Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'Some Great War': The Aga Jenkyns and the Repression of History in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'Some Great War': The Aga Jenkyns and the Repression of History in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Article excerpt

In 1849, when Elizabeth Gaskell published her essay 'The Last Generation in England' in Sartains Union Magazine of Literature and Art, she acknowledged her debt to Robert Southey's proposal in the Edinburgh Review to offer a history of English domestic life. Gaskell also offered her own rationale for her reminisces of her hometown, Knutsford. She noted that 'even in small towns, scarcely removed from villages, the phases of society are rapidly changing; and much will appear strange, which yet occurred only in the generation immediately preceding ours'.1 Gaskell's 'history' entails constructing an immediate past as distant and esoteric, generating for her readers a happy sense of dissociation from its eccentricities and traumas. When her recollections of the 'last generation' morphed into her series of Cranford narratives, Gaskell developed a more complicated dynamic of the past as a history to be reassembled out of oral testimony, often collectively misremembered, and revolving around the problematic figure of 'Poor Peter', brother to the Misses Deborah and Matty Jenkyns. Banished into history, Peter, on his return as prodigal son, offers more than a simple account of his personal past. Through the story of Peter's life, once lost to the record, Cranford is revealed as a space located in the interstices between the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. In doing so, Cranford's relationship with the historical proves to be more nuanced, more complex, and more contentious for both the Amazons and Gaskell's readers.

The presence of history in Cranford has always been recognised. Jenny Uglow made the significant observation that Cranford was connected with 'war, empire, and cut-throat trade'.2 However, attention to world history in Cranford has frequently been eclipsed by an interest in personal history, an approach favoured by feminist scholars such as Adrienne Gavin, Hilary Schor, and Maria Fitzwilliam, who have focused upon struggles for voice, writing, and self-expression.3 The understandable consequence of such an emphasis is that Cranford has frequently been read as a study in provincialism, thereby privileging the local over the global.4 Scholars who addressed the global have often preferred to dwell upon manifestations of cultural hybridity in Cranford that ensue from a female community's peripheral engagement with the British empire. Jeffrey Cass, for instance, has argued for Cranford as a space that domesticates the Oriental Other.5 In addition, general interest in the oriental has often been honed to a specific critical focus on India in the novel. Karsten Piep observes a benevolent orientalism at work, with British India affording 'modern Orientalists such as Major Jenkyns, Signor Brunoni, and Peter "Aga" Jenkyns opportunities for advancement, professionalization, and the accumulation of small fortunes' and 'deliverance from spiritual bankruptcy as well as the strictures of English social mores'.6 Thomas Recchio, in his important study of Cranford's publishing history, points out that for the reader of the serial in its original form, 'all the other pieces in Household Words draw attention to connections between Cranford and India' (8).7 To connect the local with the global fruitfully, it becomes imperative to explore how Cranford as narrative is located at that point where domestic chronicle and imperial history intersect.

The character who straddles the categories of domestic chronicle and imperial history is the enigmatic Peter 'Aga' Jenkyns, or 'poor Peter', a figure largely ignored by Gaskell scholarship. William J. Hyde, in one of the few studies devoted to Peter, contends that the adjective 'poor' is applicable to Peter Jenkyns, who brings public shame to his father, suffers estrangement from the family, and returns to a life with unmarriageable femininity.8 But this position has its limitations. Hyde's reading misses the full significance of Peter's elusive persona for the wellbeing of Cranford as a community. …

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