- Teaching Cranford in Taiwan
In my work at the National University of Kaohsiung, it has always been an exciting challenge for me to teach Victorian fiction, an upper-level course that concentrates on the analysis and study of literary texts in socio-cultural contexts. Despite the complexity of teaching Victorian novelists in a non-native context, I find that the topic of women is of great interest to my students. Students who take my course are mostly female: the issue of women appeals to them because of their emerging female consciousness. In this context, Elizabeth Gaskell exemplifies a woman writer discussing an important aspect of the role [End Page 15] and nature of women, in particular the representations of unmarried women in the Victorian period. I choose Cranford as an ideal target text although it is not at the core of classic or canonical texts in the field of Victorian studies in Taiwan. To me, it represents authentic material conveying the prevalent ideologies concerning women at the time. It also invites comparison between Victorian England and today’s Taiwan, where men’s and women’s roles have become less strictly defined and where, for both sexes, being single has become a growing social phenomenon.
My point of departure is to provide an outlook on Gaskell’s life and her major works, showing the photographs of my trip to Gaskell’s grave as well as my picture with two Gaskell scholars, Alan Shelston and Jenny Uglow, in a tea room at the University of Manchester. These photos arouse the interests of students with little or no prior knowledge of Gaskell: they are excited by the sight of a younger me situated in an exotic setting (one that may help them to envision the literary scene of tea drinking in Cranford). Following this, we start a discussion of Victorian gender stereotypes that provides a window into the culture that produced them. Looking at the strict gender division in Victorian Britain, we discuss if they share some traits with modern ones in Taiwan. I then continue with a brief overview of how the extreme inequities between men and women stimulated a Victorian debate about women’s roles known as “the Woman Question.”
Cranford, Gaskell’s second novel, originally developed out of a sequence of stories in Charles Dickens’s weekly magazine Household Words between December 1851 and May 1853. At the outset, I call attention to what the narrator, Mary Smith, tells us: Cranford “is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent, are women” (1). The ironic reference to the Amazons alludes to the world of Cranford as a female community, dominated by widows and spinsters; it also underscores women’s militant hostility towards men. “If a married couple come to settle in the town,” as the narrator describes it, “somehow the gentleman disappears”—“he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighboring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad” (1).
This often-quoted passage provides a good starting point to introduce Taiwanese students into the female community of Cranford and subsequently brings up a fundamental issue: the predominance of unmarried women and the lack of male characters. I find it important to develop students’ understanding of marriage, the standard destiny for an ideal Victorian woman. When talking about this issue in a Taiwanese context, many of my students respond by saying that they will not marry at a young age, or they can live with their partners without marrying, an increasingly common practice.1 One such response reflects in part their less favorable attitudes toward the institution of marriage and in part their changing views on traditional family values: they will stay single if [End Page 16] their busy lives affect their chances of meeting “Mr. Right.” Furthermore, other students make clear that they do not want to have children for financial reasons, especially when they would have to keep a job in order to...