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ELH 71.4 (2004) 1001-1017

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Meaning and Misinterpretation in Cranford

New York University

They looking back, all th'Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful faces throng'd and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
"Molly!" said he, "I did not think all this would happen." He looked into her face for comfort—her poor face, all wild and white; for neither she nor my father had dared to acknowledge—much less act upon—the terror that was in their hearts, lest Peter should have made away with himself. My father saw no conscious look in his wife's hot, dreary eyes, and he missed the sympathy that she had always been ready to give him—strong man as he was; and at the dumb despair in her face, his tears began to flow. But when she saw this, a gentle sorrow came over her countenance, and she said, "Dearest John! don't cry; come with me, and we'll find him," almost as cheerfully as if she knew where he was. And she took my father's great hand in her little soft one, and led him along, the tears dropping, as he walked on that same unceasing, weary walk, from room to room, through house and garden.
—Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford1

About one third of the way through Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, Miss Matilda Jenkyns (hereafter, Miss Matty) rereads and then burns a number of family letters, keeping only a particularly affecting one that her brother, Peter, sent to her mother. This letter and the questions it inspires from the narrator, Mary Smith, elicit from Miss Matty the surprising story of Peter's departure from Cranford. Until this moment in the novel, Peter had been mentioned twice. The first [End Page 1001] mention also occurs in the context of an old family letter (his birth announcement). After reading the letter, Mary remarks: "It seemed curious that I should never have heard of this brother before; but I concluded that he had died young; or else surely his name would have been alluded to by his sisters" (46). The second time, following a harrowing story from Miss Matty's girlhood describing their fear of French invasion, Mary announces with a merely cosmetic attempt at temporal transition and without apparent surprise at the correction to her initial assumption: "Peter Marmaduke Arley Jenkyns ('poor Peter!' as Miss Matty began to call him) was at school at Shrewsbury by this time" (48). After a brief description of Peter's letters from school (including the one Miss Matty saves), the chapter "Old Letters" ends, and the story of "Poor Peter" begins.

This chapter (from which the second excerpted quote above is taken) is focalized almost entirely through Miss Matty's point of view (the only chapter in Cranford that doesn't privilege Mary's viewpoint) with Mary's questions appearing only periodically to frame and lead the arc of the story. As we soon learn, the young, mischievous Peter enjoyed playing practical jokes; on two occasions, he dressed in women's clothing in attempts to fool first his father and then the townspeople. Posing as a female admirer of his father's sermons, Peter succeeded the first time presumably because his father was blinded by vanity. But the second time, Peter impersonated his older sister, Deborah; and in addition to wearing her clothes, he fashioned a "little baby" out of a pillow (52). Promenading about the family garden with her (scandalously secret, thus assumed illegitimate) ersatz baby, this drag version of Deborah drew a sizeable crowd of spectators until Mr. Jenkyns recognized his son, stripped the women's clothing from him, and flogged him before the gathered throng. After the flogging, Peter bid farewell to...


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