Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851) is one of those books that makes you smile whenever you are unexpectedly reminded of it. Think about that, think about smiling whenever you’re reminded of it for the rest of your life, and then consider: not only is it very short but it’s absolutely free on Project Gutenberg. It’s also probably in your library, and if not then you can probably find an old copy lying around second hand for very little. Maybe you don’t believe me about the smile, though I assure you it’s true—I’ve seen it on an astonishingly wide variety of faces when Cranford comes up in conversation. Indeed you can test it right now by wandering up to acquaintances and mentioning it to them. If they smile, they’ve read it, if not then they’re part of today’s lucky ten thousand and you can point them at this post.
Whether or not you believe me, you should read this gentle charming Victorian novel because I want to explain how it’s actually utopian.
Cranford was originally published as a series of episodes, much like Dickens or The Human Division, it’s a form of publishing that goes in and out of fashion. Taken as a whole it’s an episodic novel. There’s a first person narrator, whose name we don’t discover until very late on—it’s Mary Smith, which is as “Jane Doe” as you can get for the time and place. Mary narrates with a little distance—she visits Cranford, she doesn’t belong to it, which allows her to explain it to her imagined reader, who is imagined to be in London. This imagined reader, like the narrator, is definitely female. Our narrator is writing with a smile, and the reader is imagined to be smiling to hear about Cranford, but not laughing—the book is persistently and gently amusing, seldom laugh-aloud funny. Our narrator certainly finds certain things in Cranford funny, but she expects you to share the joke, to be charmed, to laugh fondly rather than meanly. Cranford expects you to find Cranford adorable, it expects you to indulge it, and you do, and in indulging it you get sucked into caring.
Cranford is a book without villains, and pretty much without a plot—what plot there is consists of a series of incidents. It is, of course, traditional for utopias to have no plot, so it’s doing well so far.
Cranford is an imaginary small town in the north of England, twenty miles by rail from Drumble, a large manufacturing town. This is a very modern way to describe distance and proximity, and it was astonishingly modern when Gaskell was writing. Reading Cranford now, a hundred and seventy years after it’s set, it’s easy to see it as a period piece and everything about it as quaint, but even though she was writing about a time already twenty years in the past, in her opening description Gaskell is being modern. It isn’t the distance that matters, it’s the method of transportation. Twenty miles by rail—in 1830, about an hour. (Now, ten minutes. If Cranford and Drumble really existed, Cranford would now be a suburb.) Cranford was a backwater when Gaskell wrote about it, but a backwater very much connected to the flowing tides of technology and industry that were changing everything. We see bank collapses and railway lines being built, and other changes, and Gaskell is deeply interested in the process of change. None of the characters go anywhere by train in the book, but the existence of the railway, the potentialities of the railway, transform all the possibilities.
Gaskell begins her work:
In the first place, Cranford is in the possession of the Amazons.
This astonishing first line might make you believe you were reading fantasy, but it’s meant metaphorically. By Amazons, Gaskell means powerful women—women who are in charge, women who ordain the way society works, at least within Cranford. This isn’t the portrait of a real place, this is a description of an imaginary perfect society. All, or almost all, of the significant people of Cranford are women. Men appear as disruptions and indulgences. The place is in the possession of the Amazons.
Now by 1851 there were many books written by women and centered on the female world. Almost all of them were romances. Cranford absolutely isn’t. The Amazons who possess it are all older women, either widows or women who have never married. There are three marriages of minor characters, and one old faded romance of a major character—but unlike Anne Elliott in Persuasion, it remains an old regret. There is no central romance, no young lady to be settled, no balls. This is a female world without the want of men.
It’s also supremely indifferent to fashion.
Their dress is very independent of fashion; as they observe, “What does it signify how we dress here at Cranford, where everybody knows us?” And if they go from home, their reason is equally cogent, “What does it signify how we dress here, where nobody knows us?” The materials of their clothes are, in general, good and plain, and most of them are nearly as scrupulous as Miss Tyler, of cleanly memory; but I will answer for it, the last gigot, the last tight and scanty petticoat in wear in England, was seen in Cranford—and seen without a smile.
Fashion was generally represented in Victorian fiction as a female obsession. This indifference is an indifference to what is generally imagined to be one of the main things women care about. I’m sure Gaskell was making a significant point here about what women care about when left to themselves. True, some of the women do care at least a little about fashion—Miss Matty wants a turban at one point, and new silk for a dress at another, and there’s to be a general gathering at the store to see the new patterns, and everyone is always wearing new caps and adorning themselves with old brooches. But here we have Amazons, a commonwealth of women, for whom fashion doesn’t signify.
That first sentence about the Amazons continues:
all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.
This gives us a certain Victorian expectation of the class in which the book is to be set—nice people, people “above a certain rent.” In fact one of the central concerns of Cranford is that money and breeding are much less important than kindness. And the class of women “above a certain rent” with whom we are primarily concerned are not very wealthy. They never admit it about themselves or about each other. They have servants, because not having servants was beyond imagining in 1851, but the servants are significant characters (one of the weddings I mentioned is a servant wedding) and we see mistresses doing the cooking and having their one servant bring it in and everyone colluding to pretend that there’s a whole servants hall. Nobody serves extravagantly “because that would be vulgar.” Nobody makes a fuss about display. Only one household has a butler. Nobody has very much money but everyone has just a bare sufficiency.
