Gaskell and Darwin


      Though Elizabeth Gaskell’s work “Our Society at Cranford” is primarily the charming dramatization of an eccentric,  town striving to maintain their idyllic ways in the midst of the growing industrial world, it also carries strands of social Darwinism. As poverty is a key theme in Darwin’s theories, it is likewise a prevalent theme running through Gaskell’s work. However, while Darwin considers poverty a “great evil” that “tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage” the ladies of Cranford were apt to “overlook all deficiencies in success” and resolved themselves to the everyday struggles of poverty (Darwin 1282). While they saw poverty as a “vulgar fact,” the ladies of Cranford considered themselves “quite sufficient” without the interference of men in their lives, and found their spinster ways of “elegant economy” made them “very peaceful and satisfied” (Gaskell 1433,1434). 

       However social Darwinism  converges on the society of Cranford  when the young and likable Miss Jessie enters into a happy and fruitful marriage with the gentleman, Major Gordon. Her happy marriage serves as a contrast to the short, pain-filled  life of her sister, Miss Brown, and reflects Darwin’s theory of the  “survival of the fittest.” Miss Jessie’s successful marriage and motherhood also highlights the waning era of the aging spinsters of Cranford and suggests holes in their struggle of existence. While Darwin would meet the struggles of life and poverty displayed in the town of Cranford with harsh eugenics; Gaskell, on the other hand, is able to approach these same struggles of life with a soft touch filled with charm and humor.



Different from the World

Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” is about a town that sets itself apart from the rest of the world.  It looks down on men and outsiders and has its own hierarchy.  This town is related to Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Just like the savages that Darwin encounters, the town is secluded from the rest of the world and consequently develops at a different, slower rate.  This is shown by difference in technology and clothes.  They disapprove of railroads and maintain their traditional clothing while the rest of the world is preoccupied with developing faster transportation and more fashionable appearances.  When Captain Brown comes to town, he says he has “obtained some situation on a neighboring railroad, which had been vehemently petitioned against by the little town.”  This occupation and his open attitude toward his family’s poverty sets him apart from the rest of the town.

                The social hierarchy of the town is also quite different from the rest of the world.  The town is governed by women as opposed to the rest of the world where men are in charge.  “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.”  So when Captain Brown comes to Cranford, he is immediately cast to the lower half of society.  His poverty reinforces his lower status.  Eventually the Captain grows on the women of the town and they start to like him.  When Elizabeth comes back to the town after a year of being away, she is surprised to learn that the Captain was “even admitted in the tabooed hours before twelve” to “discover the cause of a smoking chimney.”  This relates to social Darwinism because the women look down on the Captain because he is not like them.  He is a man, he calls on them before twelve, and he publicly announces his poverty.  These are all things that set him apart from the rest of the society.

Darwinian Theory At Work in Cranford

The similarities I found between Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Our Society at Cranford, were surprising and at the same time bemusing. However, if I had not been looking for a likeness between the these literary works I doubt I would have ever remotely connected them. The first – and most obvious connection deals with Darwin’s thoughts on the survival of the fittest. The entire concept of the weak dying out and the strong subsisting is very present in Our Society at Cranford. The only member of the Brown family who survived the tale was Miss Jenkyns, who, when described appeared to be the most “desirable.” The narrator states, “I do not know whether she was pretty or not; but I liked her face, and so did everybody else.” Miss Jenkyns fate is contrasted with that of Miss Brown, who did not have a lengthy life because she was “defective.”

Next, Darwin’s thoughts on social echelons seemed to become the crux behind the entire Cranford tale. One of the main issues that the Brown family faces is the question of where they fit in the social hierarchy of Cranford. This problem becomes the focus of the tale which implodes when two of the family members die. Then, Miss Jenkyns sets their social standing to rights by having the youngest Brown daughter marry someone who in her equal in society which compliments Darwin’s ideas about marriage. Gaskell appears to have no qualms with punishing her characters for stepping outside of Darwinian theory (even if she wasn’t aware of that she was doing it when writing this story) and seems to restrict her characters to actions that are in line with what Darwin advocates. The characters who survive and succeed in this story are the ones who are described to be Darwinian theory personified.

Only the Cranfordians Survive in Cranford

Charles Darwin’s primary idea that powers his theory of evolution is the term “survival of the fittest.” In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Our Society at Cranford, the women living there lead uneventful and straightforward lives, “The Cranford ladies have only an occasional little quarrel, spirited out in a few peppery words and angry jerks of the head; just enough to prevent the even tenor of their lives from becoming too flat. Their dress is very independent of fashion” (1433). A strong theme with the town of Cranford is their ability to maintain, or “survive,” with this way of life for so long. The “weakness” of poverty, so that they might retain their sense of aristocracy, is an important way of life for Cranford’s inhabitants, “The Cranfordians had that kindly espirit de corps which made them overlook all deficiencies in success when some among them tried to conceal their poverty” (1434). However, Captain Brown introduces a new dynamic to the town.

