Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I did read this book long ago, at a time during my teenage years when I was cramming in as much Victorian literature as I could get my hands on, but I never seemed to be able to recall it very well. I avoided watching the acclaimed BBC productions based upon it, as I had every intention of rereading it someday, and I generally prefer to know a book before a film adaptation. So when Gaskell Blog hosted a Cranford group read, I jumped at the chance to participate. I never caught the Gaskell bug and had not thought much about the author since high school. She never came up in college and, until I began blogging about Austen and learned how many Janeite's were huge Gaskell fans, did not spare her much thought, but as it has been forcibly born down upon me how many devotees of the author there are amongst people whose literary tastes concur with my own, this was bound to change. I did not manage to finish Cranford in tandem with the group, the holidays having proved an impediment, but upon announcement of the Gaskell Reading Challenge thought it would be the ideal place to begin. As I try to tie all non-Austen reviews to that lady, as she is the subject of this blog, please bear with me as I make my comparisons.

Cranford thoroughly displays its roots as a serial publication, in a manner far more obvious than most novels I have read that were released in this manner. Each chapter feels more like a vignette than a coherent tale, until the last few suddenly bring the narrative full circle. One of the most striking things that I found in the story is the fact that our heroine, Mary Smith, who narrates the events chronicled in the first person, is never named until the fourteenth chapter, the third to last. How very unusual! It emphasizes her role as observer rather than actor in most of the story, especially as her name, when finally revealed, is at a moment when she is finally asked to be a major player in directing the course of events (prior to this she does, in her quiet way, manage the developments, but not at the behest of others). The originality of the book's structure is almost jarring in its rebellion against the expected, especially when compared with the rather humdrum subject matter: that of ordinary life in a small town.

In Cranford, Gaskell tells the tale of members of a small community, just like Austen does, except that her characters are almost exclusively women, and mainly of the "old maid" variety. The fact that the story begins by making this perfectly clear ("...Cranford is in possession of the Amazons...") establishes the feminine focus of the book as its most important aspect. Therefore, all of their concerns are of a domestic nature: servants, household management, economizing, entertaining, furniture preservation, etc. What makes such subjects interesting is the witty and satiric tilt of Mary Smith's prospective, which highlights the foibles of her companions while never loosing empathy for their motives, and in this I again see great similarity to Austen (although sometimes the anecdotes reach a level of absurdity which Austen never obtains - like the notion of dressing a cow in a gray flannel suit to keep it warm). For example, this scene, in which Miss Smith, her hostess (and main concern) Miss Matty, and their friend Miss Pole dine with a rather rustic bachelor (by the way, the referenced story of Amine is from The Arabian Nights - there are no ghouls disguised as people in peaceful Cranford, although we are told of a ghost story):
When the ducks and the green peas came, we looked at each other in dismay; we had only two-pronged, black-handled forks. It is true, the steel was as bright as silver; but what were we to do? Miss Matty picked up her peas, one by one, on the point of the prongs, much as Amine ate her grains of rice after her previous feast with the Ghoul. Miss Pole sighed over her delicate young peas as she left them on one side of her plate untasted; for they would drop between the prongs. I looked at my host: the peas were going wholesale into his capacious mouth, shovelled up by his large round-ended knife. I saw, I imitated, I survived! My friends, in spite of my precedent, could not muster up courage enough to do an ungenteel thing; and, if Mr. Holbrook had not been so heartily hungry, he would probably have seen that the good peas went away almost untouched.
I laughed heartily as I read this account and developed a lot more respect for Miss Smith than I had previously felt. Generally, she is in lock step with the customs and values of the Cranford ladies. It is when circumstances take them out of routine that the story is most humorous. The following scene focuses on Mrs. Jamieson, the wealthy widow who sets the tone for the town, upon the occasion of being entertained at the home of Miss Betty Barker (the owner of the well-dressed cow, mentioned above), who in former days had worked as her lady's maid:
The tea-tray was abundantly loaded. I was pleased to see it, I was so hungry; but I was afraid the ladies present might think it vulgarly heaped up. I know they would have done at their own houses; but somehow the heaps disappeared here. I saw Mrs. Jamieson eating seed-cake, slowly and considerately, as she did everything; and I was rather surprised, for I knew she had told us, on the occasion of her last party, that she never had it in the house, it reminded her so much of scented soap. She always gave us Savoy biscuits. However, Mrs. Jamieson was kindly indulgent to Miss Barker's want of knowledge of the customs of high life; and, to spare her feelings, ate three large pieces of seed-cake, with a placid, ruminating expression of countenance, not unlike a cow's.
Just like one of Austen's most beloved heroines, it is clear that Gaskell, via Mary Smith, takes great delight in the "follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies" of humanity, of which Cranford offers an ample supply. Yet the predominant attribute of the town is the care and affection that its ladies display for each other. In the absence of family, they cling together in a fiercely clan-like manner. There is as much to admire here as there is to laugh at, a thing which can certainly not always be claimed in regards to Austen's more humorous characters. Although reading Cranford again was much like discovering it for the first time, there was nevertheless a sense of familiarity in its pages: a comforting nostalgic quality that I look forward to revisiting, both in text and film. I do not yet know which Gaskell novel I will read next, but whatever it is I hope it will charm me as this text did, and I will embark upon it with the mindset of a potential convert, just waiting to join the ranks of her ardent fans.   

One last thought - I really loved the new edition I picked up of this book (my old one being of inferior quality). This Broadview publication, edited by Elizabeth Langland, was chock full of useful footnotes and supplementary materials. I highly recommend it.


  1. Great review! You should watch the miniseries, it is quite excellent. It uses a couple other novellas as well.

  2. Thanks Laura! I'm looking forward to watching it.

  3. Wonderfully written, Alexa. I love the two scenes you quoted from, especially the comparison of Mrs. Jamieson's eating of seed-cake to that of a cow.

  4. Thanks Katherine. I greatly enjoyed the book and have you to thank for getting me to reread it!

  5. Elizabeth Gaskell isn't quite as known or as celebrated as Dickens or the Brontes, people who had been big friends of hers, according to her biography, but she was a gifted writer in her own right