Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is a delightful novel, although calling it a “novel” doesn’t seem quite right, as it’s really more a series of sketches which only eventually settle into a conventional plot. It tells the story of a place, the small, isolated town of Cranford, more than it tells the stories of people’s lives, although it does plenty of that too. Cranford is old-fashioned, peaceful, beyond the reach of fads and fashions, and seemingly unchanging, although, of course, new people do arrive now and then, and people grow up, get married (or more often don’t), and grow old, as people must. Hardly anyone does any traveling, and London is portrayed as a far-away exotic place, different in all respects from Cranford, and by no means an object of anyone’s desire. People in Cranford like their lives and don’t see any need to try to make them any better.

As the very first sentence points out, the town is dominated by women:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.

To call these women “amazons” hardly seems right, as they are by no means warrior-like or fierce. But they do keep their town going, establishing their own customs and habits — their clothes are forever out of date and their social rules different from other places — and they take care of each other, at least when they aren’t involved in petty feuds about such things as whether Samuel Johnson is a more worthy author than Charles Dickens.

The book is not all about the town on a general level, though; it starts that way, and then moves into the lives of particular characters. There is the narrator, first of all, who doesn’t live permanently in Cranford, but visits friends there frequently. We never discover much about her life, except that she has never traveled beyond the bounds of Cranford and her hometown. She makes a good narrator for the novel, as the inhabitants of Cranford ask her to visit whenever anything exciting happens, after which she heads home again, a circumstance which allows Gaskell to skip around in time at will, just giving us the good bits without having to fill in the rest or make awkward transitions from one time period to another. The novel is told in the first person, and the narrator’s voice is quiet and contemplative, as it should be to portray a place such as Cranford properly, but it is also sensitive to the humorous aspects of Cranford, and now and then gently ironic, showing the reader how odd and charming the place can be, but never criticizing or complaining about it. There were moments when I laughed out loud at some of the narrator’s observations.

There is also Miss Matty, who becomes more and more important as the book goes on; she is a sweet, timid woman, getting on in years but still dominated by the memory of her now-deceased sister whose strong opinions ruled her life for many years. Miss Matty comes to seem like Cranford itself — she has her quirks and oddities and is extremely old-fashioned and set in her ways, but she proves to have sources of strength in the face of trials she must face, trials that form what there is of the book’s plot.

In some ways one might call this a conservative novel; it celebrates tradition, stability, and permanence, and it explicitly contrasts the quiet, virtuous lives led in Cranford with the uncertain, dangerous, ever-changing world around it. It values self-sufficient community, where people live peacefully with what money they have rather than seeking riches and self-aggrandizement. The characters are also extremely class-conscious, carefully maintaining boundaries between middle-class merchants and the genteel leisured class.

On the other hand, there is something subversive about this town made up mostly of women. Yes, at the novel’s end money comes in the form of a long-lost male relative returning from the east, but throughout the novel, the women take care of themselves and each other, deciding on their own when they want to invite in some male help. Many of them are suspicious of men, and they clearly value their female-centered community and don’t want it disrupted. They are “amazons” in the sense that they rule their own little world, finding their fulfillment in each other. Men seem to be largely beside the point.

This is the third Gaskell novel I’ve read; at this point I’m looking forward to reading and rereading more.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

  1. I haven’t read any Gaskell and this sounds wonderful. Your post has prompted me to request a copy from the library. Thanks for another tantalizing recommendation!

  2. I enjoyed reading your post and think that it sums up Cranford so well. I first read it at school and then again last year – it stands the test of time. I’m looking forward to reading more by Elizabeth Gaskell too – North and South and Mary Barton are high on my tbr list.

  3. This sounds like fun. I seem to be quite good at collecting Gaskell but not reading her. I have several of her books but not this one. I will have to add it and hopefully read it one of these days. Are you going to see the Cranford movie?

  4. ‘Cranford’ is one of the books that I’m going to include in the Nineteenth Century British Novels Reading Group I shall be running from September and I just hope the people there will be as perceptive about it as you’ve been. If Not, I shall send them over here to read what you have to say.

  5. I think it’s really interesting when a sense of place plays such an important role in a novel, almost like it’s a character itself. I think time can also do this but with less creative license. This sounds like a great book.

  6. toujoursjacques

    Like Stefanie, I have a few Gaskell’s in my possession but must admit to not having read one. Your review makes Cranford sound like the place to begin. Or would you recommend starting somewhere else?

  7. I don’t read much 19th century fiction and it is a gaping hole in my knowledge! I understand that the TV series that was made of this was very good, but it featured a kitchen table operation in the first quarter of an hour or so and it was too much for my squeamish heart and I had to give up watching it. The book sounds a much calmer way forward!

  8. I admit the first time this book got on my radar was thanks to the promoting of the PBS series (which I didn’t even get to watch!). The novel really sounds delightful.

  9. Fay

    When the TV production aired recently, I was surprised and quite pleased that the menfolk in my house watched it with great appreciation. The proof in the pudding was that when father and son went on a road trip, they watched it in a motel room. This means they were not just tuning at home in to humor me. I think they were attracted to Gaskell’s characters and, of course, the acting.

  10. The movie adaptation was great and I’m looking forward to reading the book. Miss Matty also played a big part in the movie and I like the idea that she comes to stand for Cranford itself. You do describe it all so perceptively–you make me want to read it now! I’ve yet to try anything by Elizabeth Gaskell, but I think I would like her.

  11. Kate — oh, good! I do hope you enjoy it!

    BooksPlease — thank you! I read North and South, quite a while ago, so I don’t remember it well, but I do remember enjoying it. I’d like to read Mary Barton at some point too.

    Stefanie — well, I’d like to see the movie, although not immediately, but I don’t see how I can get a hold of a copy. My local video store isn’t any good, and I don’t do Netflicks. But if I ever do sign up for it, then I’ll be sure to watch it.

    Ann — oh, I’m sure your group will like it! I hope you have fun discussing it — I can see that it’s a good choice for such a group.

    Snackywombat — I agree with you about place — this novel has a stronger sense of place than just about any book I’ve read. Wouldn’t that make an interesting list — books where place becomes a character?

    TJ — good question. It depends on what you want. If you want something that is typical Gaskell, I’d start with Wives and Daughters — Cranford feels significantly different than her other work. But if you’re looking for a good read rather than something representative, than Cranford would be a fine choice.

    Litlove — that kitchen scene isn’t in the book, I’m pretty sure! You’d be safe with the book :)

    Iliana — it IS a delightful novel. I think it’s cool if a TV series gets people interested in the book!

    Fay — how interesting to know that the movie attracted both men and women viewers. The novel is very woman-centered, so I think it’s cool your male family members were so into it.

    Danielle — I think you’ll like it when you do pick the book up! If you like 19C novels generally, you’ll most like enjoy Gaskell. I’m glad to hear Miss Matty is an important part of the movie.

    Emily — it is!

  12. I loved this book, and also North and South. I’m really looking forward to watching the BBC’s version of Cranford, which I have on DVD, yay!

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