Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford (1851–53) is set in a quiet English village withdrawn from the commerce and industrialization dominating larger cities. The society of Cranford is populated by a small group of matriarchs, unmarried or widowed, who often ritualize and bond over domesticity: salvaging and sewing of fabrics, discussing elegance and etiquette - what to wear, how to eat and what food to serve, when to call and how long the call should last - sharing new crotchet and knitting patterns, gossips and new collections of fineries. The novel does not conform to the traditional plot and lacks a linear trajectory, shifting from rising actions back to exposition. Nevertheless, a majority of the narrative revolves around the life of Miss Matty Jenkyns, an aging spinster who finds companionship in Mary Smith’s regular, lengthy visits. Cranford is narrated through the lens of Mary Smith, whose transience gives the account a sense of time. Mary Smith’s shuffling between the quaint village and the industrial town provides juxtaposed narratives, which update the reader on the arrival of new residents like Captain Brown. Mary Smith’s dialogue often reveal past events that explain the tension in present ones, such as Miss Matty’s encounter with her old suitor, Mr. Thomas Holbrooke. However, more profound than Mary Smith’s narration are the countless fabrics sprinkled into every crevice of the novel.
Gaskell experiments with textiles as a narrative layer that unfolds the evolution of a character and their individual movements within spaces. Textiles constitute their own jargon – a lexicon of unique experiences – which only makes sense in the context of the individual and their journey. In reading Cranfordian textiles, we unravel unspoken individual tensions, ancient frame works, cultural signatures, and ideological complexities. These can also, importantly, all be seen to originate from, and concern, forms of deprivation. Bill Brown, a scholar of material studies explains that, “the story of the thing is the story of a changed relation to the human subject” (Brown 6). As I show, Elizabeth Gaskell’s textiles reveal that the clothing of a character not only complements their history; it has the ability to narrate it, bearing a map of its travel to its owner, answering questions about its own function and value to the possessor.
My argument is thus that the fabrics featured in Cranford produce a form of omniscient narration and have a certain immortality in relation to their owners in that they exist before and after the character. These qualities position the fabric as a reliable narrator, suggesting conditions of deprivation before its arrival, conveying evidence of what happened during its use, and the implications of its existence afterward. According to Elizabeth Wilson, “we experience a sense of the uncanny when we gaze at garments that had intimate relationships with human beings long gone. The strangeness of such garments is that they link the biological body to the social being and public to the private (Wilson 1). Similarly, Gaskell invites readers of textiles to recognize the human body as a biological unit having a cultural experience afforded by the various fabrics to which an individual is exposed on the account globalization. Hence, the human body is an organism in culture, a cultural artifact even, and its own boundaries, like the space it inhabits, are unclear, subject to influx, circulation and change (Wilson 2). The various fabrics’ ability to embody conditions of the past and indicate elements of deprivation position fabric as a reliable narrator capable of unfolding dense layers. The reliability of the fabric’s narrative in Cranford allows it to function as an autobiography of the individual – implying age, class, profession, or even signaling the past or future interests and indulgences - and as an indication of globalization, tracing the movement of the individual through space and time.