They are snobs in a weird way. When she shows them being silly about a lord’s widow it’s directly shown up as silliness. They say that being involved in trade is touching pitch, but in fact they visit on equal terms a woman who is an ex-maid and an ex-milliner, and when Miss Matty falls on hard times and must sell tea they say that she keeps her rank as a rector’s daughter and treat her as before—except for the way they club together to give what they can to help her survive.
These women are all living on tiny incomes from investments, they make economies to get by—some of them very funny—they have enough for daily life without needing to work. It is as close as Gaskell could come to a post-scarcity society. They have enough, and they have their pretensions, and when they don’t have enough they change their minds about what counts as “vulgar.” It’s very unusual to see a portrait of a group of people who have their daily bread but make their own jam, who don’t need to strive to stay alive, who aren’t looking to make their fortunes in any way, who don’t have children, and who do what they can to help the poor. They’re all alike in dignity, and very close in income and social status. (This is one of the ways the BBC adaptation with Judi Dench screws up badly—by adding in some of Gaskell’s novellas in order to have some “action” it gives Cranford a manor house and a lady of the manor, destroying the near equality and tiny gradients of caste that Gaskell so carefully builds into the book.)
Gaskell calls the Amazons of Cranford an “aristocracy” and seems to mean it. She’s showing us an ideal world where women help each other—a world of snobbishness and absurdities, yes, a world of social distinctions where some people feel it matters if your uncle is a shopkeeper or an earl, but where the narrator and the narrative sincerely believe that the shopkeeper’s niece can be the better woman.
On class, Gaskell goes out of her way to show us Miss Matty’s rejected suitor, Mr. Holbrook. He’s a farmer who rejects social climbing. He’s Miss Pole’s cousin and could be “genteel” if he’d like to, but he doesn’t like to. He loves poetry, naturally quoting it when appropriate, and reading it aloud without embarrassment. I doubt there ever was anyone really like him—he’s deeply implausible as a portrait of a real human being in his time and place. He’s sitting there in the book to be a symbolic demonstration that social climbing is silly and he’s as good or better than anyone else. It was 1851. I’m delighted to see him, and delighted too in the effect seeing him has on Miss Matty, giving permission for her servant, Martha, to see her young man, Jem.
Martha and Jem later save Miss Matty when she loses her money. That’s one of the things men are for, in Cranford: they exist as a safety net. Miss Jessie is saved by an old lover. Miss Matty is saved by her long-lost brother. There’s a rector and a doctor around in the background. Mary’s father, whose narrative function is mostly to get her away from Cranford, shows up to try to sort out Miss Matty’s finances. In 1851 women honestly couldn’t earn enough to keep a household. A maid got food and lodging and a bit of money, a governess or a housekeeper just a little more, and there were very few other options open to women. A working class man could earn far more than a woman of any class. Women needed their capital. Without equal work for equal pay women were utterly dependent—these women “above a certain rent” are living on money that was made by their dead husbands or fathers. These women of Cranford are old maids, they are how Austen characters are afraid they’ll end up, and they’re the age Austen characters would have been if they’d not married, too. But here they’re Amazons, and they’re enjoying life, and nature, and human nature. The men—like the industry—are out there, but at a distance.
The other option for women, as Gaskell knew well, was art. She was earning money writing herself. We don’t see any of that in Cranford. The women knit and crochet, they sew—Mary makes shirts for her father quite as a matter of course. It’s all purely practical. They cook and make preserves and fruit wines. They read and discuss literature—Miss Jenkyns has very pronounced views on the superiority of Doctor Johnson to Dickens which causes her to quarrel with Captain Brown. They have some music, but not much, and it’s not good. Miss Matty makes very artistic paper spills for lighting candles and decorative garters—that’s the closest to art we get, and it seems a curious omission.
The reason I see Cranford as utopian is firstly the ascendancy of women, secondly the equality of income without the necessity to work, thirdly the equality of status of women who have worked to the point where they no longer need to, fourthly that the Amazons of Cranford are as free and independent as it was possible to imagine women being, as liberated and as much a commonwealth as was possible, and lastly the way that kindness is the order of the day and is rewarded. Some people are silly but everyone is kind.
This isn’t a prescriptive or dogmatic work, and though Christianity underlies it, it isn’t too near the surface. Gaskell could elsewhere moralize and go along with stupid conventions of literature like “women who have sex without marriage have to die by the end of the book.” In Cranford we don’t see any of that.
It’s not really science fiction. This imagined commonwealth of women is set in the past—the past of the time when it was written—not in the future. Gaskell’s most science fictional work is North and South, which considers the railways as a new technology and the impact that technology is having on society. Cranford is just Cranford, a simple feminist utopia about how women might govern themselves with good will and kindness.
I’m terribly fond of it.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.