Introduction to the author's "Growing Heroines: Elizabeth Gaskell's Women," English Literature Senior Thesis, Hartwick College, January 1997

Before looking at Ruth, we have a novel very different from Mary Barton in Cranford. While Mary Barton is a novel of the poor people's struggle to survive in a changing society which needs them as workers yet turns a blind eye to their suffering, Cranford is concerned with the struggle of an old-fashioned society against the changes being forced upon it by the new industrialism. In Cranford there are two main characters who grow and change together: a young woman called Mary Smith, and her older friend Matilda Jenkyns. Through their friendship, these two women symbolize the union of the new England with the old Victorian values. It is apparent that industrialism is making it difficult for the old ways to continue, especially the "code of gentility" which is a major force in the lives of the women, and men, of Cranford. However, we understand at the end that it is possible for the old to co-exist with the new as Mary Smith merges the values and behaviors of the older generation with her Drumble background.

Originally, Cranford was published in eight parts in Charles Dickens' journal, Household Words. The first installment appeared in 1851 with more following in 1852 and finishing in 1853. As Peter Keating suggests in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Cranford, the delay in the installments was due to the writing of Ruth, published in 1853 (Keating 8). Cranford is different from the other novels by Elizabeth Gaskell in that it is the depiction of a small English village and is concerned with the everyday occurrences in the lives of mainly older ladies, rather than the story of a great social problem threatening the lives and security of the characters.

The narrator of the story is a young woman called Mary Smith. We are not given much information about Mary except that she once lived in Cranford but moved to the big city of Drumble with her businessman father. In fact, we know so little of Mary that it isn't until late in the book that her name is even mentioned. It is apparent that Mary has lost her mother although how and when are not stated; this is perhaps why she is eager to return on visits to the town of Cranford and its comforting female society. Mary spends a good deal of her time in Cranford as her father is busy and is quite content to let his daughter stay with their old acquaintances in the country. He must certainly feel that she is mature and responsible enough to leave him and visit her old friends. When in Cranford, Mary stays mainly with Miss Matty Jenkyns, the daughter of the late rector, and this friendship between the old spinster and the younger woman provides a look at the effect their respective ages have on their attitudes and personalities.

We learn from Mary that the town is made up predominately of women: "whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford" (39). The society is a highly structured one: there are rules of decorum and order which must be followed, the "code of gentility," and everyone has a highly-developed sense of the proper model of behavior. Mary provides the unique viewpoint of someone who is not a stranger to the town, yet is sufficiently detached from the modes of everyday life there to be able to report on them. She tells us the ways of the town and of the women in it, including their individual quirks and fancies such as chasing sunbeams with newspaper to avoid fading a new carpet.

Miss Matty Jenkyns has been mentioned as the person with whom Mary Smith stays on her visits to Cranford. In order to better understand Miss Matty's character, one must look first at her older sister, Deborah. Mary says of her:

Miss Jenkyns ... altogether had the appearance of a strong-minded woman; although she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! she knew they were superior. (51)

Miss Jenkyns is a woman who knows her own mind and is sure to let other people know it as well. Deborah Jenkyns is the strongest proponent of the code of gentility: she has notions and precepts concerning almost everything, and she enforces these on her younger and more impressionable sister, Miss Matty.

In an observation on the character of Miss Matty, Mary says:

Miss Matilda Jenkyns ... wrote nice, kind, rambling letters; now and then venturing into an opinion of her own; but suddenly pulling herself up, and either begging me not to name what she had said, as Deborah thought differently, and she knew; or else putting in a postscript to the effect that, since writing the above, she had been talking over the subject with Deborah, and was quite convinced that, &c. - (here, probably follows a recantation of every opinion she had given in the letter). (51)

In effect, Miss Matty did nothing that would be unacceptable in the eyes of her sister. This deference to her sister's opinions continues for a time after Miss Jenkyns's death, perhaps more diligently than when she was alive. It even went so far as to stop Miss Matty from marrying the only man she ever loved because as a friend tells Mary, the man "would not have been enough of a gentleman for the rector and Miss Jenkyns" (69). This is unbelievable to Mary: to her thinking it is not the father or Miss Jenkyns who would be marrying Miss Matty's sweetheart so they have no right to influence her decision so drastically. In this case, the independence and self-reliance of Drumble in Mary Smith's nature rebels against the thought of anyone intruding on such a personal and life-changing decision. However, Miss Matty's relationship with Mary helps her to step out of Deborah's shadow and she allows her servant, Martha, to have "followers" (as Deborah would never have done) and see the man she loves.

