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.