This semester, my students are doing group reading projects on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. We’re reading the novel on a weekly basis according to its original installments in Household Words. Some groups are developing their own blogs or YouTube video channels to document their projects, while other groups have decided to post their weekly responses to the novel on our course blog. Here is a student response to installment 1 of Cranford:
After reading the first two chapters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, I find myself fascinated by the formality and strict etiquette followed by individuals living during the Victorian period. I generally have a difficult time going through a chapter without getting distracted, but I found I was able to go through both of these chapters quite easily. The narrator gives Cranford the impression of having a small hometown feel to it right from the beginning, which connected with me on a personal level, as I have lived in a small town my whole life. Another aspect of the first two chapters that I thoroughly enjoyed is the unintentional humorous undertone of this time period; I find it hilarious how prim and proper individuals are in Cranford.
Aside from Captain Brown, members of the community seem to follow a strict moral code, and are hesitant to say or do anything that might offend others. For instance, one of the major taboos of Victorian society involves the discussion of wealth/financial standing. Despite this taboo, Captain Brown has no shame for his subpar financial situation, as he is fairly open with others members of the community, much to the surprise of the narrator: “Death was as true and as common as poverty; yet people never spoke about that, loud on the streets. It was a word not to be mentioned to ears polite”(Cranford 6). Additionally, I find it interesting how individuals are inherently hesitant to offend others when expressing themselves during the Victorian period, and how this is still a common feature of present day society. I feel like it’s almost impossible to express an opinion in both eras without offending at least one person, and individuals in both eras are easily offended by the most trivial of matters; for example, Captain Brown and Miss Jenkyns express a difference in opinions over two literary works, and Miss Jenkyns is insulted by this, and holds a grudge against Captain Brown right up until he dies: “Miss Jenkyns felt this as a personal affront. . . But she was inexorable” (15). Later on in the text, Captain Brown gives Miss Jenkyns a gift in an attempt to quell the grudge she holds, but is unable to do so despite his best efforts: “When he was gone, she bade me put it away in the lumber-room; feeling, probably, that no present from a man who preferred Mr. Boz to Dr. Johnson could be less jarring than an iron fire shovel”(18).
Another fascinating aspect of the first two chapters is the propensity of community members to ensure equilibrium in a relatively classless society. The narrator seems to have a solid grasp of the financial situations of his/her acquaintances, but describes the community as turning a blind eye to class disparity according to wealth. Despite Captain Brown’s below average financial situation, he not only gains respect in the community, but also achieves major social standing as a leader of his community; contrarily, individuals that climb the social hierarchy in modern society tend to be financially successful, or have a notable lineage within a community (which usually equates to financial success). I believe the social hierarchy of Victorian society is much more democratic and effective than our current structure in society, as the middle and upper class has a tendency to look out for the best interests of the wealthy at the expense of the less fortunate.
Gaskell, Elizabeth, Cranford. Ed. Elizabeth Porges Watson. Oxford UP, 1972.