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.




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.


Gaskell’s short story contains aspects that appear sympathetic to ideas presented in Darwin’s writings, although under less obvious terms. She covertly follows the Darwinist idea of the survival of the strongest and fittest, rather than the “inferior members of society” (1282), as evident in the death of the elderly, self-declared impoverished, Captain Brown. He fittingly sacrifices himself (though not intentionally) in the act of saving a younger, healthier child who was most likely the baby of a wealthier woman. The survival of the worthier members at the expense of the “less-worthy” follows along the lines of Darwin’s advice that the poor/inferior members of society refrain from marriage, out of sense of duty for the good of humanity so that those best fit to succeed will pass on their better genes, ideally “rearing the largest number of offspring” to the benefit of mankind (1282).

This appears again in the moderately un-tragic death of the older, weaker, and unhealthy Miss Brown and the survival and successful life of the younger, healthier, and “twenty shades prettier” (1436) sister, Jessie Brown. The story does not betray or imply the idea that these deaths were justified by the theories of Darwin, but are covered in the polite, charming picture of Cranford and its kindly townfolk which the narrator paints.

Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Darwin

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story “Our Society At Cranford”, I noticed some interesting instances of some topics that Darwin discusses in his papers on the evolution and origin of species. For example, the women in this community have established themselves as the “fittest”, as “all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women”. Scientifically speaking, women in this community have eliminated male competition for resources like property and wealth, and have therefore become the power-holders. They have done this by essentially becoming independent of the need for males. As one of them says ” ‘A man…is so in the way in the house!’ “.

I was also interested to notice that the train, the symbol of industry and modernity in this story, is what ended up killing Captain Brown. For as many ways as he is the outlier in the town that was formally reigned by women, and for as much as he may also symbolize modernity in the way he changes the behavior of Cranford, it is telling that he is run over by a train. This is related to Darwin by the fact that, though human beings can create societies as complex as Cranford, they are not invincible to the natural world or the things they create. In this way, the train is as much a symbol of modernity as it is a symbol of the force of nature.