Although the plot of the Cranfordian series develops rather gradually, a character’s fabric operates as a mode of foresight, modulating the tempo, often speeding up the narrative for those who are well versed with the textile and serving as an autobiography of the wearer. The textile has the ability to place one reader at an advantage over another, an element of the novel that reveals that two individuals can read the exact same thing at the same pace and have disparate understanding of the narrative and the characters involved. Thomas Holbrook appears for the first time in chapter three of Cranford, at the shop where Miss Matty and Mary Smith are selecting from an assortment of colored silks. The text spends ample time describing Mr. Holbrook through the eyes of Mary Smith, according to whom was “Don Quixote-looking” (Gaskell 31). Mr. Holbrook is further described to be wearing drab breeches and gaiters. Breeches are an article of clothing that covers the body from the waist down, while gaiters are garments worn over the shoe and lower pants, both of which a horse rider commonly wears combined. So it is implied by Thomas Holbrook’s appearance that he is a horse rider. This speculation is encouraged by Mary Smith’s statement that Mr. Holbrooke is “Don Quixote-looking.” The word “looking” also references Mr. Holbrooke’s appearance, taking into consideration his stature as well as his clothing. The Don Quixote metaphor reinforces this assumption, given that the chivalrous travels of the protagonist, Alonso Quixano from Miguel de Cervantes book, are all made on a horse. On arriving at Mr. Holbrooke’s residence in chapter four, the textile readings are confirmed true. Based on the text, Mr. Holbrook lives by the countryside on his own estate. While Mary Smith and Mr. Holbrook walk through the fields, he recalls the first time he saw the review of Alfred Tennyson’s poem in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Mr. Holbrooke States, “I set off within an hour, and walked seven miles to Misselton (for horses were not in the way)” (Gaskell 35). The ability to identify all the cues of Mr. Holbrook’s current horse ownership juxtaposed with his mention of the initial lack of it provides a resounding intensity to the kind of deprivation that disqualified him from being a fitting suitor for Miss Matty in the past. It is significant to grasp that Mr. Holbrook is a horse rider because it highlights his upward mobility since the time Miss Matty Jenkyns turned down his marriage proposal due to his insufficient class status. Horses were only owned by the wealthy as horse purchase and maintenance required a lot of money. Here, we see that although a fabric may be but a small aspect in the description of an individual, its existence by default narrates a time when it was absent. The presence of the fabric conjures a past of deprivation, again, the condition that classified him as an unfit suitor for the rector’s daughter. Now that Mr. Holbrooke wears horse-riding clothes, it is apparent that his social class has transformed. On the account of Thomas Holbrooke’s wardrobe adaptations, it is evident that fabrics connect the lines between a character’s past and present, so much so that if observed closely in a novel where textiles are stylishly strewn by Gaskell, one can perceive a character’s history.
In a genteel economy like Cranford, which is often fixated on salvaging and economizing of fabrics, it would be easy to limit the contextual definition of deprivation to the lack of material. However, Miss Matty’s complex reaction to Mr. Thomas Holbrooke’s death also stresses that unsatisfied emotional hunger is a form of deprivation. Cranfordian fabric remains potent here in its ability to convey narrative, as it is the fabric Miss Matty demands that indicates an emotional absence constituting deprivation. On hearing about the death of Mr. Holbrooke, Miss Matty seeks to buy a new cap. In chapter four, “A visit to the Bachelor,” Miss Matty “asked the little milliner of Cranford to make her caps something like the Honorable Mrs. Jamieson’s,” to which the milliner responds: “but she wears widow’s cap, ma’am?” Miss Matty emphasizes her request stating, “I only meant something in that style; not widows’, of course, but rather like Mrs. Jamieson’s” (Gaskell 40). Although Miss Matty tries to conceal her feelings and intention, by wearing the widow’s cap she makes the conscious decision to mourn Thomas Holbrooke as a Victorian wife would. Historically, mourning has been an emotional labor partially assigned to women’s fashion, a custom to which Cranford is not an exception; there are Cranfordian rules dictating who wore what and for how long. The proper mourning etiquette requires that a wife mourn her husband for two years wearing black fabrics, such as the bombazine, a crape and the widow’s cap - which Miss Matty requests - all of which allows the widow to weep with propriety. Matty, by virtue of wearing the widow’s cap, has rewritten her maiden narrative as a grieving wife through fabrication, so the fabric relates her in the light she intends. Mary Smith explains that Matty also makes effort as custom demands to only be seen in the widow’s cap. Mary Smith recounts that “Miss Matty was now wearing out in private, putting on the one made in imitation of Mrs. Jamieson’s at all times when she was expected to be seen” (Gaskell 60).
