Youth/Evolutionary Theory in Our Society at Cranford

The society in Cranford almost appears to be a utopia for women in the sense that they live their lives in the way they have decided is best. This society void of men is their idea of a satisfactory life. As nature has taught us, a society without men can not exist for long due to a lack of procreation. The oddest part of this story for me, which is also the MAIN part of this story, is that the society is thriving without the presence of men. There is not mention of youth in this story besides the Captain’s daughter, who appears to be ridiculed for her youthful exterior. This story lacks youth for a reason, because youth bring new ideas and a new perspective into societies. This is clearly a society that prefers to be idle. If men were a part of this society then naturally children would be born into Cranford. New ideas and modernization are the antithesis of the Cranford Society.

Youth and evolutionary theory in “Our Society at Cranford”

“Our Society at Cranford” has somewhat of an argument about youthfulness through the lens of evolutionary theory in that the description of “youth” is more of a characteristic as opposed to an age group. As the narrator describes Jessie Brown, they say that there was something childlike about her face, and that those features would likely remain with her until she dies. One of the women at Cranford was saying that Jessie should stop trying to look like a child, but as the narrator stated, some people just look childish and will never outgrow it. They go on to describe Jessie as youthful as they find her very pleasant, but also seem a bit annoyed by her childish nature. “I forgave Miss Jessie for her singing out of tune, and her juvenility of dress…”

They also speak of her father, Captain Brown, as being youthful, though he was rather old. The evolutionary theory ties in in that no matter the age of a person, there are some people who are naturally youthful, and will live longer. The captain did not die of old age, but rather chose to give up his life by youthfully jumping in front of a train to save a child.

Youth in Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell could be making an argument for youth in “Our Society at Cranford.”  She describes Jessie Brown, the youngest daughter of Captain Brown, as having a face everyone liked and “twenty shades prettier” with a slightly more expensive wardrobe than her older sister (1436).  Perhaps it is because of these advantages Jessie outlives the rest of her family and goes on to marry the wealthy Major Gordon and live a happy life.  Gaskell could be making the argument that Jessie’s advantages “naturally selected” her to outlive her family and reproduce.  Gaskell could also be using the narrative to show how new society and culture will eventually evolve and replace the old and that remaining “stuck” in the old ways and refusing to accept the new is ultimately futile and narrow minded.

Darwin’s Theories in “Our Society at Cranford”

The narrator in Elizabeth Gaskell’s poem describes her many visits to Cranford in an endearing though critical way.  She loves the ladies who are in that society, but thinks the way in which they conduct themselves and hide from the modern world is eccentric.  Miss Jenkyns’ hearty disapproval of Captain Brown’s reading of the Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens is an excellent example of the ladies’ revulsion of everything modern, including the railroad referring to it as “obnoxious” (1434).  This revulsion and the general avoidance and mistrust of men reminds me of Darwin’s example of the heath meadow.  While one heath meadow was invaded with a Scotch fir another nearby heath meadow was not invaded.  In the invaded heath there was more wildlife, other types of grasses, and plants than in the heath that was left alone (1276).  Perhaps these ladies viewed men as having the potential to overtake their society and leave them in the dust.  In fact it seems that was exactly what they feared, “We often rejoiced, in former days, that there was no gentleman to be attended to, and find conversation for, at the card parties…and, in our love for gentility, and distaste of mankind, we had almost persuaded ourselves that to be a man was to be “vulgar”…” (1436).  A further comparison to Darwin is the fact that the ladies are isolated from their society like the Galapagos Islands.  There Darwin found the “true” nature of animals, unafraid of humans and in perfect balance.  In the society, the ladies are isolated like an island and rarely have disagreements amongst themselves, perhaps their “true” nature though they are afraid or at least disapprove of men.  An overwhelming evolutionary theory that I see is “survival of the fittest”.  The narrator, who I perceive as quite young, describes Miss Jenkyns’ feelings of the modern world, “…although she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men.  Equal, indeed!  she knew they were superior.” (1440).  Thus, it should come as no surprise that Captain Brown, the only accepted man in the society, dies on a railroad while reading a modern book.  The narrator thinks the feud between Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown is amusing.  Though amused by the Pickwick Papers and thinking of them as a good example of fiction, the narrator did not want to anger Miss Jenkyns.  The narrator was showing her youthfulness through her telling of this society, a telling that is endeared by these eccentric ladies yet laughs at their ignorance and fear of the modern world.

