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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.