In the idiosyncratic world of Cranford, Mrs. Forrester admits that she
always confuses "horizontal and perpendicular" (p. 112).[Note 1]
Chopping her own straight path through the thickets of logic, she voices several of Elizabeth Gaskell's favorite "Cranfordisms": that better
lace will be available in England after the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Bill (p. 78); that Signor Brunoni, with his Turkish turban,
must be a Frenchman (p.90); that she, "the widow of a major in the army, knew what to be frightened at, and what not" (p. 99). Her
immediate reaction when her cat swallows some valuable lace is to send to the surgeon to borrow "one of his top-boots for an hour"
(p.79). Undeterred by an audience of young men laughing themselves sick, she soon has the cat immobilized in the boot, and solves the
problem with some tartar emetic and a teaspoonful of currant-jelly.
Just as resourcefully had Miss Betty Barker taken up Captain Brown's
joking suggestion and dressed her bare Alderney cow in grey
flannel waistcoat and drawers (p.5). Cow, cat, and lace survive, for Cranford is a society of female survivors; even the "gentle little
spinster" who can hardly lift the family umbrella (p. 2) has outlived her strong father and troop of siblings.
In the twenty years since Martin Dodsworth published his important essay,
"Women Without Men at Cranford,"[Note 2] several critics
have discussed the progressive "feminization" and "communalization" of Gaskell's fictional community after the death of Deborah
Jenkyns. Dodsworth thought a situation in which women live without men a "horror," but nevertheless rescued Cranford from years of
critical neglect, pointing to its "fundamentally serious concerns," "psychological accuracy," and "effective principle of unity." Unwittingly,
he has challenged feminist critics to sharpen up their reading of a book they probably loved in childhood and have thought little of
Replying to Dodsworth, Margaret Tarratt argues that it is "not feminist
assertiveness but feminine subservience that is in question"; after
Deborah Jenkyns's death, "normality" and human values triumph over Cranford's "strict code of gentility."[Note 4] For Patricia A.
Wolfe, the important structural principle of Cranford is the progression from "a perverted sense of feminism" (Deborah's emulation of
paternal bossiness) to "a natural application of femininity" (Miss Matty's developing presence as mother to the whole community.)[Note
5] Nina Auerbach emphasizes the reality of the sex war in Cranford and the unexpectedness of its outcome: "In the verbal and
commercial battle of nineteenth-century England, the cooperative female community defeats the warrior world that proclaims itself the
real one."[Note 6] Coral Lansbury suggests that Cranford can be read as a Utopian fiction which explores the possibility of happiness
and fellowship for old, single, and lonely women.[Note 7]
The second half of the book certainly has a Utopian quality: but Cranford
is a specifically female Utopia, offering a softening and blurring
of categories and hierarchies in place of More's or Plato's clearly-ordered systems. The rule-bound society of the early chapters begins to
give way when first Mrs. Fitz-Adam and then Miss Betty Barker and her cherry brandy are absorbed into the system. By the mid-point
of the book, manners have become much more relaxed; the snappy dog Carlo has barked his last, and stuffy Mr. Mulliner has departed
for Cheltenham. Once the Town and Country Bank crashes, the way is clear for a new order where ladies keep shops and lodge with
their servants, aristocrats marry surgeons, and the vicar is a shy virgin protected "as if he had been the queen bee" by his National School
boys (p. 88).
By banishing men to the margins of her Utopia, Gaskell makes fun
of male claims to centrality. In Cranford men are odd,
incomprehensible creatures, defined as "the sex," judged collectively on the behavior of a token individual (Mr. Hoggins) who is seen as
the "representative and type" of men in general (p. 97). Their accoutrements — razors, swords, railways — are presented as exotic,
mysterious, and possibly lethal; their manners sharp and loud; their attitudes to language combative and unaccommodating. Mr. Mulliner
knocks too hard on doors and speaks only in gruff and condescending monosyllables. Mr. Smith can express himself only in men's
language: in Angela Carter's description, "hard-edged, public speech, a language that is a tool for the clarification rather than the speedy
negotiation of circumstances."[Note 8] Neither Miss Matty nor Mary Smith can follow his exposition of "accounts, and schemes, and
reports, and documents":
I do not believe
we either of us understood a word; for my father was clear-headed and decisive,
and a capital man of
business, and if we made the slightest enquiry, or expressed the slightest want of comprehension, he had a sharp way of
saying, 'Eh? eh? it's as clear as daylight. What's your objection?' And as we had not comprehended anything of what he had
proposed, we found it rather difficult to shape our objections: in fact, we never were sure if we had any. (p.140)
Unlike the Amazons of Herodotus, the women of Cranford are not bilingual,
and their nervous attempts to acquiesce in male discourse
are foiled by the contradiction between men's words and women's manner of speaking, as Mary Smith realizes: "when I once joined in as
chorus to a 'Decidedly,' pronounced by Miss Matty in a tremblingly dubious tone, my father fired round at me and asked me 'What there
was to decide?"' (pp. 140-41). The presence of a male listener inevitably alters the way women speak, even to each other, and they tend
to be more susceptible than men to the giving or withholding of cues: "Miss Pole ventured on a small joke as we went up-stairs, intended,
though addressed to us, to afford Mr. Mulliner some slight amusement. We all smiled, in order to seem as if we felt at our ease, and
timidly looked for Mr. Mulliner's sympathy. Not a muscle of that wooden face had relaxed; and we were grave in an instant" (p. 75).
