Sunday 7 June 2015

Silent Service in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

In so many novels, what we call ‘plot’ is really a series of revelations. A mystery is resolved, characters come to understand each others’ motivations, secrets are made common knowledge, and society can move on. Life may be filled with unexplained occurrences, but in the Victorian novel – whether realist or sensational – it is rare for a text to end with even one of its events still shrouded in obscurity for its characters.

In this, as in so many ways, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851-3) is a strange novel. Whether the series of stories, first appearing in Household Words, can be called a novel at all has been hotly debated. They clearly weren’t initially designed as such, they are tonally dissonant, and they are narrated by a character – Mary Smith – who is herself shrouded in never-to-be-explained mystery. Yet one of Gaskell’s most interesting deviations from readerly expectations is in her repeated concentration on (particularly selfless) acts that are never revealed.

The cast of the BBC's adaptation of Cranford (2007)
The narrator Mary, for instance, is instrumental in returning the errant Peter to his long lost sister Miss Matty. Yet her part in this happy event is never made clear to the other characters and she suffers intense guilt about having interfered at all. She even claims that she is usually at fault for being indiscreet, even though we see her act throughout the novel with the utmost discretion and tact:

In my own home, whenever people had nothing else to do, they blamed me for want of discretion.  Indiscretion was my bug-bear fault.  Everybody has a bug-bear fault, a sort of standing characteristic—a pièce de résistance for their friends to cut at; and in general they cut and come again.  I was tired of being called indiscreet and incautious; and I determined for once to prove myself a model of prudence and wisdom. 

This is not the only example. Again and again through the novel, characters protect each others’ feelings with acts of service that are never spoken of, most climactically when the Cranford ladies band together to save Miss Matty from financial ruin and supplement her income. This kindness is not only never known by the recipient, it also involves secrecy amongst the group:

Every lady wrote down the sum she could give annually, signed the paper, and sealed it mysteriously.  If their proposal was acceded to, my father was to be allowed to open the papers, under pledge of secrecy.

These hidden demonstrations of care and affection are definitely gendered. Cranford is dominated by women, but the men who do live there are able to act in a more straightforward manner, whether they are acting carelessly (like the young cross-dressing Peter who recklessly endangers his sister’s reputation) or, like Captain Brown, being kind in a much more direct and highly visible manner:

We…discussed the circumstance of the Captain taking a poor old woman’s dinner out of her hands one very slippery Sunday.  He had met her returning from the bakehouse as he came from church, and noticed her precarious footing; and, with the grave dignity with which he did everything, he relieved her of her burden, and steered along the street by her side, carrying her baked mutton and potatoes safely home.  This was thought very eccentric.

Mary’s comments about her friends’ remarks on her indiscretion point to why this might be so. Cranford’s women are conditioned to obey certain social strictures, even when acting on behalf of those other than themselves. This is not to say that they are repressed – they vigorously defend and enforce these social norms, as they give them a sense of community and identity.

Gaskell’s strange novel then – where plot is secondary, and quiet community is preferred to overt demonstration – could be seen as a novel that is particularly female. In its 16 chapters, she examines the condition of spinsterhood from many angles – often with humour, sometimes with pathos. And in her concentration on the acts of service that so often go unseen, she gives us not only a model for a novel about a women, she gives us a glimpse into women’s history.

Which lesser-known Victorian text would you like the Secret Victorianist to write on next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!