Review: Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford is novel by English 19th century author Elizabeth Gaskell, published between 1951 and 1953 in Charles Dickens’ Household Word Magazine, mainly read by the middle classes. This review will focus only in Cranford. For more information about Mrs.Gaskell, click here.

4/5

When I was negotiating which book to choose for my project with my literature professor, I realized that I had the opportunity to read something fantastic that was not in the program. All my classmates decided on Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley or the Brontës. Our professor wanted us to focus on an author we had not previously read and doing some research on the web I came across Elizabeth Gaskell and Cranford. Visiting BookDepository and Amazon, Cranford presented itself as a funny, endearing and lovely book. So, with my professor’s encouragement and support, I bought the Penguin Clothbound edition (you know they are my favourites!) and started reading.

Cranford is a short novel, approx. 150 pages divided into 16 chapters. This made the reading easier, but also more addictive. I found myself late at night saying “just one more chapter”. I will divide my review in parts, since I have a lot to say and I want to organize the information clearly.

The Style

Cranford is a novel, divided into chapters that somehow are not related. There is obviously a plot underneath but not in the classical way. What connects the chapters is that they are all share by the same narrator, Mary Smith, a young woman visiting her good friend Matty Jenkins in Cranford. However, I found that this made the novel more interesting and kept me on reading for longer than if it had had a typical plot.

One of the reasons to have this new approach would be how Mary Smith describes Cranford:

In the first place, Cranford [Knutsford] is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. 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 parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his hip, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble [Manchester], distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.

Mary provides us with a truthful and funny description of what Cranford was. All throughout the novel I had the feeling of being reading an anthropology text: someone describing, more or less objectively, a group of people and their habits, behavior and relationships. When researching, it was not only me who thought that! The reason is that, being Cranford in possession of the Amazons, Elizabeth Gaskell created the impossible: a town where spinsters and widowers could live. Whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.

All the women in Cranford are either spinsters, widowers or young unmarried women. I did find this very interesting but I never stopped to think why. When I had to research on the history of spinsters in Victorian England, I was astonished. Apparently, spinsters and even widows were relegated to the domestic space, which is an elegant form to say that they had no liberties outside their houses. And the irony? They were not allowed to have their own houses, but they had to live with a male relative (father or brother), nursing their children and taking care of the house. As I’ve said, I was astonished. Taking this into account, I started seeing Cranford as a utopian, sociological experiment: What if there was a town inhabited only by women?

The Characters

Mary Smith is good friends with Miss Matilda “Matty” Jenkins, one of the spinsters in Cranford and the most important character in the play, I’d say. She is the daughter of a reverend and therefore highly regarded among the group of friends. But, Miss Matty is more than that, she is shy and is always thinking about appearances in a way that, it surprised me, will not irritate the modern reader. She only wants to do what’s best for her and her friends and when tragedy shakes up Cranford, she accepts her fate as the strongest woman would do. I think this is a character designed to be loved by the readers, and it is also the glue that keeps together the ladies at Cranford.

The rest of the characters are more or less secondary, but they deserve a mention as well:

  • Miss Deborah Jenkins – Matty’s older sister. Very strict and usually associated with masculine features.
  • Miss Pole – One of the ladies at Cranford, known for her typicaly enlightened behavior.
  • Mrs. Jamieson – A widow with aristocratic connections, a spoilt dog and too much pride.
  • Mrs. Forrester – another widow, secondary.

As you can see, until now we have: the kind friend, the strict lady, the rational woman and the proud one. Does this ring a bell?

The Themes

Themes in Cranford are pretty universal and more or less will be interesting for the modern reader.

Lost love is one of the key themes, having two chapters devoted. I was personally very impressed by how much the story could be translated to modern times (or maybe we are too familiar with 19th century love stories!). It is Miss Matty who, while shopping, encounters her first and only love, a man she did not marry because she was the daughter of a reverend and he belonged to a lower class. But, eventually, does love belong to social classes, or to the heart?

Friendship is the theme on which the novel is written. Mary is visiting her friend in Cranford and is immediately accepted in the group of ladies. They all fiercely protect each other, fight for each other and, eventually, take care of each other. For a group of spinsters, this was the only way of surviving: the ladies in Cranford mean more to each other than their own relatives.

Fashion:

Spinsters? Victorian? Then fashion comes to our mind! But, probably due to Cranford being a northern, pretty isolated place or due to the ladies’ age, fashion is not a main problem in the town:

Their dress is very independent of fashion; as they observe, “What does it signify how we dress here at Cranford, where everybody knows us?”  And if they go from home, their reason is equally cogent, “What does it signify how we dress here, where nobody knows us?

And, as a modern reader, I think they are right! We have all let our friends see us in our PJs or on a bad-hair-AND-clothes day. Well, the ladies in Cranford have justification for that and, I must admit, it makes sense.