When no men are listening, the women of Cranford fall naturally into
Carter's "language of sisterhood," their "lateral logic" flourishing in
a "shared privacy of oblique reference."[Note 9] Because Cranford is a predominantly female world, women's language and values are
the accepted currency; writer and reader can be free for once of what Mary Jacobus calls "the doom-ridden concept of
difference-as-opposition."[Note 10] Gaskell understands that the importance of alternative worlds lies not in their external organization but
in their power to suggest different ways of thinking and feeling. In the pages that follow, I shall discuss Gaskell's exploration in Cranford
of how women think, speak, and communicate; their ways of solving problems and negotiating disagreements; their attitude to hierarchy
and authority; and their sense of place, time, tradition, and continuity.
While Mrs. Forrester is Cranford's lateral thinker, Miss Pole, with
her probing curiosity and vigorous line in dry sarcasm, is its prophet
and skeptic. Unmasker of male magic and mystery by virtue of her experience ("my father was a man, and I know the sex pretty well"),
she challenges men's claims to foresee events, since "they never tell one for one's warning before the events happen" (p.96). Although
her own claims to foresight may seem dubious on a first reading of the novel, subsequent readings show that Miss Pole is often right
after all. It is she who anticipates all the most dramatic events of the book. When the subject of "poor Peter" is introduced (he was last
heard of somewhere in the Far East and rumor has it he is the Lama of Tibet), Mrs. Forrester's unstoppable association of ideas
proceeds by way of Lalla Rookh to freckles, face lotion, and "the merits of cosmetics and hair oils in general" (p.112). Meanwhile,
however, Miss Pole's parallel sequence, Lama/llama/Peruvian bonds/share market/precariousness of joint-stock banks/Miss Matty's
investments, though presented by Mary Smith as amusingly irrelevant, points the way directly to the failure of the Town and Country
Mary herself, who has "vibrated" (p.154) all her life between Cranford
and the nearby manufacturing town of Drumble, is sometimes too
influenced by the matter-of-factness of the latter to appreciate the roundabout logic of the former. But when she is more finely tuned to
Cranford ways she is capable of the same kind of creative thinking. For instance: Miss Matty, preoccupied with green silk, orders green
tea from the grocer; a typical symptom in Mary's view, of "absence of mind" (p.121). But the incident surfaces later in the day to spark
off Mary's inspired solution of her friend's money-troubles: "when the tea-urn was brought in, a new thought came into my head. Why
should not Miss Matty sell tea — be an agent to the East India Tea Company?" (p.133). Not really a new thought at all, but one which
has been brewing all day. Perhaps the association of ideas goes back even further; seeing in Miss Matty's shop, "two boxes of tea with
cabalistic inscriptions all over them" (p.144), we may remember that first party at the Hon. Mrs. Jamieson's and wonder whether Mary
Smith consciously recalls noticing there a "box painted in fond imitation of the drawings which decorate tea-chests" (p.76).
Mary soon learns that she must speak their language if she wants to
have any influence with her Cranford friends. The appeal to reason
is rightly suspect in Cranford: Martha, like all women, knows that "Reason always means what some one else has got to say" (p.129).