It may seem that Miss Matty successfully exploits the narrative quality of the widow’s cap. Given that Cranford is a society where economy has become a fine art and most Cranford residents express themselves in “fragments and small opportunities,” Miss Matty appears to utilize the elegant economy as a ruse to defend her lack of total indulgence in the mourning ritual. Nevertheless, Miss Matty’s attempt to rewrite her history is a failed one, as the fabric remains a reliable narrator – but only to those that understand its history. The widow’s cap does not serve the same function on its own, as the ritual of mourning is a complete fashion statement from head to toe. Each stiff band of crepe, each ugly cap or disguising veil, each fastidious (and easily soiled) weeper, and each yard of flat black bombazine, was a word in the story of the wearer (Fitzwilliam 8). However, Miss Matty’s narrative has started and stopped at the head, an indication of hesitance and deprivation of emotional indulgence. The widow’s cap conveys the narrative of a past, when Miss Matty was forced to turn down Mr. Holbrooke’s proposal on the account of his social rank, an event that has denied to her the position of a widow to the man. Much like the hagiography that passed for biography and followed hard on the heels of many funerals, the widow's fabric text too, could write, or indicate a rewrite, in the wearer’s history (Fitzwilliam 8). More so, Miss Matty’s comment in a later chapter makes it impossible for her to blame her lack of indulgence on the genteel economy. In chapter six, Miss Matty comments on Mrs. Fitz-Adam’s rustling black silk stating that “bombazine would have shown a deeper sense of her loss” (Gaskell 63). According to Zina Abbott’s “Bombazine and the 19th Century Widow,” “[the] Bombazine is the most expensive fabric for mourning with just enough but not too much sheen and sparkle to create a respectful mourning glow, while a cloth with less shine than the bombazine would have been a symbol of low status in society” (16). Based on the comment Matty made, she evidently approves of splurging on the mourning ritual to an extent that allows everyone to sense the gravity of one’s loss, a degree that the less conspicuous widow’s cap does not achieve.
Notwithstanding what is and isn’t, Miss Matty’s choice of wearing the widow’s cap adds dimension to the character who develops external resolutions for internal conflicts. Wearing the cap does not change the fact that Miss Matty was never married to Mr. Holbrooke; it is simply an acknowledgment of a void and an indication of an experience she will never have. Thomas Holbrooke’s death sealed her fate as a spinster, and the man died with any hope she had of rekindling their old flame. The shock of Thomas Holbrooke’s death is so profound that she decides not to deprive Martha from pursuing her heart’s desires as her parent’s elitism once did hers. This transparency and expressiveness of the cap-narrator gives ground to categorize it as one of the may textiles Anne Hollander defines as tangible three-dimensional emotions (Hollander xv). In this case, the fabric operates on counter facts and deprivations – an event that never happened and the experience Matty did not get - urging the reader to uncover the complex emotions that led to its misplacement.