Aurora Leigh

I would argue that the portrayal of Aurora Leigh’s youth does have some hints of romanticism.  A lot of her writing is the narrator trying to make sense of life by relating what is going on to nature, but it is often used to also describe a disconnect with nature that she feels from the people in her life, such as her aunt and father.  It says, “The train swept us on: / Was this my father’s England? the great isle? / The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship / Of verdure, field from field, as man from man” (Browning 1158).  This quote shows that there is a sort of divorce from nature that contrasts what used to be.  She goes on and says that her aunt has lived “A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage, / Accounting that to leap from perch to perch / Was act and joy enough for any bird” (Browning 1159). Her aunt was content to keep a limited view of the world because that was all she had ever known, and she didn’t show a particular interest in expanding her world, which is evident by the fact that she buys books and doesn’t even read them.  There is a Victorian emphasis on the cerebral, but it is lacking the passion and connection that is found in romanticism.

The narrator uses many breast feeding metaphors, and the one at the end of Book 1 is to me the most prominent quote that links the narrator to romanticism.  She states,

I had relations in the Unseen, and drew / The elemental nutriment and heat / From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights, / Or as babe sucks surely in the dark. / I kept the life thrust on me, on the outside / Of the inner life with all its ample room / For heart and lungs for will and intellect, / Inviolable by conventions.  God, / I thank thee for that grace of thine! (Browning 1162)

Despite all of the obstacles of a changing world, she keeps the war as an internal one, where she has been able to retain her inner life as a youth.

Aurora Leigh’s Glance at Romanticism

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, she gives a portrayal of a woman named Aurora Leigh giving an autobiography of her life. In this first section in which Aurora tells the reader of her childhood, of the death of her mother and her arrival at the home of her aunt and what things ensue there, she gives us a glimpse of a desire for romanticism. Though romanticism may or may not be seen as the strongest idea or theme that becomes evident in Browning’s work, it does exist as something that Browning hints at. When Aurora starts off the work describing a self-portrait, she describes herself as “not so far left the coasts of life to travel inward, that [she] cannot hear the murmur of the outer Infinite” which explains not only her place still in the throws of youth, but also her place in learning of the sublimity of the infinite that lay before her (lines 10-12). Browning seems to touch at romanticism every time Aurora describes herself as a bird, as either a nested bird that has lost its mother or as a bird being taken from one cage to another. This bird acts as Aurora’s grasping for the natural world, a place where she could fly free, and not be caged by the educations of her aunt or the the thoughts of her lost mother mixing with the lacking state of her father’s love. Aurora finds in her mother’s portrait the ideas of all the works she has read or ideas she has known, reflected back at her. In looking at this portrait she finds an understanding of “perpetual Life”, a life that will take her to the cold and frosty shores of England, creating a fog around her in which she can not escape, and she can not have any chance of finding her way back to the natural world, where her youth might find an escape from all that might trouble it (line 173).

Aurora Leigh

In the poem of Aurora Leigh romanticism plays a huge part but I think it is different from what we expected. Whenever we previously read of romanticism the main play on the themes were optimism but also fear of going somewhere in life but being unsure of where you are going. With Aurora Leigh I see more of the life lead with pure knowledge of the next step. Because although he mother and father died she has this idea of how she can continue with herself. It is written closely to nature and exemplifies that in certain aspects but I think it changes throughout the whole poem. She is very picturesque of it all for the most part.

