Cranford is a story that is hard to describe. The little town of Cranford is populated mainly by older women, mostly single or widowed. There are a few men about, but they are largely of a lower class, whereas many of the women consider themselves of gentle birth and do their best to act accordingly, especially Mrs. Jamieson, the town’s matriarch. The book revolves around Mary Smith, a frequent visitor to Cranford who often stays with the Jenkyns sisters, two unmarried older women who enjoy some status as children of the late rector. Most of the chapters, however, center in on Miss Matty, the younger of the sisters, whose gentle heart endears her to the entire town.
This was not at all what I’d expected from it, and not in a bad way at all. My previous experiences with Gaskell consisted of North and South and Mary Barton, which are both very concerned with the rise of industrialism in the north. Cranford is much more a picture of genteel life as it might have been during Gaskell’s lifetime, in a small town where women rule all. Each of the women is made distinct by her own actions as they socialize, like Mrs. Jamieson who is a complete snob, the elder Miss Jenkyns whose sternness overrides any other aspects of her personality, and Miss Matty, a sweet woman who is too easily led by everyone around her.
There is no real plot here. The chapters can almost be seen as a series of little stories regarding the inhabitants of Cranford, tied together by Miss Matty’s presence. There is a general movement towards what happens at the end but it isn’t compelling reading; this is a book to live in, to get to know the characters, to begin to care about what happens to them. It’s short, but it accomplishes these goals with ease and opens a window into life as it was. I was reminded mainly of a more sedate Jane Austen, less concerned with irony and overall plot but still depicting a genuine picture of an upper class society and its ills. She does still use humor to depict the ridiculousness of their situations; my favorite is when one of characters is complimented on her lace and launches into a story of how it had a little trip through her cat’s digestive system! I liked the book and I was completely charmed by it, but this isn’t a book for the impatient among us.
Cranford reminded me of how much I adore nineteenth century literature. There is something so inherently appealing in Gaskell’s style, in the modest but earnest ways of her characters, and in the quiet community life that they all share. I can’t say this is a world I’d ever want to live in, but I definitely loved visiting.
(Cover note: I have an old hardcover edition in a set of classics without ISBNs, so I chose a more recent cover for this post)