Another misplacement narrative is embedded in Peter’s cross-dressing. Peter is the only son of the rector in Cranford and a brother to Miss Matty Jenkyns. However, he is one of the inactive male characters in the novel because he runs away after being flogged by the rector for cross dressing. Here, fabric conveys the tension interwoven in Peter’s transvestitism, routing the character on a journey to find where he can express a “self” Cranford deprives him of expressing. In Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes, she elaborates on individual transparency facilitated by the fabric stating that, “considering their importance for the individual self-image, it might seem right to think of clothes as entirely social and psychological phenomena, as tangible and three-dimensional emotions, manners or habits” (Hollander xv). As a narrator of an exile motivated by deprivation, the fabric demonstrates Peter’s interest and suppression, leading up to his withdrawal from Cranford. One of Peter’s climatic demonstrations, an agency afforded by his choice of fabric, occurs at the rector’s residence. On his way back from visiting his parishioners, Mr. Jenkyns meets a mob in front of his yard being entertained by what he assumed was the “new rhododendron he had planted.” According to the text, Mr. Jenkyns “walked slower, that they might have more time to admire” (Gaskell 53). The rector, caught in a reverie of the moment, wonders if he could embed the rhododendrons in a sermon in relation to the lilies of the field. To Mr. Jenkyns’ surprise, he discovers that the actual source of amusement for the crowd is Peter, who had dressed himself in Deborah’s clothes. According to the text, Peter had gone “to [Deborah’s] room, it seems, and dressed himself in her old gown, and shawl, and bonnet… and made the pillow into a little baby” (Gaskell 52). The sight of Peter’s display disrupts Mr. Jenkyns’ speculation that he could create a profound sermon out of the crowd’s admiration of his “beautiful vegetable production.” It is important to note that it is the displacement of a gender-tailored fabric that disrupts Mr. Jenkyns’ reverie, because the scene Peter is creating in the front yard is not consistent with biblical conduct. Mr. Jenkyns’ difficulties conjure another biblical text that provides insight in to his dismay at Peter’s actions. The book of Deuteronomy states that “a man must not wear women's clothing [and] anyone who does this is detestable in the sight of God” (Web. Deut. 22:5). Interestingly, the image of “lilies of the field”, which the rector cannot reconcile with that of Peter, is an extract from Matthew 6:28, encouraging the children of God not to worry about material provisions. In the World English Bible, the passage reads, “Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they don’t toil, neither do they spin” (Web, Matthew 6:26). The passage addresses Cranford’s anxieties about material deprivation, where the juxtaposition of this sermon with Peter’s transvestitism and his father’s disapproval raises questions concerning both material and emotional deprivation. The emotional deprivation is that of a son who is yet to gain approval from his father. The religious text initially meant to romanticize the spectacle the rector witnesses reveals a dark side to itself; the same book that elaborates on the love of the father and his ability to supply the needs of his children also produces condemnation and resentment.
In fact, the scripture is Peter’s “accuser” before the rector, charging him with violations and justifying the punishment of disdain from both God the father and Mr. Jenkyns, his father. Mary Smith narrates that Peter “was the darling of his mother, who seemed to dote on all her children, though she was, perhaps, a little afraid of Deborah’s superior acquirements. Deborah was the favorite of her father, and when Peter disappointed him, she became his pride” (Gaskell 50). Peter’s defiant parade at the filbert walk of the rectory and his public humiliation - the stripping off of his clothes and a flogging - is the epitome of disapproval and disgrace. According to Matty’s account of the event, Mr. Jenkyns went “down the Filbert walk, and seized hold of poor Peter, and tore his clothes off his back – bonnet, shawl, gown, and all…lifted up his cane, and flogged Peter” (Gaskell 53). Noticeably, the orders in which the fabrics are removed are in reverse of how they were worn. Peter had dressed himself in Deborah’s old gown, shawl and bonnet, and his father strips him beginning with the bonnet, then the shawl and gown in a rearrangement that suggests the rector’s attempt to reverse the event as though it never happened. The word “worry” in the extract from the book of Matthew is a double entendre, referencing the anxieties about material deprivation and the Cranford’s “panic” about transvestitism. The fabric Peter is wearing and the biblical text inquiring, “why worry about clothes” function together to raise issues of emotional deprivation. This scripture is positioned within the scene so that it seems to question the rector’s inability to reconcile the current appearance of Peter with the sanctimonious, asking why Mr. Jenkyns is perturbed about mere clothes. The choice of fabric Peter wears narrates an interest in the Oriental as opposed to a (supposedly) stoic West. In leaving Cranford, Peter withdraws from the masculine narrative he was to assume in the parish. In chapter five, Mary Smith explains that “Peter’s career lay before him rather pleasantly mapped out between Shrewsbury School, Cambridge and a clerical assignment from his godfather Sir Peter Arley” (Gaskell 50). This is a Victorian narrative reserved for men. Therefore, Peter’s open display of transvestitism is a blatant rejection of the life he is being offered by the patriarchy and a signal of the desire for another. It is hardly surprising that the cross-dresser escapes his father’s religious zealotry by going East where it is “traditionally acceptable for men to wear gowns, shawl, and caps” (Piep 4). In narrating its own displacement, the fabric Peter wears functions as an account of his persona, his desires, and the impending detachment from a society that cannot fulfill or accommodate them.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford can be classified as a realist novel for many reasons, one of which is its ability to refer to absent things. The development of a handful of Cranfordian characters and their dialogue often revolves around the acquisition of a desired material or the symbol it represents. Cranford consists of stories within stories of these materials, with brief plots tracking the character’s relationship to the material in its absence, an approach that shapes the character in the context of deprivation.
