Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Great Cranford Panic”: A Personal Reflection

I have chosen to use Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story, “The Great Cranford Panic” as one of my primary texts for my thesis. This story was written in 1853 and is a part of a larger piece of work that Gaskell composed titled Cranford. I stumbled upon this short story in The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Short stories, while I was going through the anthology in hopes of finding interesting short stories written by female authors. The name Elizabeth Gaskell has often come up in my studies of Victorian literature and so I decided to narrow in on one of her short stories to explore the possibility of using one of her pieces as a primary text in my own research. Why I settled on this short story, however, is because of the way the text deals overtly with race and gender immediately at the onset of the story. “The Great Cranford Panic” explores the interactions between white women of high society rural England and the mysterious newcomer, Signor Brunoni, whose racial identity is perceived as a threat within the town of Cranford. I plan on using this text to explore Victorian anxieties surrounding race, especially within the context of non-white men being seen as a threat to white women.

One way in which “The Great Cranford Panic” explores racial identity is by setting up the town of Cranford as being traditional, proper, and overwhelmingly populated by women. By setting up Cranford as this pinnacle of British high society, Gaskell is furthering the “otherness” of the traveling foreign magician, Signor Brunoni. The story opens with Miss Matey writing the protagonist and narrator asking for help with fashion. Miss Matey requests for the narrator to bring her a turban, as she wishes to don a different type of headwear that is “newer” than the other ladies in town (pg. 124). The narrator, however, brings her a traditional (to England) cap and explains that she was, “anxious to prevent her [Miss Matey] from disfiguring her small gentle mousey face with a great Saracen’s head turban; and, accordingly, I bought her a pretty, neat, middle-aged cap,” (pg. 124). Here, the juxtaposition between the threat of the foreign and the innocence and daintiness of the white woman is seen in the syntax of the sentence. Throughout this quote, the narrator displays concern over the white woman who is described as “gentle,” “mousey,” “small,” “pretty,” and “neat,” all of which are terms that imply innocence and fragility. The turban, however, is described as “Saracen,” which, according to the footnotes, refers to Arabs or, “a non-Christian heathen,” (pg. 124). Furthermore, this piece is described as having the potential to “disfigure” a woman. This juxtaposition between the piece of Muslim culture and the white woman is meant to exacerbate racial tensions and public fear and anxiety towards the foreign, Eastern world.

Not only does Gaskell’s short story explore racial tension in high society rural England through social/cultural facets such as fashion, but also through the characters themselves. After a round of robberies occurs within the beloved town of Cranford, the narrator says, “Cranford has so long piqued itself on being an honest and moral town, that is had grown to fancy itself too genteel and well-bred to be otherwise, and felt the stain upon its character at this time doubly,” (pg. 132). Here, Gaskell is setting up the pristine nature of the town and the way in which it is held as the pinnacle of propriety and even whiteness. Although it may be a stretch, the term “stain” here can be interpreted within a radicalized context. If the town is stained, it implies a sort of purity and pristine about it; however, it is the foreigner, Signor Brunoni’s, presence that results in a sort of corruption. The narrator says, “we must believe that the robbers were strangers- if strangers, why not foreigners?- if foreigner, who so likely as the French? Signor Brunoni spoke broken English like a Frenchman, and…he wore a turban like a Turk,” (pg. 132). Here, the citizens of Cranford immediately blame the “foreigner,” who is posed as threatening. This image of the radicalized threat is exacerbated by the fact that Signor Brunoni wears a turban, a symbol that is used throughout the text to represent the foreign threat.

Ultimately, Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Great Cranford Panic” is a useful piece to my thesis that is intriguing to me because of of one of its main themes;  the threat of the non-British male to the pristine, white women.

Citations:

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Short Stories. Edited by Dennis Denisoff, Broadview Press, 2004.

Malcomb, Elizabeth. “Cranford.” Cranford, The Victorian Web, Jan. 1997.

One thought on “Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Great Cranford Panic”: A Personal Reflection”

  1. It’s going to be quite exciting to further explore “The Great Crawford Panic,” not only from a historic perspective as you’ve done in your piece, but from a contemporary one as well. The view of foreigners as a threat in Europe, namely England, has become alarmingly common. The characterization of foreigners and quick judgement of them as criminals is an eerie similarity to today. It would become informative to trace this specific fear of the “Other” and alien culture through literary studies. Perhaps over winter break you can find more secondary sources that trace this comparison of Victorian foreigner narratives to modern ones.

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