Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford: Summary & Thoughts – Chapter 1

Gaskell Blog © Katherine C.

Hugh Thompson illustrates Miss Deborah Jenkyns

The ladies of Cranford are full of human foibles that make them so dear. While they may not be how we picture the Amazon’s. They are survivors, preserving their town with the codes of their gentile society and trying to keep it from too much change. Rowena Fowler mentions how even the inheritor of the famous red silk umbrella, frail as she sounds has outlived her family:

I can testify to a magnificent family red silk umbrella, under which a gentle little spinster, left alone of many brothers and sisters, used to patter to church on rainy days …the poor little lady—the survivor of all—could scarcely carry it.

And their surviving spirit is also visible in Miss Betty Barker’s determination to save her Alderney cow, sewing flannel pajamas for it (at Captain Brown’s suggestion) when it lost all it’s hair after falling into a lime-pit.

Miss Deborah Jenkyns is the pillar of their society, establishing the rules of behavior. With Captain Brown’s arrival they are innocently challenged, creating one of my favorite paragraphs in the first chapter.

Captain Brown and his two daughters Miss Brown and Miss Jessie

I never shall forget the dismay felt when a certain Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about his being poor—not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed, but in the public street! in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house.

The ladies of Cranford were already rather moaning over the invasion of their territories by a man and a gentleman… and if, in addition to his masculine gender, and his connection with the obnoxious railroad, he was so brazen as to talk of being poor—why, then, indeed, he must be sent to Coventry. Death was as true and as common as poverty; yet people never spoke about that, loud out in the streets.

Speaking of poverty is compared with death and despite that the ladies of Cranford practice elegant economy, they’ve buried the truth so deeply that they’ve blinded themselves. But despite all the terrible things Captain Brown represents, his warms manner smooth away the aggravation until they’re on such terms that he can break the rules and come visiting before 12:00, to fix a smoking chimney that’s not lit. What are some of your favorite passages?

He has two daughters, the hard-featured, sickly, and cross Miss Brown and Miss Jessie who has something child-like in her face and the same heart of her father. She too is quite unaware of the delicate rules of Cranford telling Miss Pole at an evening party that her uncle keeps a shop in Edinburgh and can get her more Shetland wool when the elevated Mrs. Jameison! is sitting close enough to overhear! Mrs. Jameison is the most aristocratic among them, being the sister-in-law to the Earl of Glenmire, and she revels in the position often assuming airs of indifference towards the others.

We also learn of Captain Brown’s great love for Charles Dickens’ writing heartily enjoying the Pickwick Papers much to the abhorrence of Miss Jenkyns who thinks his writing inferior to the great Dr. Johnson which we’ll explore a little more: here.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Alexa Adams says:

    I have not read this book in close to two decades, at a time when, I fear I was far too young to appreciate it. Furthermore, I have never seen the beloved BBC adaptation of the book, as I’ve been waiting to reread it before doing so. Thanks for the opportunity to push that agenda forward! I remember little of the story but was delighted to find myself repeatedly laughing out loud during the first chapter. I was particularly tickled by the images of the church clerk trying to sing louder than the Captain, Miss Jenkyns condescending to “beat time, out of time” as Miss Jessie sang, and, most of all, by the notion of the Alderney cow dressed in grey flannel. Poor beast! I had to stop and explain myself to my husband, I was laughing so hard. I can’t wait to learn what the ladies of Cranford will do next!

    1. I too love the scenes you mentioned, Alexa, especially the beating time out of time with a spoon. 🙂 You’ll be delighted to know they include that part in the adaptation.

  2. I was struck by the social conventions that offended the Cranford ladies; Captain Brown’s mention of poverty and his daughter Jessie’s reference to her uncle being in trade. Gaskell uses the social standards between the established ladies of Cranford and the new residents to accent their differences, which were so important in English society at this time, (and for many more decades and still alive today). As I was growing up in the US, my Edwardian grandmother was appalled if money was discussed in her presence and to this day I am still uncomfortable discussing even with family or behind closed doors. I can imagine how the mention of a financial matter on polite ears in Cranford would make the ladies swoon in shock!

    1. “Gaskell uses the social standards between the established ladies of Cranford and the new residents to accent their differences”

      I love how she creates most of the conflict in the novel based on this particular idea; Conventions and challenging them but in a way that’s very subtle (compared with Mary Barton for instance) and ordinary. She had a wonderful knack for writing about ordinary life (also shown in Wives and Daughters).

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