Faced with Miss Matty's reluctance to sell green tea in her shop (she considers it bad for the health), Mary has a choice of ways to
proceed. The Drumble method — direct refutation plus list of counter-instances — gets her nowhere. At her wits' end, she moves
sideways in the Cranford style with a "happy reference of mine to the train [whale] oil and tallow candles which the Esquimaux not only
enjoy but digest. After that she acknowledged that 'one man's meat might be another man's poison,' and contented herself thenceforward
with an occasional remonstrance" (p.146).
Mary also learns that allusions that might seem vague or incomprehensible
to an outsider are in fact precise and economical. Cranford
has its own cosmography, its fictional center (female Cranford and male Drumble) surrounded by a widening circle of hazy "real" places:
Liverpool, Preston, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, London (the home of the imagined reader), Paris, and India "or that neighbourhood"
(p.112). Criss-crossing the world are man-made notional lines; but "equators and tropics, and such mystical circles," puzzling enough to
Mary Smith, are "very imaginary lines indeed" to Miss Matty (p.131), who confides that "she never could believe that the earth was
moving constantly, and that she would not believe it if she could, it made her feel so tired and dizzy whenever she thought about it"
(p.80). The past is referred to in terms of local and personal associations rather than by an abstract system of dates: "a year when
Wombwell [a traveling circus] came to Cranford"; "the year when Miss Pole bought her India muslin gown" (p. 112). Gaskell artfully
builds these seemingly random associations into her narrative; only at the end of the book do we see the significance of the circus animals
or the muslin gown that became a window blind.
In no other of her novels does Gaskell find such a perfect fit between
subject and narrative method, and in no other has her art been so
consistently underestimated. The story goes backwards and forwards in time, incorporating incidents and episodes, and yet it is not
loosely anecdotal; Dodsworth has shown that the connecting links which make the book an artistic whole are all in the serialized parts as
they were originally published, and were not added retrospectively. Mary Smith, with her "vibrations" in and out of the narrative, is a
happy device invented generations before the more ponderous Marlow or Nick Carraway. There is nothing aimless about either the
author of Cranford or her characters. When Dickens rewrote for Household Words the passage in which Deborah Jenkyns reminisces
about her childhood, he gave her a meaninglessly meandering senile sequence: "'Mr. Hood, you know — Hood — Admiral Hood: when I
was a girl; but that's a long time ago, — I wore a cloak with a red Hood — " (p. 187n.). Gaskell's original text, which she firmly restored
in the 1853 edition, poignantly suggests an old woman's memory of playing the part of the strong, resourceful heroine in Maria
Edgeworth's play: "'that book by Mr. Boz, you know — "Old Poz;" when I was a girl, but that's a long time ago, — I acted Lucy in "Old
Gaskell's style and pace in Cranford accommodate themselves easily to
a female world of talk and letters, the telling and re-telling of
news and reminiscences and stories. Reporting a particularly dramatic event — Miss Pole's discovery of Lady Glenmire's engagement to
Mr. Hoggins — Mary Smith builds up the suspense from parenthesis to parenthesis until Miss Pole's breathlessness becomes infectious:
"But I must recover myself; the contemplation of it, even at this distance of time, has taken away my breath and my grammar, and
unless I subdue my emotion, my spelling will go too"(p. 113). At other times the stories are old and familiar, told by fire- or candle-light
to the accompaniment of knitting, sewing, or crochet: "There was all the more time for me to hear old-world stories from Miss Pole,
while she sat knitting, and I making my father's shirts" (p. 24). Gaskell herself excelled in story-telling (a famous letter from Dickens
addresses her as "My dear Scheherazade, — For I am sure your powers of narrative can never be exhausted in a single night, but must
be good for at least a thousand nights and one"),[Note 11] and the women of Cranford take after her. Mrs. Forrester's Jenny's headless
lady in white penetrates even Miss Pole's skepticism. The gentler the woman the more vivid the imagination: Miss Matty, who once
reminded Mary Smith of ghoulish Aminé in the Arabian Nights (p.33), outdoes them all in "horrid stories of robbery and murder" (p.92).
