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Poverty And Kindness In Cranford


The most striking thing to me about Cranford, in terms of themes and structure, is the poverty. The way poverty is incorporated; the background usage of it is implemented in such a way as to allow Gaskell to bring it up without bringing it up. It’s hard to explain so I’m just going to get on with it.

Poverty is at the heart of much in the town. The vast majority of people are pretty poor and they aim not to reference it directly – it’s the case that they all know about everyone else’s circumstances but for proprieties’ sake they don’t discuss it. Gaskell’s handling of this is what forms some of the humour, a feat that is both ironic and heartening.

The beginning introduces us to this idea of no one directly mentioning poverty. We have the following:

I imagine that a few of the gentlefolks of Cranford were poor, and had some difficulty in making both ends meet; but they were like the Spartans, and concealed their smart under a smiling face.

and then:

The Cranfordians had that kindly esprit de corps which made them overlook all deficiencies in success when some among them tried to conceal their poverty. When Mrs Forrester, for instance, gave a party in her baby-house of a dwelling, and the little maiden disturbed the ladies on the sofa by a request that she might get the tea-tray out from underneath, everyone took this novel proceeding as the most natural thing in the world, and talked on about household forms and ceremonies as if we all believed that our hostess had a regular servants’ hall, second table, with housekeeper and steward, instead of the one little charity-school maiden, whose short ruddy arms could never have been strong enough to carry the tray upstairs, if she had not been assisted in private by her mistress, who now sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up, though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making teabread and sponge-cakes.

The tea tray incident is what sets us up for future references, Gaskell showing the ritual the town has constructed to get around the issue of poverty causing offence.

Beyond the humour, which is the most apparent thing, we have this sense of kindness that is likely part of Gaskell’s plan in relating the episode, given what we know of her personality and views, but could equally just be an added benefit of the propriety. For all Cranford can be a bit snotty, a bit too precious a place and against new male arrivals, when it comes to money everyone sticks together.

Sometimes the issue can cause a sort of comedy of errors – there are times when a person is so conscious of hiding their poverty, and the poverty of their relations, that they end up causing offence to others. There’s a particular slice of this in chapter eight wherein Mrs Jamieson, richer than the rest, forbids any sort of meeting between her Cranford friends and her sister-in-law – a Lady from Scotland. That Mrs Jamieson, someone not considered so far above the rest other than in money, should do this, strikes the characters as offensive, makes them feel inferior. They in turn snub Lady Glenmire, refusing to so much as glance at her in church.

Gaskell soon pulls back the curtains; we readers learn that the reason Mrs Jamieson refused meetings is that Lady Glenmire is poor and she, Mrs Jamieson, is, in true Cranford fashion, a little ashamed. She doesn’t want her friends to know. The ‘reveal’ isn’t commented on so much by the characters, it’s simply reported neutrally by the narrator who, as an ex-resident, we can assume is perhaps Gaskell herself; Gaskell wants to narrate but not from the distance that would be afforded if she were to write from her own perspective as an author.

It’s during all this snubbing that Gaskell shows us the upshot to the divide between servants and their mistresses – whilst there’s not a big divide due to everyone’s poverty, there’s divide enough that the women get a servant to observe Lady Glenmire for them and report back because:

Martha did not belong to a sphere of society whose observation could be an implied compliment to Lady Glenmire, and Martha had made good use of her eyes.

Because Martha’s seen as lower, she can look.

Lady Glenmire’s own poverty brings us to another factor of the theme: Captain Brown. In the Captain, a newcomer, Gaskell shows another way of dealing with poverty. To Brown, poverty is nothing to be ashamed of; he speaks of his own with ease. Gaskell, in creating this conflict of interests, adds humour to soften the ‘blow’ – the problem the residents have with Brown at this juncture, is compounded by his being a man in a women’s domain. The hint is there – ladies don’t speak of money, men do – though this isn’t to say that Gaskell is calling it a problem because she isn’t. She isn’t dividing the sexes, she’s merely using stereotypes to make humour, to get some artistic license going and exaggerate her characters.

But it does have the effect of showing that whilst there’s kindness in keeping shtum about poverty amongst those living in it, there’s no reason to be ashamed.

Poverty is seen in Mrs Forrester’s hiring of a boy to stay nights at her house in case of robberies. At first glance it’s a way of helping the boy’s family feed another mouth, but the reality is seen in what Mrs Forrester offers as payment – food and lodging. She doesn’t offer money and it’s not commented on because it doesn’t need to be at this point – we know she doesn’t offer money because she doesn’t have any. It’s less a hiring of a servant and more an agreement between neighbours.

In chapter thirteen, near the end of the novella, Miss Matty insists on exchanging a man’s worthless cheque for her own money, in a shop, on account of her being a share holder of his bank. This comes as a bit of a shock – after we’ve been told Cranford is poor, that Miss Matty has money behind her is a surprise – but it’s also full of that kindness; and the context, of the bank being in trouble, shows that Miss Matty may shortly be out of pocket. Certainly she says she’ll have to wait a few days longer to purchase the gown she’s after. Once she’s home we learn she earns £149 a year as a share holder, a substantial sum in those days, and that to lose it would drop her annual income to £13. Through this Gaskell reminds us of that kindness, once again, that everybody helping everybody factor seen in the tea tray incident and Mrs Forrester’s meals as wages.

We then come full circle, if you will, when Miss Matty’s servant, the afore-mentioned Martha, is told of the situation that has indeed happened – Miss Matty is to receive no more from the bank – and that she will no longer be employed. Martha turns the tables. The servant, by all accounts not well-off, not only defies Miss Matty to make a pudding out of her wages, she then brings in her beau and suggests Miss Matty live with them. If we in our modern era needed any more information about the straits Miss Matty is facing, apart from the thought of selling furniture and getting what we’d now call a studio apartment, Martha’s request fills us in. Martha feels so warmly for Miss Matty that she’s almost forcing her boyfriend to marry her right now so they can get a house so Miss Matty can live with them. And the boyfriend, whilst not against marriage, isn’t quite ready and isn’t really on board with talk of a lodger – it’s simply culture that would allow it to happen. In Cranford he’s but a man, after all.

We’ve the meeting of three ladies of Cranford, proposing they work in tandem with the narrator’s father (we finally get a name for our narrator!) to provide Matty a yearly income without her knowing her friends are behind it. This is heartening in itself but it’s Mrs Forrester’s later admission to the narrator, our newly ‘baptised’ Mary Smith – that she’ll have to make cut backs in her own life to do it that’s most sobering. The women will live even more cheaply themselves so their friend will not suffer so much.

This is then contrasted by the news that Mrs Jamieson is coming home to throw out Lady Glenmire because Lady Glenmire is to marry a poor doctor. Mrs Jamieson’s shame of Glenmire’s poverty continues and Gaskell shows the relative unkindness – her well-off character is not a nice person when compared to the poorer ones who help each other. That Miss Matty ultimately gets a measure of wealth back is neither here nor there.

This novella is a big statement from Gaskell. On the surface you’ve a light, fun, novella, but conscious of society as always, the author brings in some damning truths, only she uses those truths to show the goodness of fellow man. It may not be North And South, but upon further contemplation, it’s really not that far from it either.


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