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).

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.

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 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.