Cranford started out life as a short story published in Charles Dickens’s Household Words magazine in December 1851. Readers were delighted with the story of a village of “Amazons” who still seem to be living twenty years (at least!) in the past, and though Gaskell was busy with other writing (her novel Ruth) Dickens prevailed upon her to write more—which accounts for the episodic nature of the story-telling. Her Cranford pieces appeared in random order until 1853, when they were compiled and published in book form.
As a result, there isn’t much of a plot, or only a very loose one—the events in the lives of a group of genteel if poor gentlewomen in a country village, still clinging to many of the outmoded mores and customs of their youth. A few new faces are periodically introduced, and old ones leave and, of course, anything that does occur (or even seems to occur) in the village gets blown into enormous proportions—to often comic result.
It had been some years since I read Cranford, and while I remember loving it at that first reading, I’d forgotten just how very funny it is. Gaskell is working on a small piece of ivory much like Jane Austen’s, but I find her humor leans more toward the droll, though she too uses a healthy dose of gentle irony and satire. But that’s not her only goal—though one may laugh quietly at some of the antics of the ladies of Cranford (the gray flannel pajamas for Miss Barker’s cow! The rescue of Mrs. Forrester’s lace from the inside of poor puss! Miss Pole’s seven brooches worn to call on Mrs. Jamieson!) there’s also a great deal of poignancy in the quiet tale of Miss Matty’s thwarted romance with Mr. Holbrook and her adoption of widow-ish caps after his death, and the death of her mother after Peter runs away to join the navy.
Ah, Miss Matty. She’s a delight, is she not? A little silly, a little naïve, but so thoroughly sweet and kind that any amount of silliness (like that over sea-green turbans) can be forgiven her. Even the ladies of Cranford, generally less good than their friend and often the target of Gaskell’s humor (notably Miss Pole), rally round her when her savings are lost in a bank failure.
But overall it’s the funny little details and turns of phrase that are dropped that make this book for me:
“...even Miss Pole herself, whom we looked upon as a kind of prophetess, from the knack she had of foreseeing things before they came to pass—although she did not like to disturb her friends by telling them her foreknowledge....”
“But I was right. I think that must be an hereditary quality, for my father says he is scarcely ever wrong.”
“...the contemplation of it, even at this distance of time, has taken away my breath and my grammar, and unless I subdue my emotion, my spelling will go too.”
So, NineteenTeen readers—what did you think of Cranford?
- Any favorite or not-so-favorite bits? (I’m not overly fond of the coincidences and the deus ex machina arrival at the end which saves the day. How about you?)
- Any points of history you’d like to discuss? (I enjoyed the many fashion references, of course, including a mention of gigot sleeves!)
- Which characters did you like or dislike the most?
Discuss! And if you haven’t read it yet, get started and jump on in!