Social Hierarchy: Darwin and Gaskell

Darwin’s theory of social hierarchy and survival of the fittest is prevalent throughout “Our Society at Cranford” by Elizabeth Gaskell. In “Our Society at Cranford”, the ones who know the game of society the best, survive the scene. The elder ladies ruled Cranford, and to survive you had to abide by their rules. Men had no place in this society, as shown in Gaskell’s words, “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons”(Gaskell, 1432). So when, Captain Brown comes into town and tries to integrate himself into the town, he causes sparks. And though he is there for a while, he ultimately meets his demise, followed by his daughter. The Brown family caused trouble to the natural ecosystem of Cranford but when two of the family members die, Miss Jenkyns takes the opportunity to put the social hierarchy right, by having the second Brown daughter marry her equal in status. This would satisfy Darwin’s theories on marriage and also prove his ideas about the social hierarchy and its fluctuations are correct. Gaskell’s writing also shows the influence of social Darwinism and how the concept of the proper place in society influenced other writers. 

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Survival of the Prettiest

A similar theme in both Darwin’s theory and Gaskell’s fiction is “survival of the fittest”. Both of these works feature the animalistic side of humanity by showing the main goal of people is to survive and multiply. In, “Our Society of Cranford” the only surviving member of the Brown family was Miss Jenkyns. It is not merely a coincidence that she is the most attractive member of the family and the most likeable. According to Darwin, Miss Brown did not live a long and fruitful life because she was defective. Both Gaskell and Darwin illustrate the superiority of Miss Jenkyns to her sister because she was neither sickly nor unattractive. Darwin states, “The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children.” He also says that “Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if in any marked degree inferior in body or mind.” Darwin would approve of Miss Jenkyns marriage because of the status of Major Gordon and the attractiveness of each of them. Miss Jenkyns is described as “Her eyes were large blue wondering eyes, looking straight at you; her nose was unformed and snub, and her lips were red and dewy; she wore her hair too, in little rows of curls, which heightened this appearance. I do not know whether she was pretty or not; but I liked her face, and so did everybody.” Both the ladies of Cranford and Darwin chose to only consider the shallow aspect of life, how things look, not how they really are, a trademark of social darwinism.

Charles Darwin and Elizabeth Gaskell

Having read Charles Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle” and knowing about his attitudes and believes about human nature, evolution, and natural selection and then reading Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” one can see some of the similar prevailing attitudes of the times.  It is interesting to note how from before Darwin’s time even until now we judge a group of people by the way they dress compared to us to deduce whether this group of people have assimilated to the current civilized culture or not.  We can also guess that Charles Darwin would certainly apply his theory of evolution on the people of Cranford it he was reading Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s story.

Charles Darwin speaks of having met the Fuegians and almost right away compares the way they dress to the way he dresses and since its so different from him they must then be savages and animals.  He says “I could not have believed the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is greater power of improvement…Their only garment consists of a mantle of guanaco skin, with the wool outside; this they wear just thrown over their shoulders, leaving their persons as often exposed as covered.”  Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” does the same when saying “Their dress is very independent of fashion…The materials of their clothes are, in general, good and plain, and most of them are nearly as scrupulous as Miss Tyler, or 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.”  It’s interesting to note that we still have this practice of judging others according to what they wear.  If someone doesn’t have the latest fashions they must be poor, do not care of how the look, perhaps they come from a “third world” country.  Or what of Western woman seeing Middle Eastern women and they way they dress as being oppressed by the opposite sex and their government?

If Charles Darwin was reading “Our Society at Cranford” he would more than likely apply his theories on evolution.  Since most people are not wealthy in Cranford as Elizabeth Gaskell explains in her story “We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic,” and the fact that there were no men as the story says “…Cranford is in possession of the Amazons…whatevers does become of the gentleman, they are not at Cranford,” in Darwin’s eyes they are not reproducing and will surely die off as they are not fit to continue.

A Clash of Class

A great similarity between Charles Darwin’s writings in “The Voyage of the Beagle” and Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” is the superiority of certain race, social class, and sexes. Charles Darwin writes of the Fuegians, relating them to himself saying, “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal” (1263). This idea of the savage man being “inferior” can be related to Gaskell’s view on the men being “so in the way in the house” (1433). The differences between the social positions in each story seem to relate in many ways. Their “rankings” and differences were always immediately obvious and shown to the reader, much like when Gaskell tells us that the Brown trio’s place in poverty which they “had spoken simply and openly about” or when Captain Brown comes into town and “spoke openly about his being poor (1434,1439).

These similaririties help understand how Gaskell’s sequestered society, which struck me as being almost desirably utopian-like, (except of course for the major differences in the classes) relates to Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands far off the coast of South America.

