Overcoming the temptations of conservatism, with the good people of Cranford

Even for progressives, being “conservative” is not necessarily a bad thing. A great many of us are conservative in at least some ways. Maybe we don’t like to try new foods, or we have some routines we really don’t want to change.

And this type of conservatism doesn’t necessarily match up with our political affiliation. My late step-dad (the good one, the one who kinda sorta shared in a Nobel Peace Prize) was a diehard Democrat and quite progressive for his time politically, but personally he was, shall we say, set in his ways. It’s possible that his lifestyle conservatism gave him the sense of background stability that let him be more open to new ideas for making the world a better place, and for living and working in places very unlike his Midwestern origins.

In contrast with this lifestyle conservatism, there’s also what we might call social or political conservatism. This worldview is focused on preserving institutions and traditions, and this is what we usually mean by conservatism. These folks want the security of knowing that things will continue to be how they expect them to be. But that’s not realistic. Things do change!

(And before we go any further, let me note that the “turn back the clock” mentality associated with Donald Trump and his followers is not what I’m talking about. Some political scientists call that mentality “radical conservatism” – these folks very much want change. True conservatives emphatically do not.)

Given that change is unavoidable, what are our realistic options for encouraging conservatives to make their peace with it?

gaskellRecently I was rewatching one of my favorite BBC mini-series, Cranford, based on the novel of the same name (and several shorter works) by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gaskell. Her books helped open people’s eyes to the human costs of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and she’s also known for being good friends with Charlotte Brontë.

Cranford isn’t like her “heavier” novels. It’s a sympathetic and often humorous look at life in a cozy village where ongoing sameness is a virtue. And yet, things do change. People come and go, loved ones die, technology advances.

This time while I watched the show, I realized that Gaskell was showing us different ways that even the most conservative people can begin to accept new ways of doing things.

1. When the change is obviously and indisputably for the best. Jem Hearne, a carpenter, falls from a tree and suffers a nasty compound fracture of his arm. Standard medical practice would be to remove the arm – but even if Hearne survived the surgery, he would no longer be able to work. A newly arrived physician, Dr. Harrison, believes it would be possible to save the arm, if he’s allowed to attempt a risky new type of surgery. He succeeds!

Here the process is personal realization. Nobody forces the people of Cranford to accept advances in medicine – when they can see it with their own eyes (and have no possible incentive for denying it), they discover for themselves that this kind of change can be good.

2. When a pillar of conservative rectitude chooses to do it. Back in the 1840s, the era where Cranford is set, only men attended funerals – the idea that a respectable woman would do such a thing was deeply shocking.

The Brown family has just moved to town, a middle-aged man and his two daughters. The older daughter is an adult, and the younger daughter is very sickly. She dies – but the father is out of town. What to do?

Jessie Brown decides to attend her sister’s funeral. The women of Cranford are horrified. And then, after considerable soul-searching, her next-door neighbor Miss Deborah Jenkyns – probably the most conservative of them all – decides that right-and-wrong is not really a binary. Yes, it’s bad for women to attend funerals, but it’s worse for someone to be buried with no loved one in attendance… and it’s wrong to condemn someone for making that choice and to leave them alone with it. She accompanies Jessie Brown to the funeral.

It’s because Deborah Jenkyns is so conservative that the other women can accept her decision. If Miss Jenkyns does it, it cannot help but be right! The process here is trust and respect. It was this process that meant Richard Nixon could open up U.S. relations with China, Ronald Reagan could make peace with the Soviet Union, and so forth – and that Joe Biden’s administration could make more progress toward progressive goals than would have probably been possible for a more “progressive” leader. If a relatively conservative (or in this case, moderate) leader says a big change is reasonable, even the relatively conservative (moderate) part of the public can be more comfortable with it.

3. When the law insists. One of the non-Cranford Gaskell stories incorporated into the TV series was My Lady Ludlow, about an aging aristocrat who has very strong beliefs about the existing class structure. She’ll take care of her staff for life, but they’d better not aspire to rise above the status to which they were born.

