The laissez-faire captitalist industrialization of the Victorian era created a strange, cold new world of railroads and factories, the rise of new money and the fall of old blood. Yet the inhabitants of Cranford launch a conscious subversion of the inhuman “invisible hand”– in staunch British conservatism, the females of Cranford refuse to believe that the free market acts entirely in their interests. Through the ladies’ “little economies,” Elizabeth Gaskell levels a critique against London society’s consumption and frivolity. She instead constructs a society where one can lose one’s fortune without losing one’s dignity, an economy of friends and community that withstands the economic pressures of the larger world.
In the first chapter, “Our Society,” narrator Mary Smith proclaims that the “gentlefolks of Cranford” who had fallen on hard times “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 elaborate charade is held up by societal consensus; for example, Mrs. Forrester “now sate in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up; though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes” (5). Despite the pointlessness of the charade, the women maintain it, as their “Spartan” resistance to the forces outside their society and control.
As the narrative continues, the outside economic pressure becomes more and more apparent. Captain Brown’s entrance into Cranford society is introduced as his views on money are contrasted with those at Cranford: In Cranford, “economy was always ‘elegant,’ and money-spending always ‘vulgar and ostentatious;’ a sort of sour-grapeism, which made us very peaceful and satisfied…. Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about being poor– not in a whisper… but in the public street! in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house” (5). His financial situation, as “a half-pay Captain,” is no “disgrace” to him; yet later we find out that “unless Captain Brown has some reason for it, he never speaks about being poor” (17). His situation, as part of the railroads, is hardly enough to support his daughters, yet he bears up bravely even when he is literally crushed by “them nasty cruel railroads” (17-18). Though the market triumphs over Captain Brown in one sense, his spirit lost none of its nobility.
Miss Matty’s lost living allowance demonstrates the triumph of Cranford economy. Despite the confusing, impersonal machinations of the financial market which deprive her of her living, it is the personal economy, the economy of Cranford, that she falls back upon. Though any kind of responsibility for the bank’s collapse certainly does not rest with her, she finds the need to repay whom she can with the little money she has left. The secret gifts of the inhabitants of Cranford offer another example of the insular economy of friendship and community. While the free market economy limits Miss Matty’s options, the economy of friendship sustains her. Her little tea shop sustains a sudden demand– “the whole country round seemed to be out of tea at once”– and rather than competing with her, the owner of the general store gladly sends her his customers. She is sustained not by her adaptations to the market, but by the society of friendship that she has built.
Despite the gentle criticisms that Gaskell offers of the Cranford community, she presents a world untarnished by outside economic forces. Cranford offers a solution to the changing economic world of the Victorian age, a solution that values people over paychecks and friendship over figures.