Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford
Elizabeth Gaskell
1853, England

Originally published between 1851 and 1853 in a series of installments in the periodical Household Works, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is outwardly a charming illustration of a small slice of English village life at a time when the world was changing rapidly around it. Cranford is ruled, socially at least, by the “Amazons”—for the genteel classes are represented entirely by women, the men apparently finding it inconvenient to live long in this safe harbor of femininity. But into the charm of the village life, we also see at times the finger-hooks of outward realities creeping in. Cranford is no stranger to death and sorrows, and at times Gaskell, known for her novels depicting the hardships of working-class life in the mill towns of England, sneaks some of her critiques in here as well. No matter how genteel a lady, she must have something to live on, yet the truth of Victorian England is that there are few options for a gentlewoman to make a respectable living. The spinsters of Cranford may be resistant—at times almost comically—to the idea of marriage, but we are reminded of Jane Austen’s writing: marriage was often the only way for a woman to secure her future economically.

I found Cranford slow to get into at first, with its episodic early chapters that seemed divorced of each other. But as I read more, I grew familiar with the regular characters that populated the pages, tying the story together, and the brief episodes began to give way to a more linear structure, the events of one chapter more strongly linked to the preceding. By the very end, episodes and characters that seemed all but forgotten had returned to recollection, of both the town and the reader.

It is the characters that are perhaps the strength of the book, with their individual quirks and foibles. Their personalities permeate the novel; their fears, their hopes, their anticipations, their follies bring the pages to life. We are aided entry by the narrator, Mary Smith, a non-resident who visits frequently and shares with us her keen observations, even as at times she gets caught up in events herself and no longer remains a passive observer. But it is her very involvement that allows the reader to enter the town and become invested the story; to be touched by the real generosity of spirit seen not just among the principal characters, but among their servants as well. These are people that care about each other and each other’s well-being, even while they may be resistant to outsiders and changing ways of life.

Cranford is not quite the same as the other Gaskell I’ve read (Mary Barton and North and South). The intrusions of the outer world are gentler, the love stories are to the side or in the past. But in its gentle way, and in the warmth of its population, I find that it may just be my favorite.

I read Cranford as part of my Realists and Romantics project list and for Back to the Classics, Classic with a Place in the Title.

11 thoughts on “Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell”

    1. Jane, I’d say yes. There’s still sadness (and the bite of reality) at times, but as I recall the other two books, they both have more violence and melodrama, while this is a gentler, kinder novel.

  1. Such a good book, I think Gaskell’s best in terms of its prose and invention. I love the acidic narrator.

    Did you read about how the book was written? That seems to completely explain the episodic nature.

    I see you are reading Native Son – so am I! I am about halfway through. That book makes a strange companion to Cranford. A great discomfort read.

    1. Tom, no I haven’t really read about how the book was written. Probably in the introduction I skipped–I”ll have to look it up. Interestingly, I also read The Wind and the Willows this summer (I’m very behind in my posts), and it has a very similar structure–episodic then tie it all together. Reading these two, I find myself wishing more books were written this way.

      Yes, I don’t really tend to read in any sort of chronological order – hopping all over the place. I’m only just starting Native Son, but from what I know if it, I’m not expecting comfort!

  2. I loved the BBC movie version of Cranford so much that I haven’t been able to bring myself to read the book yet. That’s unusual for me. I took years to get to LOTR and didn’t watch the movies until I’d finished the books about a year ago!

  3. I love this one too and I adore the TV adaptation. It’s a little different than the book but I think they really captured the spirit.

    1. Karen, I know I saw at least part of the TV adaptation years ago but I don’t remember it at all (other than I think Judy Dench was in it?). It may be a good choice to look up for winter watching.

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