An instance of this approach is the Paduasoy, as introduced in Gaskell’s “old letters”. The Paduasoy, a luxurious silk textile, stands as an object of sentimentality, pulling the novel, the fabric, and the owner up against their individual materialistic quality. The layers of paper, which includes Gaskell’s text and the written letters within the text, in which the Paduasoy is embedded, does not affect the fabric’s narrative ability. As I will explain, in breaking through the journal within the journal, the Paduasoy stands out, signaling Gaskell’s work as a techno text – a book aware of its form. In one of the letters Miss Matty describes as “Letters interchanged between my ever-honoured father and my dearly-beloved mother, prior to their marriage, in July 1774,” Mrs. Jenkyns expresses her longing for a white Paduasoy to the rector (Gaskell 44). Mrs. Jenkyns does not requite the rector’s love till he meets her requests, sending her a “whole box full of finery.” By virtue of existing in its absence, the Paduasoy is an emblem of deprivation, and its sentimental value to miss Matty stems from the luxury the fabric represents in an elegant economy like Cranford. In an article on Speaking Objects, Christopher Flint suggests that “the power [of the object to] tell stories is compromised by the subjection of the storyteller to systems of social, economic, and material exchange that delimit its identity” (Flint 11). Cranford frames the context in which the Paduasoy exists and binds the stories it can narrate within the structures of its genteel society. This tradition of elegance and restraint with respect to luxuries serves the community of middle class citizens, who, regardless of the economy, would not be able to indulge in extravagancy. However, the refinement fosters desire and deprivation, especially for young brides in Cranford who require a trousseau. Even the Cranfordian women with no intentions of marriage, despite their penurious conditions, seek to possess the Shetland wool, Mousseline de laine, crapes, Sarsenet, caps and bonnets. Nevertheless, Mrs. Jenkyns’ fixation on the fabric presents her as a superficial and vain character, unable to engage emotionally with her suitor until her desires are fulfilled. The fabric follows the transformation of Mrs. Jenkyns and narrates its own circulation as an effect on her narrative. After having her first child, Mrs. Jenkyns turns her prided white Paduasoy into a christening cloak for her baby. According to Andrew Miller’s “the fragment and small opportunities of Cranford,” the “circulation of the fabric indicates Mrs. Jenkyns’ transposition from girlish vanity to maternal pride” (Miller 25). Relinquishing an object of great sentiment and desire, one that she was initially deprived of, reflects that Mrs. Jenkyns’ passion has changed trajectory.
An advantage of this fabric narrator is that it is an inalienable possession because it is charged with sentiments, so its circulation is just as symbolic as its absence from the original owner. According to Jami Bartlett’s Object Lessons, in the chapter on “Gaskell’s lost objects,”, she comments that the “sentimental energy of objects in Cranford is predicated on a meaning that is both particular to someone, and capable of circulating as reified value, but the energy itself is largely produced in the process of gifting things that carry auras, an “association” with the people who left them value” (Bartlett 113-114). Hence, it can be argued that the fabric narrator is not only omniscient, but that its ability to hold sentimental value positions it as an immortal narrator, capable of telling the stories of the absent individual. Elaine Freedgood’s What Objects Know buttresses this approach to the fabric narrator by claiming that “our possessions will somehow take up this battle against the anonymity of exchange in our absence” (Freedgood 12). No matter how many times the fabric is circulated in the second-hand clothing market or within generations of family, it will always be stained with sentiments that appear to those who recognize it. Adding to Charles Dickens description of the second-hand clothing market as the “burial place of fashions,” Elizabeth argues that “yet clothes, unlike their owners, do not die, they will always hint at the atrophy of the body, and the evanescence of life (Wilson 2). The fabric, by virtue of being immortal, can narrate a character’s evolution and development through time.
