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Cranford, Novels and Morals

From its first page, 'Cranford' had the grace, clarity and acute perception that go to make a classic. 'Cranford', we may remember, was in the possession of the ladies: 


Cranford...for keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck then; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture into the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody's affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maidservants in admirable order;for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor,and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quits sufficient. 'A man', as one of them observed to me once, 'is so in the way in the house'. 

It is unnecessary to elaborate upon the characters of 'Cranford', on poor flustered Miss Matty and her formidable sister Miss Deborah, or the fiery Miss Pole, the flaccid Hon Jamieson and poor Miss Betsy Barker, who put her Alderney cow into a flannel waistcoat and drawers. But it is worth pointing out that even 'Cranford' has its hint of rebellion; that even 'Cranford' makes a gentle attack on barriers of class and convention. Miss Matty's realisation of the harshness of the 'no followers' rule for servants, Lady Glenmire's shocking decision to marry the local doctor; these were proclamations of humanity and common sense, signs of the 'wind of change' of which Elizabeth Gaskell was acutely conscious. Above: Princess St, Knutsford where Miss Matty resided.
 
Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell After 'Cranford' was a further novel, 'Ruth', which got Mrs Gaskell into even greater trouble than 'Mary Barton' had done. The book was about sexual morality - an unmentionable subject at the time - and it drew attention to the different standards expected from men and from women. This was a fact of Victorian life which other writers kept sternly suppressed. Worst of all, the heroine, Ruth, was a woman who sinned but who did not suffer the usual fate of fallen women - early death or shipment to the Colonies. Instead, Ruth was allowed to work out her own redemption. The idea of an impure heroine was unutterably shocking. Fathers burned the book lest it should fall into the hands of their innocent daughters. Mrs Gaskell was shunned by some of her own friends and acquaintances. As she wrote in a letter of the time:


The only comparison I can find for myself is to St Sebastian, tied to a tree to be shot at with arrows...But I have spoken out my mind as best I can, and I have no doubt that what was meant so earnestly must do some good.