Romanticism in Aurora Leigh

I find Aurora Leigh have many Romantic aspects.  Aurora has a feminist resoluteness about her, she determines not to marry where she doesn’t feel love and instead wants to go off on her own and make it as a legitimate artist in the world of literature and poetry.  Similar to the somewhat feminist pieces we read earlier in the semester, Elizabeth Barrett Browning shows true grit and character in her view of a woman being able to make it in a man’s world.  It could be seen as a headstrong, youthful desire to be free and independent.   This is a romantic ideal that reverberates through the work as we continually see Aurora plunging forward as a strong and capable woman (you go, girl!).   Also seen in Browning’s poem-novel are aspects similar to what we have read from other Victorian authors such as  Mayhew.  Aurora Leigh shows the underbelly of society in many ways, most especially seen in the character of Marian Erle, who has gone through unimaginable horrors in her lifetime.  We also see those Victorian aspects in Romney Leigh, who’s philanthropic efforts are not as enthusiastically reciprocated from those he tries to help.  In addition to that, Aurora is a character who finds herself without money, rejecting the offer of fortune and safety by way of marriage to her cousin Romney.  Because of this, we get to see her pull herself up by her bootstraps and make a name for herself in the realm of literature and art, which brings us back full circle to the Romantic feminism.

Aurora Leigh

I think that Elizabeth Barrett Browning used some ideas of romanticism in her piece, “Aurora Leigh,” but does stray away from the examples we have read before. The last stanza says that she ” drew the elemental nutriment and heat from nature.” Romanticism is shown by nature giving her strength, which show that nature is the root of all things. Browning draws away from romanticism by not directly relating to simplistic living, but showing how education and lifestyles were advancing. Her education was built to please her mother’s tastes, as she “spun glass, stuffed birds, and modelled flowers in wax, because she like accomplishments in girls.”  She wasn’t being educated to become smarter, but she was educated to be more attractive as a person. Appearances are kept up, while actual learning was left for the men to do.This poem is showing what life was like for her, not completely a reflection like romanticism, but she does share about the lifestyle of mothers, who “know the way to rear up children.” It does make the readers feel as if there is a set role for women to follow, something that was not such a big theme in romanticism.

Aurora Leigh’s Youth

I think that Browning’s description of Aurora Leigh’s childhood is partly Romantic, but more Victorian once her mother dies. It’s almost like everything was rosy until she was four and her mother died, which was the impetus of a shift in her view of herself and her childhood. In the beginning, when Aurora was very young, the vision we get is one of a cherubic young girl with angelic golden ringlets. At this point, there is the innocent, peaceful reflection on that part of her youth that reminds me of Romanticism, but once her mother dies, in lines 29-30, we see a shift in how Aurora refers to her childhood. There are no more soft, loving memories of her father playing with her hair. Instead, she says “I, Aurora Leigh, was born to make my father sadder” (45-6). This shows a version of childhood that is very mature and self-aware and more like the children we’ve read about in our discussion of the Victorians- the watercress girl and the street crosser. Aurora is aware of the pain that her very existence causes, and that’s not something a youth would be thinking about in most Romantic works.

Industrialized Youth Without Perspective

In Maybew’s work, he describes the somewhat disturbing lack of youth in industrialized London. In one particular interview, the first in this selection, a female child of eight years old states, “I ain’t a child and I shan’t be a woman till I’m a twenty”. This suggests that there was no childhood for the poor children of London due to industrialization. There seems to be some evidence to suggest that other children had different luxuries; for instance, she same child says, “Besides it’s like a child to care for sugar-sticks and not like one who’s got a living”. I have no doubt that certain children did not have this level of workload or lack o luxury. However, I think it is truly impossible for us, as modern readers, to ascertain the true nature and perspective of this piece. In this time period, life for all individuals was much harder than we could imagine in our technological advanced world. In addition, the much stunted lifespans of individuals also contributed to a lack of what we know as a childhood for everyone. Even the most privileged of children, royals, were forced to take the throne and reign over countries as quick as their early teens. Therefore an argument could also be made that there was a lack of childhood for them as well, yet in a vastly different way in the one presented here. I guess my point is, without proper context, it’s hard to know if poverty and industrialization were truly the killers of youth in this time period, as is suggested. It would be really helpful to have materials or accounts of children from different classes to compare.

