our society at cranford.

Throughout this story, Elizabeth Gaskell makes the them of Darwin’s “natural selection” very evident. Natural selection is define by google as: the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. The author focused heavily on the external aspects of the characters describing some as “20 shades prettier” and others as sickly and pale. This represents the difference between those who may have been “selected” as opposed to those who have slim chances. The idea is that beauty is connected to strength and adaptability but it is not always the case. Some may have all the physical aspects yet not be able to adapt. This is manifested in her writing. The only character that represents all the qualities as explained in the previous stated definition is Miss Jessie Brown. She being the only one that survives proves that and especially being able to adapt and get married. Which is the second part of the definition; to produce more offspring. Being one that survived and adapted she will produce offspring who will be stronger and more capable of serving as well which will reinforce the idea that Darwin put forth.

It is very clear that the qualities we talked about in class (sweetness and beauty) are representative of the ability to adapt and survive. Darwin may suggest that maybe inherently people are subconsciously looking for a “mate” who will allow their offspring the best chance at survival.

“The Descent of Man” in comparison to “Our Society in Cranford”

While Darwin’s main focus is the scientific process of Natural Selection in The Descent of Man, he outlines some basic innate social policies that must “have been acquired through natural selection” (1279). The moral qualities described by Darwin are classified as “instincts… of a highly complex nature” (1279). Man’s higher intellectual power gives us the ability to have a very “distinct emotion of sympathy” (1279). The animalistic instincts to “take pleasure in each other’s company, warn each other of danger, defend and aid each other” (1279) is innate in humans according to Darwin. Darwin also suggests that this natural selection only happens in communities, not an entire species. This is highly reflected in the excerpt by Elizabeth Gaskell.

The Cranford community is as tightly knit as Darwin’s instinctual society suggests. The Cranford ladies are “quite sufficient”, and only have “an occasional little quarrel” (1433). These women abide by strict societal expectations that are naturally selected for this specific community. This selection almost always leads to men being pushed out due to not being able to adapt to the society that they enter, and accord to Gaskell, “in short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford” (1432). This instinct to aid each other is seen when a tea-party is thrown that is not up to the aristocratic par of the norm, but there is no issue brought up with it. “…every one took this novel proceeding as the most natural thing in the world…” (1434). Even after the disagreement of Captain Brown and Ms. Jenkyns over the authors, the instinct to aid and be sympathetic is seen when Ms. Jenkyns demands to have a funeral for Ms. Jessie’s father. She also demands that Jessie live with her instead of the house where she would be all alone. “Miss Jenkyns insisted that Miss Jessie should come to stay with her rather than go back to the desolate house…” (1445). The final example of the instinct to defend was when Ms. Jenkyns sent the gentleman to court Ms. Jessie, Ms. Matty was outraged and said “Deborah, there’s a gentleman sitting in the drawing-room with his arm round Miss Jessie’s waist!” (1446) All of this goes to show that this community was ruled by instinctual social norms that were created not due to human intentionality, but the human’s distinct sense of empathy and natural instinct to thrive in social settings with other humans.

Darwin’s evolutionary ideology in “Our Society at Cranford”

The society of Cranford easily incorporates Darwin’s theories of Survival of the Fittest, and of Adaptation, over the course of the story.

Broadly speaking, Survival of the Fittest prevails. Miss Jessie outlives both her father, Captain Brown, and her sister, Miss Brown. Neither died from “old age”: Her father died from a freak accident and her sister from a chronic illness. Miss Brown, in her last few words, reveals that their family had lost even more members before Captain Brown had died– “‘Father, mother, Harry, Archy'” (1445). Based on Darwin’s theory, Jessie’s characteristics set her up for success. She appears “childlike”, “twenty shades prettier” than her sister, and the narrator declares that “she should live to a hundred” (1436). Also, Survival of the Fittest requires fertility and successful reproduction, which applies to Jessie here as well. At the end of the story, Jessie has had a daughter, Flora, who has managed to survive long enough to learn to read (she has surpassed the age in which child mortality is highest in this era).

Adaptation also becomes apparent in this story by the changes in the Cranford ladies overall. Initially, the society of Cranford was entirely populated by women; “all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women”, and in Victorian society, property ownership often equated to those of some power. All of the ladies had a polite facade where talk of their average lives was practically nonexistent, and disdain for poverty made itself clear. When Captain Brown moves to Cranford (an intense change in the society already, solely due to his gender), he makes his financial situation known when determining a house to buy, and the women react with affront and distaste, declaring that if “he was so brazen as to talk of being poor–why, then, indeed, he must be sent to Coventry” (1434). This dislike of poverty ties back to Darwin’s thought that should all incapacitated and/or poor people not reproduce, the human species would have higher success or be better for it. He does, however, recognize that this is not possible and moves on from that. After this initial reaction of the ladies of Cranford, most of them adapt pretty quickly to this outsider because of his “manly frankness”, and his “excellent masculine common sense” along with his ability to “overcome domestic dilemmas” (1435). Not only did these qualities help Captain Brown fit in to society, but they also “gained him an extraordinary place as authority among the Cranford ladies” (1435).

