Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and Genteel Poverty- Victorian Musings

The Benthamites Manage the Poor: The New Poor Law

             The New Poor law of 1834 “represented a Malthusian challenge to the eighteenth-century policy of providing allowances to men whose earnings were insufficient to support their families.”[1] The old poor law had been based on the notion that the state should give working fathers a right to relief, in part to encourage population growth.”[2]  The earlier thinking provided for larger families as the nation saw a benefit in utilizing these citizens in times of war as well as a continual supply of labor. As time went on members of parliament saw the old program of providing relief to male heads of households as costly and rife with abuse of the system. What would result was this draconian new poor law. Under this law, the workhouse was designed provide relief while deterring people from a life of poverty making the parish fund the last resort.

In subtle ways Gaskell disrupts the thinking of the old social order of male heads of households as the primary breadwinner by making a number of her female characters in the Cranford community independent though living in genteel poverty. Though not necessarily a feminist text, it is a departure from novels that center heroines who have to rely solely on a male head for their sustenance:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, 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 neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles by railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. [3]

Gaskell informs us that “all the holders of houses above a certain rent” are women. She distinguishes these women from the “married couple” who move into town letting us know that the holders of houses above certain rents are on theirs and as such, they alone maintain their economy. Characters such as Deborah Jenkyns are part of this group of women who get by all on their own.

The women of Cranford get by through the use of close economy. Within their small town community they observe modes of decorum that create a veneer of gentility. Here Mary Smith, the narrator provides us with the ways in which Cranford people saw themselves:

I imagine that a few of the gentlefolks of Cranford were poor, and had some difficulty in making both ends meet; but they were like the Spartans, and concealed their smart under a smiling face. We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic.[4]

This particular passage provides the clever ways that Gaskell invokes class and privilege alongside meager circumstances. The “smiling face” was performance of financial solvency, while the refusal to engage in discussions of money serve a dual purpose of not being vulgar (Victorians detested money talk) while also gently turning a nose down to commerce and trade (those industries that created the population of nouveau riche). The people of Cranford may not have been wealthy, but their family lines often included aristocratic ancestors. In ascribing aristocracy and Victorian modes of conduct to the people of Cranford Gaskell has drawn in the middle to upper class reader in a way that will allow them to see themselves in the characters of Cranford and thus empathize with many of their struggles.

[1] David R. Green “Pauper Protests: Power and Resistance in Early Nineteenth-Century London Workhouses.” Social History 31, no. 2 (2006): 137-59. http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.unl.edu/stable/4287329.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elizabeth Porges Watson. Cranford. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] ibid,4

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