Victorian Age London Youth

Our discussions have already approached the idea that physical, visible, literal youth does not always match up with mental or spiritual youth. This issue comes up again in a problematic way when we read Mayhew’s recorded accounts from the urban poor in Victorian era London. The water-cress girl, as Mayhew notes, can’t be called a child, and he comments that in some significant and non-age-based way, she has already grown up. Her main concern is her “living”, and her daily existence as a wage worker, a merchant. The sweeping boy as well, though almost at the age of maturity, comes across as even older–beyond his years. The circumstances of each have made them used to hardships that have made their “childhood” impossible and assigned to them an air of the mechanical.

The Youth of Victorian London

Henry Mayhew’s interviews with London street children reveals a terrible consequence of Industrialization. The factory owners and other members of the upper class have capitalized on the massive influx of people into urban centers by paying them abysmal wages for horrid jobs. Many people cannot find work or make enough money to support a family. Many, especially children, have nothing else other than drastic measures such as stealing or begging. The Watercress Girl in “London Labour and the London Poor” has etched out a pathetic living by selling lettuce on the city streets. This little girl should be a youth; she should embody the carefree life for which so many are nostalgic, but, sadly, the class she was born into forced her to forgo any chance of youth. She fails to even see her self as a child anymore, she believes that “[they] wouldn’t let such as [her] go there” in referring to the parks of London that she had never seen (1109). She also clearly admits that she “ain’t no child,” but she does not see herself as yet a women grown (1111). The poor youth of London found themselves stuck in a state of limbo, or perhaps purgatory, between youth and adulthood. They know that they are children, but they spend all their time trying to merely survive rather than growing and learning as they ought to. The age of industrialization does not simply redefine youth, it crushes and distorts it into something that cannot be recognized.

The Victorian Age Youth

The Victorian age, preceded by the urban/industrial migration led to an increase in the population of the major cities in the United Kingdom. Although this period heralded an industrial revolution in which there was an improvement in the overall economy of the country, there was a growing disparate distinction between classes of the citizens. Set in London, Henry Mayhew, in his narrative titled “London Labor and the London Poor” sheds light on the predicament of the youth on the lower rungs of the economic ladder in the city. John Rosenberg describes the economic class distinction as “a vast, ingeniously balanced mechanism in which each class subsists on the droppings of the stratum above…”(1108), with Mayhew elucidating on the lowest class citizens of which the majority were the youth.

In all honesty, it is probably a stretch referring to the girl first interviewed in this narrative as a “youth”, however, her experience characterizes the quite unusual maturity possessed by the youth of that period. At the tender age of eight, the amount of responsibility shouldered by the girl is remarkable, and one that Mayhew finds difficult to come to terms with initially. Trying to adapt to this scenario, Mayhew “treated her as a child, speaking on childish subjects” so as to “remove all shyness, and get her to narrate her life freely. However, maybe even more incredulous is the way in which she takes her unusual situation in her stride. Mayhew narrates that her response to his attempts at childish prompts was a “look of amazement that…soon put an end to any attempt at fun”(1108).

Youth is quite rightly associated with a reckless abandon with possessions and a less to no-considered approach to wealth or money. The young girl in this narrative however responds to an inquisition on her spending habits with an interesting response. Mayhew writes that she says:

“All my money I earns I put in a club and draws it out to buy clothes with. It’s better than spending it in sweet-stuff, for them as has a living to learn.”(1110)

This highlights the maturity of the youth in this period, necessitated by the economic situation and the reluctance of family to add on responsibility besides themselves. Abandonment and having to fend for oneself is the theme of the narrative on the crossing-sweeper boy.

