"Household Forms and Ceremonies": Narrating Routines in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Article excerpt

Critics discussing Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1851-53) frequently situate it in relation to other genres of writing. In fact, owing in part to Cranford's original composition, a series of sketches published in rather irregular increments in Household Words, and in part to its unique emphasis on daily life, critics often question whether Cranford is even a novel. (1) While some have argued that Cranford is lacking formal unity, Tim Dolin argues that the novel does have a particular structure, though it is "organized like a collection of anecdotes, printed on cards and bundled together" (193). In this essay, I also pay special attention to the generic exigencies of Cranford by considering it with respect to another genre, the social instruction handbook. Yet in doing so, I argue that, paradoxically, a set of concerns usually associated with the handbook lends Cranford a novelistic structure; Cranford can thus be seen as a novel by virtue of its functional and methodological overlap with works on dining manners. For I suggest that the sketches that make up Cranford are organized by means of the ongoing theme of eating rituals, and its plot is focused primarily on characters struggling with social conventions. (2)

Noticing the predominance of the rituals of gentility as one of the novel's main themes, a number of critics have regarded the novel as defiant of conventions and handbooks alike. Hilary Schor, for instance, suggests that Cranford ridicules the rigid "codification of experience" (296) associated with handbooks. Elsewhere, Margaret Tarratt argues that Gaskell examines the implications of social codes on women's lives; the novel's basic message, according to Tarratt, is that the individual has an "occasional need to question authority and in certain cases to defy convention" (163). Cranford does certainly lend itself to the types of arguments that both Schor and Tarratt make. For Gaskell satirizes the extent to which the most minute behaviors of her fictional town are regulated by established codes, and she consistently unmasks the comical contradictions involved in maintaining the fiction of gentility. (3)

For the most part, however, when critics suggest that the novel questions conventions they refer to thematic representations of characters struggling with shared models for social behavior. While Eileen Gillooly examines the subtleties of how the narrator's use of humor challenges the authority of Cranford's "strict code of gentility" and Schor offers a complex reading of Gaskell's experimentation with different narrative styles as she provides a "guide-book" to Cranford life (303), critics have not often made explicit connections between issues of etiquette and issues of narrative. Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction, an analysis of the ways in which novels and conduct books perform the regulatory function of conveying domestic ideology, is one work whose generic scope is similar to my own. Yet, whereas Armstrong discusses how literary and non-literary texts share a sociopolitical function, I am particularly interested in linking the two genres through a set of specific narrative operations that codify social behavior. (4) I want to suggest that considering the ways in which Gaskell narrates conventions can lead to a unique perspective on the novel's relationship to questions of manners. Rather than focus on Gaskell's thematic critiques of conventions, then, I consider how her ideas are intertwined with her narrative methods. My use of the word "conventions" (rather than the term "manners") captures my dual interest in narrative and social practices, as well as my consideration of the concept of the convention as a novelistic device. I argue that while Gaskell is clearly trying to develop a humorous critique of the moral and social value of etiquette, the narrative techniques that she employs complicate, and indeed undermine, this satiric commentary.

By engaging with concepts from narratology, I situate Gaskell's narrative techniques with respect to those that tend to recur in social instruction handbooks of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. …