A Student Response to Gaskell’s Cranford

Still Relevant

Is a cow in a flannel really any more ridiculous than a woman paying thousands of dollars to make herself look like a living Barbie doll? Or babies competing in beauty pageants? Is it any more ridiculous than what you’ll see/read/hear with just a quick scroll though really any social media app on really any day of the week? It’s funny to read Victorian satire because it displays one of my favourite facts of literary representation: people don’t fundamentally change. Reading it now, we may see the ridiculousness in the behaviour of the Cranford ladies of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel but we also still live amongst behaviour just as superficial or pointless. Though our sense of world, technology, and culture continue to develop, people seem to so unfortunately repeat the same patterns year in and year out, and this seems like a habit that will probably continue forever or at least until we eventually wreck this unfortunate planet.

The simple truth is that superficiality, an inherent monetary based social structure, and cows in flannels are all still very prevalent today. There are so many similarities, in my opinion, between the day to day habits of the Cranford ladies and the habits of millennials today. Gossiping amongst friends and complaining of men is now instead shared over brunch and mimosas or perhaps a Starbucks cup rather than over tea and biscuits. Gaskell’s satirical approach to social criticism actually addresses many timeless human flaws and habits. Cranford society appears to be fixated on the proper way to handle wealth or the lack thereof; “it was [therefore] considered ‘vulgar’ (a tremendous word in Cranford to give anything expensive,” (44)  in a community with “general but unacknowledged poverty…”(44).  I remember students in high school acting in the exact same way. As long as you could behave as though you were not poor, you could be accepted by the so graciously wealthy others.

Just as displays of poverty and wealth were unwelcome so was anything or anyone who had a different approach or foreign method to their own. Captain Brown appears as the first male figure (besides the Doctor’s occasional visits) introduced to the Cranford ladies and their judgement of him and his daughters is initially relentless. Sound familiar? People like Miss Jenkyns are of course personally affronted by any criticism of an opinion they may hold dear (52). As all good people eventually do, the ladies of the community warm up to Captain Brown and his daughters, and became especially affectionate of the younger, prettier Miss Jessie. Attractiveness has always been a quality that is held in higher esteem. Life, as many people say, is easier for pretty people. This remains true in modern society, this trust in superficial qualities defining an individual today. Gaskell forces readers to think critically about society and humanity in a way that is both funny and timeless and at times slightly uncomfortable if you happen to see yourself reflected in the personalities of her satirical characters. Maybe even you have dressed a cow in flannel to keep it warm or perhaps bought fur boots for your dog to protect its little paws from the cold snow.

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