The youth of that period possessed independence along with the maturity earlier discussed. Even though she was the only family he had left, his sister gave him some money and told him to go get his own living. (1111) With that in mind, it is important to note, however, that the youth of that period still had that innate nature of the common youth with the need to be cared for. The boy narrates that “I saw sister after I left her, many times. I asked her many times to take me back…”(1112)

Mayhew’s narrative paints a picture of an unusual breed of youth forged by the difficult economic times, and in my opinion, neglectful adults, who have evolved to develop maturity way beyond their years and survive in the independence forced on them.


Involuntary maturity

What struck me must about our reading today is the lack of choice present in the life of the water-cress girl. When speaking with Mayhew, as he first brings up alternatives to the life she leads, she does not seem to understand. The young girl is only so in years, but as he mentions, she is already grown up. Is that because the amount of responsibility that she holds on her shoulders is more than many adults one encounters? This is an interesting take on what it means to be grown up. It is not as though young children do not start losing the ignorant innocence of being dependent on parents at the age of eight. But they definitely still believe in a world that isn’t out to destroy them. I do not believe that the water-cress girl is mature in the sense that she understands a lot about her life, but more that she understands a lot about the nature of being alive in general. This is in an abstract sense that probably is more striking to someone who is an adult and knows of the contrast she presents. But it is nonetheless her reality, thrust upon her in a violent way, and the burden has caused her to involuntarily embody much of what it means to be an adult at a very young age.

Youth in the Victorian Age

Henry Mayhew’s strategy of portraying youth in “London Labour and the London Poor” appeared to me as a stark message of loss. The two children who narrate this literary work have lost their childhood in such a severe way. The author states at the beginning that he is unsure of how to approach this little girl, so he speaks to her as he would any other child. His reaction of surprise towards her unnatural maturity makes his work relatable to readers. These young children have been forced to grow up too quickly for need of survival. “I ain’t a child, and I shan’t be a woman till I’m twenty, but I’m past eight, I am” (page 1111). This line embodies the life this girl has been forced to live; she works each day from morning until night to survive and has concerns no eight year old can understand. What this young girl lives with each day has matured her well past the age of eight.

The story of these two children portrays the Victorian Age in urban areas as brutal. There is no youth for many during this time period. The author writes this with the exact dialect of the boy and girl to keep their stories as organic as possible. During this time the right to learn how to read and write were stolen from many for they had to choose work over education in order to stay alive. The girl in this story cannot read or write for she could not stay in school for long, but the boy was literate for he had spent a decent amount of time in school. In the Victorian Age about 90% of the population were in the working class (page 1045), which is depicted by these two youth. These two children epitomize what youth was in the Victorian Age for the working class: obsolete.

Youth in Victorian London

Henry Mayhew’s interviews with children working in the streets of London showed very little signs of youthfulness. The children were not child-like, as they were forced to take care of themselves, the alternative being that they would starve or freeze to death.

The boy that was interviewed showed some youthfulness, in that he used his age to provoke people to take pity on him as he would say, “give a half penny to poor little Jack.” He had not completely lost hope that people would sympathize with him. The little girl, however, seemed very much hardened. It seemed so odd that Mayhew did not know how to talk to her, as it must have been like talking to the shell of a little girl who was filled with the burdens of a rather old woman. She had no hope that anyone would do anything for her, and even knew that people would take advantage of her because of her age. She did not try to make people feel sorry for her, but she made it clear that she would not be pushed around by them. Everything she said was drained of all child-like optimism. She spoke as if she was grown and even said , “I aint a child.” Both children had to grow up very early as they were both stuck in survival mode, both knowing that no one was going to rescue them.