The narrator writes of Captain Brown, “I never shall forget the dismay felt when a certain Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about his being poor-not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed, but in the public street! in a military voice!” (1434). Captain Brown has rejected the norm of concealing poverty and trying to be of noble stature, let alone being a man. Miss Jenkyns however, one of the most respected members of Cranford. She has servants working for her, delicate china and polished silver, and an extensive library. Miss Jenkyns may be physically frail, but she is perfectly fit to survive in the society that Cranford has created. She and Captain Brown even have a large argument over Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson’s literary works. In the end, Captain Brown is no more after “reading some new book” (1443), while Miss Jenkyns remains. She even marries Miss Jessie Brown, his daughter, to assimilate her and her child Flora into Cranfordian society, “Did you ever read the Rambler? It’s a wonderful book-wonderful! and the most improving reading for Flora” (which I dare say it would have been, if she could have read half the words without spelling, and could have understood the meaning of a third), “better than that stranger old book, with the queer name, poor Captain Brown was killed for reading-that book by Mr Boz” (1447).

Both Charles Da…

Both Charles Darwin and Elizabeth Gaskell provoke the idea of a sort of social order throughout each of their writings. We are able to infer through out Darwin’s theories and “Our Society at Cranford” that both authors felt as though they were somewhat superior to the inferior man. Darwin is quick to point out that not all man are created with equality and that because of this there are those who are considered to be “inferior” and those who possess “greater” qualities. Gaskell also touches on the idea of a social order when she makes the comment “What does it signify how we dress here at Cranford where everybody knows us?” (page 1433). Her description of being well known throughout her community emphasizes the idea of having a social order. This idea is very prominent in our culture today and the way in which our society is discriminatory towards those who are considered to be different from us. 

Limits of Civilization

I believe that Elizabeth Gaskell would agree with Charles Darwin’s opinion that civilization and formality inhibit human achievement.  When on the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin observes the behavior of Fuegian natives and how they react to his party.  He takes note that they are “excellent mimics,” (Darwin 1264) which reminds him of what he has heard of other uncivilized cultures such as the Caffres and the Australians.  Darwin concludes that these “practiced habits of perception and keener senses [are] common to all men in a savage state, as compared with those long civilized” (Darwin 1264).  This fact leads him to believe that civilization has a negative effect on humans by limiting their natural abilities.  In Gaskell’s work, “Our Society at Cranford,” she tells an anecdote of how a male figure (which is unusual for their very formal and ladylike town) changes the civilized views of one of the most honorable women in the town, Miss Jenkyns.  An example that Gaskell presents of the dispute between Captain Brown and his unorthodox ways and Miss Jenkyns and her customs is when Captain Brown helps a poor old woman carry her dinner.  Captain Brown did this out of the kindness of his heart ignoring the town’s customs which would have required him not to interact with the poor old woman and not help her carry the dinner.  When the women of the town talked about this incident, they decided that he should be confronted for his “eccentric” behavior (Gaskell 1439).  After Captain Brown dies saving the life of a child, Miss Jenkyns takes in his daughter and even defends the daughter’s unorthodox ways of being courted by a man.  Although once “a model of feminine decorum,” Miss Jenkyns admits that she has changed (Gaskell 1447).  She now realized the limits that the conventional ways placed on this little town of Cranford having her eyes opened to what they lacked: Captain Brown’s kindness.  Darwin’s life is an example of what can be lost to formality.  He viewed his formal education as a waste and did not truly begin to learn until he was the naturalist on the Beagle (Darwin 1260).  Only then did he truly begin to learn and later publish his ideas on the origin of man.  Both Gaskell and Darwin realized that an individual’s true potential, whether it be kindness or observation, was limited given civilization and formality.

“Our Society at Cranford”

Elizabeth Gaskell’s work, “Our Society at Cranford” can be compared to Darwin’s theories of survival of the fittest as well as his pervasive attitude of superiority over the Fuegians. The women of Cranford pride themselves on being aristocratic and on practicing “elegant economy” (1434). They view themselves as much better than the outside, vulgar, and industrialized world. This is in direct correlation to the way that Darwin viewed the natives of the regions which he visited as inferior. Darwin even looked down upon the civilized native, Jemmy Button, who he really quite liked. In “Our Society at Cranford” the women come to accept and like Captain Brown over time, but that does not mean that they view him as their equal. Upon hearing of his death, Miss Jenkyns cries out ” ‘Poor, dear, infatuated man!’ “, demeaning him and his interest in Dickens even after he has passed away (1444).

In fact, Captain Brown’s death is an example of survival of the fittest. The reason for his death is attributed to his interest in “Pickwick,” something viewed as vulgar by the esteemed ladies of Cranford. His inelegance of taste leads to his downfall. This connection reinforces the fact that all the rules and decorum of Cranford ensure the safety and survival of the population. Those who are well adjusted and accustomed to their regulations thrive as citizens, while those who are not well adjusted, inevitably suffer.