Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

on October 16, 2014

cranford-elizabeth-gaskell-paperback-cover-artIt’s no secret to any of you how much I love Gaskell’s novels, so it only felt right to branch into her short stories as well. Last month, a couple of other book bloggers and myself decided to do a little Gaskell read-along and we picked Cranford as our first venture. As it was a short and sweet read, I feel this review should reflect that 🙂 Cranford was good; it wasn’t brilliant and it wasn’t one of my favourite pieces of Gaskell’s writing but nonetheless I still thoroughly enjoyed it 🙂

First published in serialised form in 1851, Cranford is still one of Gaskell’s best known works. Set in the sleepy town of Cranford, a place where the majority of inhabitants are women (and elderly women at that), it doesn’t really sound like there would be much going on in such a place. To some extent, you would be right. As a reader, we don’t see any of the major plot twists that we encounter in Mary Barton or North and South. What we do get is an idea of what is important to this little community, and that in itself I found rather entertaining 🙂 There were plenty of moments where I found myself smiling just at what was being described.

The story is told by a Mary Smith (a nice generic name if ever I’ve heard one!) who we never hear much about, but relates to the reader her experiences of the society of Cranford and the changes that they encounter due to incoming industrialism and other social issues. The first introduction we get to Cranford focuses on the women who live there. Mary tells us that ‘all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women,’ showing just how capable the ladies of the town are of supporting themselves in life. Mary goes on:

‘if a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble… In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.’

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this sounds quite a sinister premise! Are the men driven out of town in some way, or does Cranford have some dark secret? As you’ll discover, the women of Cranford are extremely self-sufficient and simply do not need the input from men to alter their ways.

When a Captain Brown arrives with his daughters, it definitely shakes Cranford up a bit. He is loud, brash, and ‘openly spoke about his being poor – not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed, but in the public street! in a loud military voice!’ *gasp* What a terrible man! 😛 Captain Brown provides the first source of entertainment in the story. On the subject of Miss Betsy Barker’s Alderney cow falling into the lime pit, Brown’s solution is to give the animal a flannel waistcoat and drawers (in jest, of course). Miss Barker immediately sets to work and sure enough, ‘all the town turned out to see the Alderney meekly going to her pasture, clad in dark grey flannel.’ Moments like these made me chuckle, closely followed by attempts to cover a new carpet with newspaper in order to avoid the sunbeams taking the colour out of said carpet, the way the ladies of Cranford eat oranges, and the best way to eat peas at a meal 🙂

When Mary visits or is called to Cranford, she stays with the Jenkyns sisters, daughters of a rector, so they are firmly set in their ideas of what is acceptable. Deborah, the eldest, is the biggest influence on her sister, Matilda (or Matty). She is very particular about who she keeps company with, about what she reads (certainly not Dickens!), and the principles and morals a lady should have. She doesn’t allow any of her female servants to keep any male company under her roof. Mary Smith gives a description of Miss Jenkyns:

‘Miss Jenkyns wore a cravat, and a little bonnet like a jockey-cap, and altogether had the appearance of a strong-minded woman; although she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! she knew they were superior.’

Miss Matty is a little more modern in her ways, and when I say a little, I really mean a little 😛 When her sister sadly passes away, Miss Matty resorts to being called Matilda again as Deborah did not like it. However, she does allow her female servant to entertain a male visitor as long as nothing inappropriate was going on. Miss Matty is soon reunited with her one true love, Mr Holbrook, who she previously had to pass on due to his rank in society being unsuitable to Deborah and their father. She begins to speak to him again but soon finds that he is in very ill health, and on a trip to Paris, sadly passes away. I felt so sorry for Miss Matty. She really finds no happiness in loving relationships in the story – she deserves it after being, to an extent, oppressed into certain societal views. Miss Matty eventually finds herself almost in poverty and can only afford to keep one servant on for the household, she can’t afford to eat big meals, and can only afford to light one room dimly when she occupies it. How will she ever survive like that?

Well, there is an undercurrent tale which runs through Cranford. Miss Jenkyns and Miss Matty had a brother called Peter, who disappeared many years ago after a row with their father. They hunted everywhere for him only to find out he had run away to a ship. The last they heard of him, he was fighting in India, but Miss Matty still hopes for the day when he will come home. When news reaches Mary after her inquiries that an Aga Jenkyns lives in India, she is sure that this is Peter. One day, a man fitting his description arrives in Cranford, and brother and sister are reunited at last 🙂 It’s all very heartwarming! Peter uses what money he has to restore Miss Matty to living in a more fitting style and they continued to live together until the end of the story, so it’s a very happy ending indeed 🙂

As I mentioned earlier, it’s not the most exciting of Gaskell’s works – there’s no shootings or strikes as in other works I have reviewed. However, I would simply say that Cranford is a nice read, and it is worth having a little look over one of Gaskell’s most famous pieces of writing. If you’re a Gaskell newbie, I suggest you start with one of her novels first to get a real feel for her style and characterisation.


9 responses to “Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. Oh, good grief! How do I manage to miss all these great blogs? Yours looks fantastic! I love Gaskell too and I really enjoyed Cranford but not as much as some others I’ve read. I think my favourite so far is Ruth, and can you believe that I haven’t read Wives and Daughters yet? Surprised? In any case, great review and I’ll be looking forward to reading more of your reviews!

  2. FictionFan says:

    Lovely summary! Did you ever watch the BBC adaptation of Cranford with the most wonderful cast of all time? Judi Dench, Julia MacKenzie, Imelda Staunton, etc etc etc. From what you say of the book it sounds like they stuck very closely to the story. I think I must re-watch it soon…

    • emma says:

      No, I’ve never watched the TV version, but I really should! I knew Judi Dench was in it, but I’ll definitely have to look into it 🙂

  3. I read this before any of Mrs Gaskell’s novels, and though I love both I agree that her ‘big books’ are stronger.

    • emma says:

      I wonder if the length of the novels mean that we actively engage with the characters a little more rather than with those in a short story – they just seem to be introduced rather than developed.

  4. bookarino says:

    Great review! I too loved all the little quirks of the Cranford ladies, especially the eating oranges part 🙂 However, I do agree with you on that it isn’t as strong in plot as her other novels, and thus it is better to start with, say, North and South.

    • emma says:

      Agreed, the novels do stand a lot stronger than the novellas 🙂 However, it was a pleasant little read! There were some genuinely touching moments like the reunion with Peter, and Matty’s unfortunate relationship with her old suitor, but for a real gripping read, I’d always recommend sticking to the novels 🙂

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