Cranfordians are also great letter-writers. (Winifred Gérin says of Gaskell's own style in Cranford that it "resembles far more the style of
her letters than any of her other fictions."[Note 12] There is much discussion within the novel of what a letter should be. Mr. Smith's is
"just a man's letter," with little personal information and bad news about business affairs (p. 119). Grandfather Jenkyns pens "a severe
and forcible picture of the responsibilities of mothers, and a warning against the evils that were in the world, lying in ghastly wait for the
little baby of two days old" (p. 44), while his son favors incomprehensible Latin quotations (p. 45). Grandmother Jenkyns, on the other
hand, asks her "'dear, dearest Molly' . . . to wrap her baby's feet up in flannel, and keep it warm by the fire" (p. 4). Miss Matty writes
"nice, kind, rambling letters" (p. 12), beginning "many sentences without ending them, running them one into another, in much the same
confused sort of way in which written words run together on blotting-paper" (p.81). Deborah Jenkyns, who has adopted male values and
standards, models her ostensibly spontaneous, carefully-composed letters on Dr. Johnson. As her father's assistant, she once wrote a
letter for him to the bishop (p. 58). She would have been a good archdeacon herself, though all she could aspire to would be "to marry
an archdeacon, and write his charges" (p. 107). Her "stately and grand style" reads like Virginia Woolf's example of an early
nineteenth-century "man's sentence," still influenced by Johnson and Gibbon: "Jane Austen [and, we might add, Elizabeth Gaskell in
Cranford] looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use.[Note 13]
It is a woman's letter, asking to be remembered to old acquaintances,
which finally brings peace and reconciliation to Cranford. "Every
one was named" (p.157); and as they are inscribed in Mrs. Gordon's letter they are also safely enveloped in the "old friendly sociability"
(p. 160) of Cranford society.
One of the most pervasive mutually-understood conventions of women's
language in Cranford is the avoidance of blunt, hurtful, or
demeaning truths. P. N. Furbank refers to "the great Cranford conspiracy in deceit"; to him, both North and South and Cranford are
"studies in pretence," and Gaskell is "the poet of deceit": "she knows the country of shams better than anyone."[Note 14] But Gaskell is
not "cynical about female motivation"; just knowledgeable about the shared fictions, the hints, excuses, warning coughs, and well-timed
yawns that make social life possible: "a little credulity helps one on through life very smoothly," says Miss Matty, " — better than always
doubting and doubting, and seeing difficulties and disagreeables in everything" (p.108). The inhabitants of Cranford know that their
pretexts — the night air so refreshing, the stars so beautiful — are only taken literally ("Are you fond of astronomy?") by a newcomer
like Lady Glenmire who has yet to learn the code (p.80). Mary Smith's Drumble self disapproves of "white lies" but she accepts the
conspiracy to help Miss Matty. When living in Cranford she is as fluent as anybody in the language of innuendo: "I dropped the pack of
cards, which I had been shuffling very audibly; and by this discreet movement, I obliged Miss Pole to perceive that Preference was to
have been the order of the evening" (p.84). Such stratagems are benign rather than sinister. The men of Cranford, such as they are,
belong to their regiment, their ship, their firm (p.1), but the women have their own "kindly esprit de corps" (p.3).
While shared pretences hold small-town life together, private secrets
enable the individual to preserve her own dignity. Secrets both hide
shame and promote mystique: Mrs. Forrester, for instance, has to conceal her tiny income (smaller even than the other women's) but
gains enormous prestige from her speciality, the bread-jelly "for which she was so famous" (p.104) and for which the recipe is to be kept
a secret until after her death, when it will be bequeathed to Miss Matty. The stratagems by which Miss Pole covers her "adventures" —
losing a glove, dropping in to borrow a cookery book — are as transparent and harmless as the adventures themselves.
The essential good-heartedness of Cranford's "deceit" is revealed by
the circumstances of the bank failure. Miss Matty's own
scrupulously-kept accounts, her determination to honor her bank's useless note — "I don't pretend to understand business" (p.124) —
play their part in the satire on patriarchal attitudes that runs all through the book. Honest herself, Miss Matty imagines the directors of the
bank "overwhelmed by self-reproach for the mismanagement of other people's affairs" (p. 140). Worldliness, as Auerbach points out, is
laughed at not only for its cynicism but because it is not even successful in its own terms: "with all my father's suspicion of every one
with whom he has dealings," says Mary Smith, "and in spite of all his many precautions, he lost upwards of a thousand pounds by
roguery only last year" (p.145). At Miss Pole's, Cranford has its own board meeting: a secret pooling of resources that contrasts both
with the professional dealings of the Town and Country Bank and with Mary's father's contemptuous view of an amateur "Ladies'
Committee" (p. 111). It is characteristic of Gaskell's Utopia that right action is neither Quixotic nor coldly institutionalized. Cranford's
bumbling collective practicality wins out over both market forces and social convention.