Humor in Cranford

Humor is one of the best strategies in literature. It will always improve the readers’ mood, but it is also a powerful tool of criticism. Sometimes, it is hard to accept criticism, right? But what if we use humor? Then, we can include even more serious critics. Just think of our TV shows nowadays: from Friends to the more modern American Dad, Family Guy and How I Met your Mother, we can see the worst aspects of our society criticized, and yet we laugh. And Elizabeth Gaskell already knew this back in 1851. Cranford is full of funny scenes where there is more than meets the eye. This is my favourite:

    An old lady had an Alderney cow, which she looked upon as a daughter. ….The whole town knew and kindly regarded Miss Betsy Barker’s Alderney, therefore great was the sympathy and regret when, in an unguarded moment, the poor cow fell into a lime-pit. She moaned so loudly that she was soon heard and rescued; but meanwhile the poor beast had lost most of her hair and came out looking naked, cold and miserable, in a bare skin. Everybody pitied the animal, though a few could not restrain their smiles at her droll appearance. Miss Betsy Barker absolutely cried with sorrow and dismay; and it was said she thought of trying a bath of oil. This remedy, perhaps, was recommended by some one of the number whose advice she asked; but the proposal, if ever it was made, was knocked on the head by Captain Brown’s decided “Get her a flannel waistcoat and flannel drawers, ma’am, if you wish to keep her alive, But my advice is, kill the poor creature at once.”

Miss Betsy Barker dried her eyes, and thanked the Captain heartily; she set to work, and by-and-by all the town turned out to see the Alderney meekly going to her pasture, clad in dark grey flannel. I have watched her myself many a time. Do you ever see cows dressed in grey flannel in London?

More Favourite Quotes:

Mrs Forrester … sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up, though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes.

But I was right. I think that must be an hereditary quality, for my father says he is scarcely ever wrong.

Final Thoughts:

Cranford is a funny, witty and incredibly interesting Victorian novel. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to have a good time reading and, at the same time, wishes to learn about Victorian society. Elizabeth Gaskell decided to have a town full of spinsters for a reason, to give them the voice and the relevance that they lacked in her society. Also, the fact that she approaches the town as a modern anthropologist would do, shows she was a woman ahead of her times and as competent as some of her contemporary authors. On the dismissal of typical feminine issues, I’ve already talked in here. Whether people decide to read Cranford or not is their own and only decision and whether readers like it or not, depends solely on your tastes. I highly recommend Cranford, I really do.

When I was reading it, and I pointed out in the characters section above, I could not but think of Cranford as the seed for Desperate Housewives. I really did! And it was not only me. You can read a short article here. I would not like you to compare them, especially if you don’t like the show, but it is just funny how literature influences TV shows and, many many times, we are not aware of it.

Also, Cranford is more than a lovely, cute, short, novel about women, as I’ve seen it described around. The fact that it is devoted to women does not make it less interesting or less valuable than any other Victorian work. Historically, it is very interesting to observe social and conviviality rules. As a modern woman, I found myself enraged at the discrimination against spinsters.

Finally, here you have the trailer for Cranford, the adaptation by the BBC from 2007 (broadcasted in USA by PBS) with the amazing Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkins. The show actually merges three works by Gaskell, if you’ve read Cranford, you’ll clearly see the stories there:

Useful Links:

Cranford (Project Gutenberg)

The Odd Women by George Gissing – A novel about Victorian spinsters

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12 thoughts on “Review: Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell

    • Wow! I’m so happy I’ve done that. It is a really good reading and I hope you enjoy it. If you want (please!) share your review here once you read it!

  1. I enjoyed North and South and have been wanting to read more of Gaskell’s work. This sounds like a great book so I might try this one next. Thanks for posting such an interesting and detailed review!

    • You’re welcome, Helen! Can you believe I thought “North and South” (before identifying it with Gaskell) was a story about the American Civil War? I should read it after enjoying Cranford so much. Thanks for commenting :)

  2. I’m planning on reading Cranford this summer, and after reading your thoughts I can’t wait! I’ve seen part of the BBC series, so I had an idea of the story, but I’d never really thought through the implications of a town without men–the sort of experiment that implied.

    • I’m so glad I made you want to read it even more! I hadn’t thought about that idea about the town. If you want the article from where I got the idea, please DM on twitter your email address and I’ll gladly send it to you. It is a women’s studies and literature article , got it from an academic journal, but I think the topic appeals to all the Cranford readers.

  3. Reading Cranford is a rich experience and one that I very much enjoyed. You’ve done an excellent review and exploration of this; thank you. I was so sad that my book club didn’t enjoy it as much as I did and I think they failed to explore it — only rushed to get it done. But, alas, what can you do. I am glad to have read it.

    • Well, you can’t force them to like it but I think it is one of those underrated books, forgotten by the academia and only used for TV adaptations (that everyone loves).

  4. I had to read Cranford for my Women Writers university course. We’re also doing presentations, and I’m researching extra info on the book, which is how I stumbled across your review. I appreciate your comments! Yes, I thought the book was quite funny, too. Found myself laughing out loud several times. :)

    I would probably give the book a 3/5. The first word that comes to mind when I think of the novel now is “endearing,” but that only came once I finished it. Throughout, I only kept thinking, “This is dragging on and on, and nothing’s happening.” Then, when there was a tender, tense, or exciting moment, I felt a burst of encouragement to keep reading, but it seemed to drag all too soon again. In the end, I suppose I’m glad I read it. There were several special sentences or paragraphs in the novel that resonated with me–and that doesn’t happen in every novel one reads!

    • It’s funny: I am a fan of crime fiction so I am used to books where every time there is something happening. But I loved Cranford just because there didn’t seem to be happening any other thing than just life for those women.

      • Good point; even though it was “just life,” it was a powerful story. In fact, I might say this is a novel that grows on the reader after the reader has finished it. I felt the same way about My Ántonia by Willa Cather!

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