On a more light-hearted note, the dinner with Miss Matty's old love, Mr. Holbrook, shows clearly the ability of youth to adapt and age to resist. The dilemma concerns peas: whether to leave them untasted because "they would drop between the prongs" (75) of the fork, or to follow the example of Mr. Holbrook and eat them using a knife. Mary is not yet tied to the strict rules of conduct that the Cranford ladies are and does not hesitate to attempt this new method of eating peas. Her older companions "could not muster up courage to do an ungenteel thing... [and] the good peas went away almost untouched" (75). After this unsuccessful meal, Mr. Holbrook proposes a walk but it is only Mary who will brave the damp and dirt from which the older women have shied away.

And so life goes on in Cranford: Mary Smith shows her youth in an occasional comment or action like those above, but she also blends in with the society of older women in which she immerses herself. In the beginning, when fresh from Drumble, Mary is somewhat critical of the Cranfordian ways but she gradually becomes more tolerant and even accepting of them: she even admits to her own special quirk of collecting useless bits of string and hording rubber bands. However, it is not until the middle of the book that Mary plays a more active role in the proceedings of the town by taking the initiative to write a secret letter to the man she suspects might be Miss Matty's long-lost brother Peter. Mary is able to participate more only after Deborah Jenkyns's death, when the highly-structured society of Cranford relaxes a bit.

Until this time, she is treated very much like a child by the older women: at one evening gathering, Mary is provided with "some literature in the shape of three of four handsomely-bound fashion-books ten or twelve years old...[as] young people liked to look at pictures" (112). Perhaps in their own way the older ladies of the town act as a collective mother figure for Mary Smith and she becomes the child of so many spinsters. As in any child-parent relationship, the child learns many of its ways from its parents but has its own experiences as well which shape its character into something similar yet uniquely different to its parents. In this way, Mary adopts many of the manners of the Cranford women, but incorporates the ways of Drumble as well.

This is not a one-way process, however; as Mary learns from the tradition-steeped ladies, they are also changed by her presence among them. Again it is Miss Matty who best shows the difference, due to her close friendship with Mary Smith. When the Town and Country bank fails and Miss Matty is ruined, she resigns herself to selling her possessions and renting a small room with the money. Mary will not hear of this and does not rest until she has thought of some job that Miss Matty could do to earn some money. When the idea of selling tea is decided upon, it comes as "a shock to her [Miss Matty]; not on account of any personal loss of gentility involved, but only because she distrusted her own powers of action in a new line in life" (197). While the natural timidity of Miss Matty's personality remains, it is significant that for once she does not consider what her sister might think, but allows herself to be guided by the caring ambition of the young Mary, as well as the business-sense of Mr. Smith who comes from Drumble to aid the aging woman. Miss Matty does have the last word, however, as she ensures that the other tea-seller in Cranford will not be upset if she shares his trade. In this story of a society of older women that is punctuated only here and there by the appearance of a young woman or a man of any age, there is a gradual mixing of the old-fashioned value of cooperation and with the modern emphasis on individualism. As Mary Smith brings her knowledge of the Drumble ways to the country town, she is in turn educated in the ways of old Victorian England so that she becomes the embodiment of both sets of values: the capitalistic, and the communalistic (Rosenthal, 82). We have reason to suspect that Mary's loyalties begin to lie more with the Cranford ladies than with her father and the businessmen of Drumble as she becomes more important to the survival of the town. This is perhaps because the ladies have fulfilled some of the duties of a mother to Mary while her father is distanced from his daughter because he is busy in the pursuit of money. Though Mary tells us that everyone is better for knowing Miss Matty, as a whole it is not apparent that Mary is aware of the changes occurring in her attitudes and behaviors away from Drumble's and toward Cranford's.

Last modified 24 May 2022