The Victorian Ideal and Children

The British citizens experienced a surge of pride and inventions within the Victorian era than ever before.  A new way to make paper and an easier way to print books increased the literacy of Queen Victoria’s people.  It is through this widespread literacy that Henry Mayhew pulls on the idealism of the Victorians.  Evangelical ideas permeated society demanding that hard work was next to God and that rules were a way of life.  They also had a complete reaction to the Romantics.  While the Romantics were introverted, stressing more on discovering self within oneself and nature, Victorians were extroverted because of the Evangelical ideal that self is less important than the masses.  It is within this ideal Mayhew interviews some young people working in the streets.  I believe he did this to show not only his conformation to the Victorian ideal, being important within literature and caring for others, but to show that the extreme has a possibility to develop and even had a reality.

These children embodied the ideals of the Victorian age: working hard, serving others, and reading.  According the Mayhew, “All her [the water-cress girl] knowledge seemed to begin and end with water-cresses, and what they fetched.” (1108).  She seemed to only care how hard she worked and how much money she brought home since that was a recurring theme in her discussion with Mayhew.  She also was at the tender age of eight and worked so hard she never felt like playing.  In this case, Mayhew was showing an ideal worker but also the extreme it produced and how that negatively affected young people through child labor.  The crossing-sweeper boy was another of Mayhew’s examples of the extreme that unrelenting work caused youths.  The boy is so eager to prove himself to Mayhew and the literate world that he is a hard worker that he tells Mayhew that when “it’s awful cold, and gives us chilblains [frostbite] on our feet; but we don’t mind it when we’re working…” (1113).  I believe Mayhew was showing through his writing to the literate public that hard work is an ideal that should be upheld by the Victorians but not in the extreme that children are working without ceasing and not getting to enjoy the joys and wonders of childhood.  Though children should have age-appropriate responsibilities, they should not work harder than an adult as Mayhew was displaying.  Perhaps Mayhew was also trying to bring about a reform for these children through his writing; thereby proving himself as an authority because he cared for others and not himself.

Victorian Youth on the Streets

Henry Mayhew gives an account of two encounters with young people struggling to survive in the hard environment of London’s streets.  Both started work at a very early age, and both are mature beyond their years.  They virtually had no childhood, as we know it, but were content with their lot in life.  They also showed a great ability to adapt to the changing environment around them.  The fifteen year old boy in particular had found a way to support himself in all types of weather: sweeping street crossings when dry, begging money in the rain, and shoveling snow in the cold.

Victorian youth are portrayed by Mayhew as resourceful, mature before their time, somewhat educated, and, for the most part, struggling to survive the harsh living conditions.  They have no transition period from child to adult, but are simply forced to grow up overnight and take on the adult role of providing for themselves and their family.  So, if we consider the transition from child to adult “youth,” Victorian children seem to skip youth entirely, taking away the freedom of exploration and choice commonly associated with youth.  They do not have the opportunity to choose their occupation or find their purpose in life, but are forced to adapt to their surroundings or die.

Youth in the Victorian Urban Context

Mayhew’s account on youth during the Victorian age is one that is very different from our views on youth nowadays. Youth’s back then had a lot more responsibility, having to help the family make money as well as helping out in every way they could. Because of youth’s playing such an important role in the family economics, many times the children had some schooling but then were forced to stop due to their family’s need for them to go out and make money, or the lack of money to send them to it. A lot of the time they “knew no more of London than that part [they] had seen on [their] rounds,” showing just how limited their lives really were because of their family’s dependence on them (p1108). Also, because of this dependence on them, children were forced to grow up much quicker than they probably should. As mentioned by the watercress girl, it was no use for children to cry so they didn’t, showing that their way of life was the norm for hundreds of children and that they had already accepted their fate. Mayhew’s account really shows the dependence on youth that the working class had to really make ends meet, as well as the normality of youths as young as eight going out into the streets to work. I believe that it also shows where Victorian’s priorities were. Also, it shows the huge discrepancies in wealth during the time, because there were tons of children who were forced to go out at young ages, seen by the groups of them that worked together, who were just trying to help their family make money, or even just to survive themselves, because of the unfair advantages in wealth and the distribution of it which obviously wasn’t helping most of the working class if children at such a young age were forced to go out and earn money on the streets through street sweeping, begging, or other means.