The patriarchal forces and conventions which once overtook and destroyed
Deborah Jenkyns are themselves overturned as Miss Matty's
story develops. The familiar tragedy of Deborah's life (an academically-minded girl depended on by a blind father but less loved than her
feckless brother) is hinted at in the text but it belongs to the past. The masculine customs she so pathetically wished to perpetuate soon
fade away, for Cranford flourishes without port, dessert, officious servants, or formal styles of address. Overbearing men are soon
turned into figures of fun. Mr. Fitz-Adam and the Hon. Mr. Jamieson are unlamented by their widows, and the late Major Forrester is
replaced at the time of the Panic by a borrowed village boy who sleeps soundly all night with the Major's sword tucked harmlessly
behind his pillow. The great Lord Mauleverer is reduced to synecdoche: cut off at the waist and seen only from the point of view of the
little boy who was sworn at for "driving a dirty hoop against the aristocratic legs" (p. 13). Gaskell enjoys satirizing the respect accorded
to ancestry and pedigree: Mrs. Forrester "had always understood that Fitz meant something aristocratic; there was Fitz-Roy — she
thought that some of the King's children had been called Fitz-Roy: and there was Fitz-Clarence now — they were the children of dear
good King William the Fourth" (p.64). Gaskell again laughs at the notion of patrician breeding when Mrs. Forrester makes special food
for the ailing Samuel Brown: "Who says that the aristocracy are proud? Here was a lady, by birth a Tyrrell, and descended from the
great Sir Walter that shot King Rufus, and in whose veins ran the blood of him who murdered the little Princes in the Tower" (p. 104).
As Cranford society evolves, fewer claims are made to such genealogies. By the time Mrs. Jamieson delivers the pronouncement (current
in Gaskell's day) that "whereas a married woman takes her husband's rank by the strict laws of precedence, an unmarried woman retains
the station her father occupied" (p.143), it already has an outdated ring; Cranford has decided for itself how it will cope with the
anomalous social positions of Miss Matty and Lady Glenmire. What matters about Jessie Brown is that she has "kept her old kind
nature" although she has "changed her name and station" (p.157).
The Peerage and the Bible (last seen representing "literature" on Mrs.
Jamieson's japanned table) soon succumb to the softening and
transforming power of Cranford. After Deborah's death, Miss Matty tries to take over her sister's duties, but "in reading the chapter
every morning, she always coughed before coming to long words"; Mary Smith "doubted her power of getting through a genealogical
chapter, with any number of coughs" (p. 131). When Miss Matty reads one of Deborah's letters, "Herod, Tetrarch of Idumea" is
comfortably transmogrified into "Herod Petrarch of Etruria" (p. 47). The last appeal to patriarchy is an ironic one, made when Mary
Smith successfully follows her own intuitive judgment about how to break the news of Martha's baby to Miss Matty: "I was right. I think
that must be an hereditary quality, for my father says he is scarcely ever wrong" (p.147).
The inheritors of Cranford are Martha's babies, who will be named Matilda
and Deborah (after the Jenkyns sisters, but, we note, in
reverse order and naturalized — no longer pronounced in the Old Testament way), Jessie Brown's daughter Flora, "Signor Brunoni's"
daughter Phoebe, Lady Glenmire (now plain Mrs. Hoggins), and Mary Smith herself. Possessions and gifts will be transformed and
transferred from one generation to the next. In the old days, a white "Paduasoy" wedding dress was cut down to make a baby's
christening cloak (p.44); the muslin gown of Miss Pole's youth lived out a serviceable middle age as a window blind; Miss Matty's
mother's longed-for white shawl arrived too late and was used to bury her (p.58). It seems at first as if the pattern will be repeated when
Peter brings home a pearl necklace and Indian muslin gown for the now grey-haired Miss Matty. But their destiny is neither morbid nor
utilitarian: Flora inherits the gown and the necklace pays for handsome presents for everybody else.
Similarly, by the end of the book, Miss Matty herself has skirted and
escaped the seemingly-inevitable pattern of aspiration and defeat
inscribed in her girlhood diary. The double-columned diary, prescribed by her father, sums up the fate of so many heroines in the
nineteenth-century novel: "on one side we were to put down in the morning what we thought would be the course and events of the
coming day, and at night we were to put down on the other side what really had happened. It would be to some people rather a sad way
of telling their lives" (p.107). Growing old unmarried, Miss Matty seems to be trapped for ever in the second column; but her new family
and friends, the fulfilment of her dream of a baby, suggest the opening up of a third column which will retrieve some of the optimism and
buoyancy of the first.
