"The Scraps, Patches, and Rags of Daily Life": Gaskell's Oriental Other and the Conservation of Cranford

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Cranfordism and the "Scraps, Patches, and Rags of Daily Life"

Cranford always gave Mrs. Gaskell a great deal of pleasure. It represented to her the charms of everyday life, and she predictably clung to its homespun surfaces and simple pastimes. Flattered by John Ruskin's praise of her novel, Gaskell writes to him a few months prior to her death:

[Cranford] is the only one of my own books that I can read again;-but whenever I am ailing or ill, I take 'Cranford' and-I was going to say, enjoy it! (but that would not be pretty!) laugh over it afresh! (Letters 747)

Gaskell laughs "afresh" at Cranford's lovable eccentricity, which she labels as "Cranfordism" (Letters 290). Examples of Cranfordism from the novel include Miss Betty Barker's flannel waistcoat and drawers for a cow that has fallen into a lime pit, Mrs. Jamieson's wee lumps of sugar for her tea service, and Miss Matilda Jenkyns's miserly use of candles, as well as her efforts to make her cat vomit the delicate lace it has swallowed.

In her letters, Gaskell refers to a Mrs. Frances Wright who exclaims to one of Gaskell's cousins that she has never been able to "spell" because she has lost her teeth (Letters 290). In another, Gaskell relates the story of Knutsford newlyweds who train their servant to jump over the white spots in their carpet so she will not soil it (Letters 747-48). Gaskell even names a kitten she receives from Paris "Cranford." Not surprisingly, E. Thurstan Holland, subsequent to Gaskell's sudden death in 1865, recounts her burial in Knutsford, the actual model for Cranford. He asks, "Was it not fit that she should be buried there?" (qtd. in Letters 971).

Ironically, however, rising national and international markets, the advent of advanced industrial technologies, and the rise of an increasingly mobile, educated middle class during the first half of the nineteenth-century belie the anachronistic charms, domestic pleasures, and simple pastimes that characterize Cranford and Cranfordism. No longer truly isolated, the town's inhabitants manage to ignore such radical changes for a time by obsessively focusing on the minutiae of daily life and traditional protocols, but in the end the Cranfordians, in particular the town's elderly spinsters and widows, must confront their pretense; they must face the fact that these outside pressures have created new borders, obliterating their assumed social distinctions and displacing their unique social status. Gaskell uses Cranford's humdrum quaintness to mask the nearly invisible disintegration of its ideological conservatism as well as the thorough dismantling of its correlate institutions and traditions by forces from the outside. Gaskell's Cranfordisms are signs of cultural belatedness; they poignantly testify to a civic transformation that will soon take place, perhaps is taking place, even as we read about and revel in Cranford's utopian simplicity.

As Homi Bhabha suggests, these "scraps, patches and rags of daily life must be repeatedly turned into the signs of a national culture, while the very act of narrative performance interpellates a growing circle of national subjects" (297). Not only do individual Cranfordisms captivate the reader by evoking pastoral charms, but they also sinisterly mirror the "signs" of a transformed "national culture," whose readership nostalgically yearns for Cranford's parochialism even as it tacitly understands that English "national culture" has long abandoned such an ideology. By novel's end, the town's aging gentility has lost its traditional markers of class; hence, these details become sites for recognizing national instability and change, especially as they pertain to women. While Cranford may be "in possession of the Amazons" (1), a consortium of aging women who resist the social and cultural encroachments of the outside world, Cranford's "scraps, patches and rags of [its] daily life" interpellate the "Amazons" onto a dynamic field of a rapidly altered national culture. …