Lady Ludlow’s land agent, Mr. Carter – the man who’s running her estate – has very different ideas. He believes in education and making the most of people’s talents, no matter their origins. Conflict! Mr. Carter meets a very poor boy who is also very smart, Harry Gregson. When Lady Ludlow finds that Mr. Carter has taught Harry to read and write, she insists the boy’s time is better spent mucking out the stables, so off poor Harry goes.

cranford_ludlow_carterMeanwhile, Lady Ludlow has had to mortgage her estate to support the wild lifestyle of her beloved only child, who’s off living the high life in Italy. She can’t possibly make the payments. Mr. Carter is dismayed, but it’s her property and her decision.

And then, Mr. Carter suffers a fatal accident… but manages to live long enough to dictate a complicated will. It turns out Mr. Carter was quite wealthy. He provides for Harry’s education and leaves the rest of his fortune to Harry too – on the condition that first, Harry is to pay off Lady Ludlow’s mortgage, and she is to repay him later with interest. Lady Ludlow doesn’t like her new reality, but she has no choice, so she makes the best of it. Yes, it’s humiliating, but she maintains her dignity and treats Harry kindly and honestly.

The process used in this case could be described as “use the authority of the legal system, and hope the opposition can acclimate.”

Unfortunately, in the real world, most of us don’t have Lady Ludlow’s strength of character, to accept such change graciously. And in the real world, whenever the law says someone is now entitled to something that vested interests think they shouldn’t get, too often that law gets set aside. I’m thinking of the Jim Crow backlash to the gains made by Black Americans during Reconstruction, and the original treaties made with the Native Americans. I’m sure there are many other examples. Affirmative Action, anyone?

My partner hasn’t seen Cranford, and I asked him what he thinks would be the most effective way to get conservatives more comfortable with change. He suggested pointing out that the change might be consistent with their higher values. For example, if someone you care for does something you think is really strange but harmless (like changing their gender), maybe your caring is a higher value than your need to be judgmental.

And this principle underlies all three of our cases, doesn’t it? Caring for Jem Hearne (and for continued access to his carpentry skills) is a higher value than resisting innovation. Honoring one’s loved ones – and supporting one’s grieving neighbor – outrank propriety. And respecting the law and the intentions of those we care about is more important than maintaining an outdated vision of how the world should work.

Throughout Cranford, the biggest change of all is the coming of the railroad. Miss Deborah Jenkyns is so vexed at the idea and all the turmoil it portends that she dies of a stroke. Captain Brown is away on railroad business when his younger daughter dies, and it’s a railroad-construction accident that kills Mr. Carter. In the book, it’s an “obnoxious railroad” which had been “vehemently petitioned against by the little town.”

cranford_DJ_dismayAnd yet, in a sequel to Cranford presented as a holiday special, Miss Deborah’s timid sister Miss Matty thinks that perhaps the railroad could be okay. It will bring new economic opportunities to the village, letting people she cares for continue to work there (including the newly widowed Jem Hearne, with his baby). She bravely invites her friends to ride the new train with her.

At the end, we see that Miss Matty realizes the train is not an unmitigated good – it’s probably ambivalently valenced, like I wrote about in my last post – but she’s reviewed the available information, thought carefully about what’s important to her, and acted consistently with that.

And that’s all anyone can ask of us, really.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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3 Responses to Overcoming the temptations of conservatism, with the good people of Cranford

  1. Robin Turner says:

    I watched the BBC series of Cranford then read the book as a teenager. I loved it, which is saying a lot for someone who generally doesn’t like nineteenth century novels (I recently tried reading The Mill on the Floss and after the first chapter I was ready to gnaw my arm off). I’d never seen it through that lense before, but now you put it that way, yes, it really is about how conservtives adapt to change.

    I also agree that almost everyone is conservative about _something_!

    • Ha – I have not yet tried The Mill on the Floss. I am forewarned, thank you! I am very, very fond of Middlemarch, but that’s largely because I’d seen the BBC version first. The one seventeenth century novel I managed to wade through – Pamela – still feels like an endurance feat.

      • Robin Turner says:

        Well if you liked Middlemarch, you might like The Mill on the Floss. I like the themes Eliot deals with; I just can’t sustain interest in them over so much prose. The same applies to other early- and mid-nineteenth-century authors, usually to a greater degree until we get to Conrad, who wrote ripping yarns about typhoons and revolutions. I’m impressed that you got through Pamela! It was on our reading list when I was a student, but I think no one actually read it all the way through. I did enjoy Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, though, which took the piss out of Pamela by making the story about a young man trying not to lose his virtue.

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