For, although Cranford has often been enjoyed as a record of the past,
it is also a dream, a myth, a fairy-tale, an exploration of
possibilities. Dodsworth calls it "a kind of trimmed and tidied dream," but ascribes such dreaming to Gaskell's "unconscious hostility to
the male" rather than to her natural faith in the resilience of the female. Gaskell obviously drew on her childhood with her aunts, Abigail
Holland and Hannah Lumb, and her elderly Holland cousins. She knew how decisively they had rallied round after her mother's death so
that the one-year-old Elizabeth, like Lady Glenmire, "instead of being tossed about, and wondering where she is to settle, will be certain
of a home among pleasant and kind people" (p. 127). Although as a quick and intelligent child she must often have been irritated by their
ways, by the tone and tempo of Knutsford life, she had known what it was to have been part of a community of women whose lives
worked. She had also been happy and secure at school at Stratford-on-Avon and in Cranford lent her own memories to Mrs. Brown as
she trekked beside the Ganges: "I had been brought up near the Avon in Warwickshire, so that flowing noise sounded like home" (p.
"The Last Generation at Cranford" are Amazons and Spartans, but their
exploits are not all in the past; the novel ends in the present
tense and looks towards the future. The stultified "rules and regulations" of the early chapters have gone the way of the "old Manx laws"
read on the Tinwald Mount (p.2). Mrs. Jamieson's prehistoric attitudes are reflected in the stony circle of chairs — "not a curve or bend
about them" — which remind Mary Smith of Stonehenge (pp. 75-76). Cranford is not a nostalgic text; it is different in kind from Mary
Russell Mitford's Our Village or from the contemporary celebrations of the rural past which fill the bestseller lists. As a playful
exploration of an imagined female world it belongs, Elaine Showalter suggests, with other "Amazon Utopias" of English and American
Gaskell herself had good reason to ponder the future. All her children
were girls; her only son had died in 1845, aged ten months, and by
1851 when she was writing Cranford she must have known that she was unlikely to have any more children. She worried about what
would become of her daughters and hoped by buying a house with her earnings to make sure that they would always have a home if they
remained unmarried. (The women of Cranford rented their houses and Miss Matty nearly ends up homeless.) She may have imagined
them living together after her death (as in fact Meta and Julia did), still with their old servant, Miss Hearn, described by Gaskell in a letter
as "a dear good valuable friend."[Note16] In her novel she goes a stage further, providing her surrogate family with a baby by turning
Martha into Mrs. Jem Hearn — an interesting and presumably subconscious absorption of real people into her fiction, as well as a good
example of what Auerbach calls "not only Cranford's unsettling power to obliterate men, but its corresponding gift of producing them at
need."[Note 17] Gaskell must also have wondered if things would have turned out differently if her son had lived and her long-lost
brother had returned, but the rather far-fetched reappearance of Peter Jenkyns in Cranford, after Miss Matty has already made a success
of her shop, suggests that she was unable to imagine a society in which women unload the responsibility for their lives onto men.
One of the perennial problems of fiction is that of portraying women
who are strong but are still women; of imagining a particularly
female kind of strength and power which is not just an imitation of male competitiveness, aggression, or egomania.[Note18] Cranford
begins with a joke about Amazons: "Amazons" possess the town but, ironically, are at once shown not to be Amazons at all but funny
old ladies. In the end, though, the joke is on the reader, for these old ladies turn out to be the winners, the survivors, the heroines. Such
double ironies are typical of women's fiction; Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for instance, have revealed a similar process at work
in Northanger Abbey.[Note 19] Patronizing laughter at the weakness of the Cranfordians' fortes (spill-making, crochet, bread-jelly) has
to give way to admiration for their collective resilience.