The Paduasoy, in the context of the time the letters were written, functions as a discreet messenger from the past and the future. The fabric not only reveals the future of itself, but the letter allows it to refer to the past. Although the letter narrates the fabric, a position that stages the latter as a seemingly dormant narrator, the fabric’s exclusivity makes it an indispensable raconteur. Letters have the ability to convey history; however, any literate person can read a letter. This unrestricted quality makes the narrative vulnerable. In contrast, not everyone can read the fabric because its attachments are what Freedgood describes as “purely personal and individual” (Freedgood 16). It is for these reasons that Miss Matty insists the letters be burned once they have been read. In Gaskell’s “Old Letters,” Mary Smith explains that it hurt Miss Matty to burn the letter, but she had to because "it would have hurt her to allow them to fall into the hands of strangers, who had not known her dear mother” (Gaskell 47). During her reminiscing, Miss Matty also expresses the uselessness of the letters and how they fail to embody their authors. According to the text, Miss Matty is “sadly puzzled with this, for the words [beginning to mean less] gathered size like snowballs” (Gaskell 48). Juxtaposed to this description of the letters, the textiles embedded in them seem to speak louder than the text, immortalizing their owner in their ability to conjure history in moments. If it were the Paduasoy Matty held in her hand, she would not feel the need to burn it. The fabric is more fusible with the present without compromising the history it represents. Like the culture of salvaging, which Matty’s mother already began with the Paduasoy, the fabric would remain relevant and meaningful in the present. In Christina Lupton’s theory of surface and depth, the writer asserts that, “the fabric stands out as an alternative to letters in this sense, because it presents itself as being both the ongoing subject and object of the story — a thing of the past, and a site of material plenitude in the present” (Lupton 10). Transporting the Paduasoy to the present narrates the deprivation of the past, and the evolution of the character, illustrating the fabric’s ability to preserve the narrative and experiences of vulnerable human bodies in its immortality.
Evidently, the fabric narrator, on the account of its omniscience and its ability to move across borders, has access to the social lives of people across lines of rank, class, age, ethnicity and occupation. Essentially, the textile can narrate the story of all sorts of characters on a microscopic level, from the aristocrats to the peasant. It can also capture the temporality of economic status, mapping the upward mobility of the peasant and the descent of the patrician. Its scarcity in impoverished regions will constitute representational value and deprivation for the lower class, so that its circulation within such community - refined on the account of economic deficiency – narrates sentimental exchange. In doing what Elaine Freedgood describes as “readings things as texts,” I have shown that the readers of Cranford can surface the human stories embedded in Cranfordian fashion codes where breeches, flannel waistcoats, bombazines, mousseline-de-laines, a Sarsenet, caps, Paduasoys, bonnets, silk gowns, and shawls are charged by Elizabeth Gaskell’s plot, to convey its owners past, mapping the journey of itself and the wearer as travelers that meet at a junction. Independent of the fabrics causing tension among those who cannot access it, the culture of Cranford generates its own form of deprivation. The flannel waist coat and the drabs and breeches, which are merely textiles of occupation, narrate the pressures that drive upward mobility. The cap and the shawl narrate the inability to reconcile with one’s self and the emotional catastrophe of positional restrictions – whether it be the inability to become someone’s wife or a cross dresser. The fabric is a reliable narrator in that it provides an uncut account of the journey to its placement and unfolds the restrictions that constitute its misplacement.