Social Conscience in Cranford and Darwin

The most outstanding contrast between “Our Society at Cranford” and the excerpts from Dickens is that Elizabeth Gaskell’s narrator seems to have a much sharper social and human conscience than Darwin. Where he seems to think that everything should be oriented towards the advancement of society, regardless of the victims, she displays the emotional and compassionate nature of humanity that is to be praised and not weeded out at all. At times, Gaskell’s Captain Brown even seems to be somewhat representative of Darwin, particularly in the case of Miss Betsy Barker’s Alderney cow.  The cow falls into a lime-pit, where she loses most of her hair (Gaskell 1435). Upon her rescue, the sharp contrast is revealed, for where all the women of Cranford show pity (mingled with humor) for Miss Baker and her cow, Captain Brown suggests that she “kill the poor creature at once” (Gaskell 1435). Such a harsh take on life, while completely juxtaposed with the niceties and pageantry displayed by the ladies of Cranford, slides in perfectly with a Darwinian approach to life, Darwin’s opinion being that if one is a blemish to the species or the society, one should give up all hope, and definitely not burden everyone else by procreating.

There is, however, one way in which Darwin and the ladies at Cranford coincide. They all agree that one must have a strong social conscience, and any less is, in Darwin’s view, lower than savagery. For even they, whom he flippantly compares to a monkey or baboon, perform acts of an altruistic nature. Of course, the women at Cranford would most likely not agree to being considered as little “better than a dog” (Darwin 1290), they have very strict social rules which require politeness and courteousness at all times. When a weak servant girl needs help carrying a tray, the mistress does it, and everyone in the room pleads ignorance. When the cow loses all its hair, and goes to the field in flannel, they accept it and move on. When paying a visit, and here the rules are especially strict, one must never stay longer than a quarter of an hour, and never wait longer than three days to return a visit. In these small ways, and often larger ways, like showing the Brown women kindness after the death of their father, the society at Cranford demonstrates a strong social conscience that is as necessary and inalienable (as well as beneficial) as any harsher conscience (like eugenics) theorized by Darwin.

A Similarity Between “Our Socienty at Cranford” and Charles Darwin

The isolated town of Cranford, with its unique fashions, behaviors, and trends is an echo of Darwin’s theory of how things will develop differently if they are allowed to develop independently from everything else, such as how the tortoises are different on each of the Galapagos Islands.

“Their dress is very independent of fashion” (page 1433), is a good example of how things vary in Cranford from normal society.  They also have their own ideas of what is culturally acceptable, such as when making or receiving a call, “…never let… more than three days elapse between receiving a call and returning it; and also, that you are never to stay longer than a quarter of an hour” (page 1433).

The women of Cranford have very strict social rules, and tend to be taken aback by anyone from the outside that do not follow such rules, such as when Captain Brown announces his poverty loudly one day in the street.  This reminds me of Darwin’s reactions to the Fuegian natives and the ways in which they differed from his own society in regards of clothing or behavior.  It seems to me that the negative reaction of Miss Jenkyns to Captain Brown’s openness is similar to the negative reaction of Darwin to seeing how few clothes the natives wore, or other matters of their appearances.

The Town of Cranford in Darwin’s Eyes.

Gaskall writes a fictional story of a town called Cranford, in which the ideas parallel with Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution. In the town of Cranford, there are plenty of lower-class individuals that are somewhat oblivious to the outside world. There is a certain tone that can be taken from the story, that relates to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The characters in the story have relationships with each other that are only relevant to the people in the town. As Darwin expressed, the individuals who are not as fit for survival will not flourish in the world. The ideas of Darwin can be seen when nothing outside the town of Cranford is talked about. The only issues being developed are small instances that appear to be significant events in these individual’s lives. “There had been neither births, deaths, nor marriages since I was there last. Everybody lived in the same house, and wore pretty nearly the same well-preserved, old-fashioned clothes.” (1441). The expressions of these individual’s portray a significant message that can be interepreted in such a way that display a lack of care for the problems of the outside world.

The differences among the rich and the poor also seem to have a relationship to Darwin’s theory. The poor do not seem to have much at all, nor do they have relationships with the rich; except for possible interaction for work. The poor, in this particular story, are similar to Darwin’s examples explaining a lack of survival skills in nature. In the town of Cranford, it appears that money is the most influential and effective “skill” to have for survival. Captain Brown, a poor man, is an example of how money can determine one’s status in the town of Cranford. “‘Why, you see, unless Captain Brown has some reason for it, he never speaks about being poor; and he walked along by his lordship looking as happy and cheerful as a prince; and as they never called attention to their dinner by apologies, and as Miss Brown was better that day, and all seemed bright, I dare say his lordship never knew how much care there was in the background. He did send game in the winter pretty often, but now he is gone abroad.” (1442). The idea in Cranford seems to be that there social classes that translate into the idea of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest. The rich will survive and flourish; the poor will work for the rich or have no effect on the rich individual’s lives. However, the rich will know nothing outside of their own lives, because of the lack of excitement in their lives.