In a poem by Adrienne Rich, timid Aunt Jennifer works tigers into her
embroidered panel, and in an essay on women's archetypes Annis
Pratt has shown that fierce and proud animals, images of power, are constant favorites in women's needlework and their other kinds of
pre-literate and illiterate art.[Note 20] The lions of Wombwell's circus are a highpoint in Cranford history, remembered by Miss Matty
with Gaskell's characteristic strain of violence: "such a piece of gaiety was going to happen as had not been seen or known of since
Wombwell's lions came, when one of them ate a little child's arm" (p.81). The only cow in Cranford is inert old Mrs. Jamieson, upholder
of the patriarchal order, with her "placid, ruminating expression of countenance, not unlike a cow's" (p.66). Mrs. Fitz-Adam returns to
Cranford "as bold as a lion" (p.63); Lady Glenmire turns out to be "a very pleasant-looking dragon" (p.95). Cranford was Gaskell's first
important work since she had been "lionized" in London after the success of Mary Barton.[Note 21] Perhaps her amusement at the term
and self-irony at her new fame merged with her memories of the splendid pudding-moulds of Knutsford to suggest the true image of
Cranford, powerful yet domesticated, in Martha's special treat for Miss Matty during the bank crisis:
"Never you tell,
but I'll make her a pudding, and a pudding she'll like, too, and I'll pay
for it myself." . . . Miss Matty's eyes
filled with tears, and she could not speak, either to express surprise or delight, when Martha returned, bearing it aloft, made in
the most wonderful representation of a lion couchant that ever was moulded.
It is Mrs. Forrester who "always confused carnivorous and graminivorous
together" (p.112). Martin Dodsworth shares her confusion
when he offers the cow in grey flannel as a "mocking image of the unprotected female," overlooking the triumph of the "lion couchant
with his currant eyes."
1. Page references are to Cranford, ed. Elizabeth Porges Watson (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972).
2. Martin Dodsworth, "Women Without Men at Cranford," EIC 13.2 (April 1963): 132-45.
3. For an account of Gaskell's critical fortunes,
and particularly of her devaluation by David Cecil, see Anna Walters, "When
Women's Reputations are in
Male Hands: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Critics," Women's Studies International Quarterly 3.4 (1980): 405-13.
4. Margaret Tarratt, "Cranford and 'the Strict Code of Gentility'," EIC 18.2 (April 1968): 152-63.
5. Patricia A. Wolfe, "Structure and Movement in Cranford," NCF 23 (September 1968): 161-76.
6. Nina Auerbach, "Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Sly
Javelins': Governing Women in Cranford and Haworth," MLQ 38.3 (September
1977): 284; Auerbach's essay is
reprinted in revised form in Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978), ch. 3.
7. Coral Lansbury, Elizabeth Gaskell: The Novel of Social Crisis (London: Paul Elek, 1975), ch. 4.
8. Angela Carter, "The Language of Sisterhood,"
in The State of the Language, ed. Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks
(Berkeley and London: Univ.
of California Press, 1980), p.232.
9. Carter, pp.231-32.
10. See "The Difference of View" in Women Writing
and Writing about Women, ed. Mary Jacobus (London: Croom Helm, 1979), pp.
10-21, for a
discussion of the French concepts of différence and écriture féminine and their possible application to English texts.
11. Quoted in Winifred Gérin, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 123.
12. Gérin, p. 124.
13. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (London: Hogarth Press, 1929), p.115.
14. P. N. Furbank, "Mendacity in Mrs Gaskell," Encounter (June 1973): 51-55.
15. Elaine Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in
the Wilderness," CritI 8.2 (Winter 1981): 179-205; reprinted in Writing
and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth
Abel (Brighton: Harvester, 1982), pp.9-35. Dorothy Mermin has explored the theme of women without men in the work of Christina Rossetti in "Heroic
Sisterhood in 'Goblin Market'," Victorian Poetry 21.2 (Summer 1983): 107-18.
16. Gérin, p. 294.
17. Auerbach, p. 279.
18. See, for example, Barbara Bellow Watson, "On Power and the Literary Text," Signs 1.1 (Autumn 1975): 111-18.
19. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The
Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary
Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), pp.128-45.
20. Annis Pratt, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers: Notes Toward a Preliterary History of Women's Archetypes," Feminist Studies 4.1 (February 1978): 163-94.
21. Gaskell wrote to an unidentified correspondent
in London, thanking him "for the 'plain speaking,' and really friendly
warning against being 'lionized'." She
continued: "I am truly grateful to you for it. I hardly understand what is meant by the term; nor do I think anything could alter me from my own self; but I will
be on my guard. If such a man as Rajah Brooke, such a noble fellow as he, suffered in character, it would ill become me to say I might not be materially
altered for the worse by this mysterious process of 'lionizing.' How am I to help it. . .I do think praise to one's face is a greater impertinence than blame; and
either, with reference to a book published anonymously, a most underbred thing. I shall however remember yr warning." The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, ed. J.
A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1966), p.71.