Cranford | Study Guide

Elizabeth Gaskell

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Cranford | Themes


Independent Women

The aristocratic ladies of Cranford are independent women. Their husbands have passed, they are spinsters, or their husbands are away on prolonged service to their country. The novel opens with the phrase "Cranford is in possession of the Amazons." In ancient Greek mythology, the Amazons were a warrior tribe of women who lived in a society without men. The members of Cranford's elite society are not warriors in the traditional sense. However, they are fiercely independent women who feel that they are fortunate to live without men in their homes. The women of Cranford have established firm rules and societal guidelines that must be followed precisely and the ladies believe that "a man is so in the way in the house." The women of Cranford are eccentric, know all of the gossip about one another, and couldn't care less about each other's opinions.

The term "Amazon" is also used ironically because the ladies of Cranford are delicate, refined, and generally demure. When the village experiences a small rash of robberies, the matrons become fearful. They make nightly rounds of the kitchens and cellars at Miss Matty's home to check for intruders. The narrator notes, "Miss Matty leading the way, armed with the poker, I following with the hearth brush, and Martha carrying the shovel." They frighten themselves so much that they lock themselves into whichever room they are inspecting until they can "recollect" themselves and "set out afresh with double valiance." Miss Pole explains that the robbers are certainly men because "men will be men." Miss Pole also likes to congratulate herself and Miss Matty on their ability to have resisted marriage their entire lives and on not giving in to such a weak temptation.

Grief and Nostalgia

The Victorian Era (1837–1901) was a time of change in rural England and much of the elder aristocracy felt nostalgia for the ways of the past. The ladies of Cranford often reminisce about the familial and social ties of their youth. Miss Matty and Mrs. Forrester are struck by nostalgia as they enter the Cranford Assembly room to await the performance of Signor Brunoni. They have dressed in their finest and "bridle" up as they walk through the decaying splendor of the century old hall. Miss Matty sighs as she steels herself from memories of her "departed youth." Miss Matty was once in love with a gentleman named Mr. Holbrook. The circumstances of their romance are not clearly revealed but it is noted that they were prevented from marrying. Mr. Holbrook remained a lifelong bachelor and Miss Matty was a spinster who did not have any further romantic affairs. The couple is reunited later in life but Mr. Holbrook passes away before their relationship can be reestablished. Miss Matty mourns her missed opportunity to be a wife and mother.

Miss Matty also grieves for her lost brother Peter. She remembers Peter as a sweet, kind young man with a penchant for harmless pranks. Peter contrived a prank in which he dressed up in his sister's clothing and paraded about the yard while pretending to hold an infant. Miss Matty's father was mortified and in a rare moment of violent anger he publically beat Peter. Peter is ashamed and his feelings are hurt so he runs away to join the military. He returned home years later only to be recommissioned and sent to India. The family did not hear from him and Peter was presumed dead. Miss Matty laments not only Peter but also the loss of her mother who died from the heartbreak of losing her son.

Society Is Changing But Not for the better

Miss Matty and the other ladies of Cranford struggle to maintain the traditions and customs which they enjoyed earlier in their lives. They remain in Cranford and the immediately surrounding area where the new modes of capitalism and industrialism are pointedly absent. The widely adapted train system is viewed by the ladies of Cranford as frightening and evil so they make do with locally produced items and food and only commission more modern items when craftsmen bring their wares to Cranford. Salesmen from the towns are approached with extreme caution and skepticism.

The narrator represents a compromise between the new and old ways. She is the unmarried daughter of an industrialist and she divides her time between town and Cranford. She is accepted by the ladies of Cranford because of familial ties and is welcomed as a member of their inner circle due to her warm yet refined personality. When she visits she often brings gifts from the city which the ladies enjoy because they are the latest fashion. The narrator is very patient in observing the less rigorous customs and conventions the rural aristocracy is devoted to.

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