“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” and Darwinism

            Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest” is prevalent throughout Elizabeth Glaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford”. The story starts by establishing an isolated environment where “the Amazons” (1432) are dominant. The women of Cranford can almost be seen as the top predators of that ecosystem; however, instead of monopolizing resources or killing off competitors such as animals would, the women maintain a strict social environment that causes the men to be “frightened to death” (1432). The women of Cranford themselves have almost seemed to evolve away from the social norms of other societies; for example, the fact that “their dress is very independent of fashion” (1433) shows that they don’t feel the need to act on the impulses of traditional society. This is similar to how the finches discovered by Darwin on the Galapagos Islands evolved from traditional finches into completely different species. Cranford society illustrates how those who haven’t adapted to live in specialized conditions (the men) will be unable to thrive in a community dominated by a fitter species (the women).
            Captain Brown, however, managed to adapt to the Cranford society, and for awhile he even thrived, as many invasive species do when entering a new ecosystem. Unfortunately, his “great goodness of heart” (1439) that the women found to be “very eccentric” (1439) ended up being his downfall as he pushed a child out of the way of a train; he was unable to fully adapt to the society of Cranford and ultimately died because of this. Similarly, his oldest daughter was too “sickly, pained” (1435) and disagreeable to survive in the Cranford environment, and she ended up dying as well. Miss Jessie Brown, on the other hand, was actually fit to survive in Cranford due to her beauty and lighthearted nature and lived happily at the end of the story, showing that as long as someone or something can adapt to their environment, they can survive.

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.

Cranford as a Representation of the Galapagos Islands

Charles Darwin’s theories regarding evolution and natural selection permeate through Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” and take the shape of unique social mores in the town.  One such instance of this is the fact that “all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women” (1432).  The women appear to exist at the very top of the food chain in the rural town of Cranford; they are also the fittest individuals as the female population outnumbers the males by a significant amount.  Female dominance stunts the ability of the male population to ‘reproduce’ and grow in size.  While Darwin’s natural selection “depends on the success of both sexes,” (1280) we can still for comparison’s sake label each sex as its own species in Cranford.  Additionally, every organism must fulfill a specific niche and in their environment and “the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient” (1432-1433) to cater to the tasks of gardening, gossip, and keeping their help in order.  Feminine characteristics are more suited to these duties, therefore females are naturally selected for and the male population is depleted because the aforementioned niche is best suited for habitat of Cranford.  Upon thinking about Cranford from Darwin’s perspective, I realized how large a role social Darwinism plays in this society.  Just as science is highly structured, so are the women of Cranford.

Also, similar to Darwin’s theory of evolution is Cranford’s isolation from the outside world, much like the Galapagos Islands.  Many of Cranford’s inhabitants are aged and so many specified “rules and regulations” (1433) have accrued within the town, which would not be found outside.  Even “their dress is very independent of fashion” (1433) and it is unlikely that a similar form of dress would be found elsewhere, unless another town exhibited the same form of isolation as Cranford.  Cranford’s resident are very traditional and do not wish to accept any form of change, although the Industrial Revolution is occurring during their time.  Instead of adapting to the new environment of the new world order, their niche is becoming more and more specialized, much like an endangered species in the Amazon rainforest.