- Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford: Performing Masculinity
Cranford (1853) is difficult to define in terms of genre. It began, as Elizabeth Gaskell notes, as “one paper in Household Words” (Chapple and Pollard 535), and she had no intention of writing further pieces.1 The nine instalments that make up Cranford appeared irregularly, yet the whole is a remarkably coherent narrative, although falling far short of the length of [End Page 177] the three-volume novel. Various terms were used in the nineteenth century to describe shorter fiction, such as “sketch,” “tale,” and “story.” The volatility of the genre is further complicated by the inclusion of semi-fictionalized travel accounts, reworkings of oral or folk tales, and translations and adaptations of French and German stories. The length of these pieces also varied widely, leading Henry James to describe the Victorian short story disparagingly as a Gladstone bag into which anything could be crammed. This “notoriously slippery form,” as Jenny Bourne Taylor notes (240), nevertheless became a vital crucible for the forging of narrative technique and experimentation. For the purposes of this essay, Cranford is considered a piece of shorter fiction in which Gaskell used the lack of critical attention paid to the short story to try out narrative themes; to experiment with form, tone, and the mixing of genres; and to explore issues on the cultural and social margins—in particular, her interest in issues of gender.
Cranford is replete with images that subvert and disrupt conventional nineteenth-century concepts of masculinity. The Industrial Revolution, which destabilized social and cultural norms, precipitated a complex set of debates about what constituted masculinity, manliness, and gentlemanliness within a patriarchal context that sought to establish clarity around struggles for self-definition. In Cranford, Gaskell uses Peter Jenkyns, the rector’s son, to expose how confining behaviour within rigid cultural rules distorts and damages both individuals and wider society. The text traces the effects of excessively constrained expectations across the lifetime of members of the Jenkyns family, offering, as Caroline Jackson-Houlston notes, “a critique of Victorian gender ideology through a unique combination of social observation and authorial irony” (17).
Images of cross-dressing appear early in the narrative, on the third page of the first instalment of Cranford, which opens Household Words for 13 December 1851—the instalment that Gaskell had planned as a single, stand-alone story without the expectation of a sequel. Miss Betsy Barker’s Alderney cow falls into a lime-pit and loses all her hair. Captain Brown, who has flustered the ladies of Cranford by his “invasion of their territories” (167), facetiously recommends dressing the cow in “a flannel waistcoat and flannel drawers” (168). Miss Betsy Barker is delighted with this suggestion, which she carries out without delay, thus cross-dressing her naked female cow as a Victorian male. Female authority is reasserted when Miss Deborah Jenkyns attends Captain Brown’s funeral dressed in a “hybrid bonnet, half-helmet, half-jockey cap,” transforming her feminine “little black silk bonnet” (179) into a masculinized form of headgear. The attendance of both Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown’s daughter at the funeral also challenges gendered normality: females should not attend funerals since, as Cassell’s Household Guide notes, “being unable to restrain their emotions, they interrupt and destroy the solemnity of the ceremony with their sobs, and even by fainting” (344). The narrative tone darkens [End Page 178] in the extended episode of cross-dressing that follows, in which Peter Jenkyns twice dresses as a woman.2
On the first occasion, Peter dresses “himself up as a lady that . . . wished to see the Rector of Cranford, ‘who had published that admirable Assize Sermon’” (209). His masquerade is a direct challenge to his father’s patriarchal and spiritual authority. The lady visitor admires the rector’s sermons on Napoleon Bonaparte, placing the narrative in a masculine, historically specific context of war and invasion. Peter, the pseudo-female, invades male territory and, as Jean Fernandez notes, “offers sly resistance to patriotic rhetoric” (45). In doing so, he displays considerable courage. He is terrified of his autocratic father but persists in his challenges to both patriarchal authority and rigidly aligned constructs...