Darwinism found in “Our Society at Cranford”

“Our Society at Cranford” is a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that follows the story of residents in the town of Cranford. In this novel, Cranford is a small town found in England. The very nature of Cranford is very different from any real setting. To begin, Cranford is described as being “in possession of the Amazons” (1432). This statement immediately sets an interesting tone to the work by pointing out that there is a fierce race of people found in Cranford. Ideas such as one race being superior to another and that race being able to maintain a higher mental/physical ability reflects a very popular scientific contribution of the time made by Charles Darwin. The basis of Darwin’s natural selection is rooted in the idea that some species are made greater than others because they have evolved to be that way. “Our Society in Cranford” comes to reflect that sentiment even deeper when the reader reads on to learn that the women are in charge of running everything in Cranford, while “somehow the gentlemen disappears” (1432). The town that Gaskell builds is one that has deeply ingrained the hierarchy between different humans that was first noted by Darwin to exist between the species. Furthermore, Cranford is a town that believes itself to be above all other places because “though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic” (1434). The divisions that Darwin often makes between species and their developed mental capacities, seem to parallel the distinctions Gaskell makes between residents of Cranford, the women in Cranford, and the poor in Cranford. The way the narrator speaks about the poor in Cranford it is practically as if those who spoke “of poverty as if it was not a disgrace” were lower beings than the rich women who made up the substance of Cranford (1435). Overall, there appears to be distinct levels in Cranford between those who are higher ranking in intelligence and those who are not.

Our Society at Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

At the first reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Our Society at Cranford, I thought that Darwnism was not obviously present in the text. I had to think more about it to realize that this short story might actually be a sort of fictional practical application of Darwin’s theories about the evolution and the natural selection. Indeed, in this fictionnal city, most of the inhabitants are women, as it is underlined by the very first sentence of the text : “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons”. This reference to the mythological Amazons clearly puts the reader in a context of fight, of struggle, since the Amazons are a people exclusively composed of women, who were real warriors. This can be read under Darwin’s theory of natural selection influence, which involves a real struggle for life. We can thus suppose that the inhabitants of Cranford are strong women who survived the hardship of life and of natural selection.

But I think that what puts the most into practice Darwin’s theories in this text is the story of the family Brown. In many ways, this family seems to be the fictional example of the application of Darwin’s theories. Indeed, the three members of the family embody the phenomenon of natural selection as defined by Darwin. At the end of this extract, only one out of three members of the family survives. This is the youngest daughter, who is described from the beginning as a strong person, spoilt by nature : ” It was true there was something childlike in her face; and there will be, I think, till she dies, though she should live to a hundred.” In this sentence, we can notice that Miss Jessie seems really young, yet youth is associated with strengh and vitality. Plus, the narrator underlines the fact that she will live old : “a hundred”, supposed, “years” ; which is a very long life for a human being, especially at the time Gaskell wrote that short story. On the contrary, her sister is presented as a very weak person : “Miss Brown must have been forty; she had a sickly, pained, careworn expression on her face, and looked as if the gaiety of youth had long faded out of sight.”. Contrary to her sister, she embodies the old age. Moreover, the enumeration of pejorative adjectives such as “sickly, pained, careworn” insists on the fact that she is sick, and make the reader suppose from the beginning that she won’t live as long as her sister. Indeed, whereas her sister is spoilt by nature, she is not. She belongs to the “weak” beings, while Miss Jessie belongs to the “strong” beings, according to Darwin’s theory. Then, Miss Brown will not live long. Finally, even the last member of the family, Captain Brown, the father, is confronted with natural selection. He is, like his daughter Miss Jessie, appointed as a “strong” being, who is supposed to survive. However, he will die too, not because of weakness, but because of an accident. In other words, Captain Brown is victim of what we could call “random”. In a way, he is also a victim of natural selection, because nature is in someway made of randoms. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. To summurize it, family Brown is the practical application of Darwnin’s theory of natural selection : two out of three beings are going to die – one of them because he was too weak to survie, the other one because of random – and only one of them will survive – the strongest.

Furthermore, Brown’s family is also a kind of practical application of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. In this city fulled with women, a man is obviously not going unnoticed. But Captain Brown appears to be a very attractive man, who answers to all the categories that makes a male individual attractive to the eyes of a female individual. We can read : “his excellent masculine common sense […]  had gained him an extraordinary place as authority among the Cranford ladies”. The words “masculine common sense” here refer to a sort of scientific language. These words added to the meliorative adjective “excellent” clearly show that he is a kind of model of what masculinity should be, according to women. So there is an obvious reference to Darwin’s sexual selection, and, globally, the whole family seems to be a sort of fictionnal application of Darwin’s theories of evolution.

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.



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.