie and Miss Jenkyns at Captain Brown’s funeral would have been socially unacceptable as women did not traditionally attend funerals: Even Queen Victoria did not attend Albert’s funeral in 1861.
This reflects how the times were beginning to change in the respect of women’s role in society. It is the relationships between the women of Cranford that set the story apart from the norm of the Victorian age. ‘Cranford’ reflects a lifestyle that is reminiscent of the time; however, the relationships of the women in the novel overcome the boundaries of class and social status. There are several occasions throughout the novel where etiquette suggests an action should not be taken but it is taken in order to support a friend in a time of need.
When Miss Matty faces bankruptcy, Gaskell makes it clear that the codes of social practice are so strictly adhered that even if someone were facing complete destitution, accepting charity is not even be considered. The whole of Cranford Society is determined to assist her in her time of need so they are forced to concoct a plan that enables them all to help her without her knowledge. The Jenkyns’s social stature is due to their being the late Rector’s daughters and biblical references, such as Martha stating “she was not one to serve Mammon” (p152) show how the Bible plays a central role in life.
The Bible is quoted many times in the novel for example when Captain Brown passes away and Miss Brown is near death Miss Jessie quotes “he has gone before you to the place where the weary are at rest” (p25) (Job 13:17) and “though He slay me, yet I will trust in him” (p26) (Job 13:15). The religious references throughout the novel are important as religion was a huge influence on everyday life in the Victorian ‘era’, six in ten people attended church on a Sunday.
This also reflects of Gaskell’s own beliefs and her everyday life as she was married to a Reverend and spent a lot of her life conducting parish work in an area notorious for its poverty and appalling conditions. In conclusion, ‘Cranford’ as a novel, represents Victorian Society in microcosm by giving an in depth portrayal of life in the Victorian age. Society and class are clearly governed by behaviour and frugal living is commonplace.
However, the constraints of expected behaviour are broken by these women in times of need and for the sake of friendship and this may be a more accurate portrayal of the strength of women and how they really behaved. This again is similar to ‘Bleak House’: Lady Dedlock eventually kills herself over her grief for her lost love and the abandonment of her illegitimate child: Mrs Jellyby’s missionary work leads her to ignore her duties as a wife and mother and Esther, who has the scandal of being the illegitimate child of Lady Dedlock and also struggles with her love for Allan Woodcourt and the respect she has for her Guardian.
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Cranford based on her own childhood experiences and it is likely that these events did happen. ‘Cranford’ has been described as “an innocently nostalgic work’ and it may be that Gaskell chooses to describe her childhood when compared to the horrific sights she saw when she lived in Manchester and was committed to looking after the poor. It is apparent that she is making a point about how women were perceived in her youth in comparison to how they actually behaved.
Gaskell makes many valid points about the value of women, society and class, however, there are still many aspects of ‘Cranford’ that do not fulfil the true picture of life in the Victorian era. Although times were beginning to change slowly in the way that women were treated such as through the 1856 Education Act, the rapidly changing times and many of the very important issues that were occurring in the period in which the novel is written are ignored and unlike other novels of he time we have only the perspective of seeing the lives of the higher society of ‘Cranford’.
This may well have been due to Gaskell’s position as a Preacher’s wife, in that she felt she could not be as shocking as other author’s of the time, but this may be why ‘Cranford’ is referred to as “affectionate, moving and darkly satirical” (2) whereas Dicken’s ‘Bleak House’ is described as “a savage, but often comic indictment of a society that is rotten to the core” (3). ‘Bleak House’ moves throughout the novel from the comfortable surroundings of Chesney Wold to the London Slums and it could be argued that ‘Bleak House’ is a more rounded and accurate portrayal of Victorian Society.