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Bibliophile reviews Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

One long book at a time is enough for me, and since I had started reading The Thirteenth Tale when I remembered that I had been planning to read a classic, I decided to find a short one. The first short classic I found at the university bookstore was Cranford, so that’s what I decided to read. Gaskell did not feature in the course I took on the English 19th century novel, and to tell the truth I wouldn’t have known she ever existed if it hadn’t been for the TV series of her novel Wives and Daughters (which I unfortunately missed when it was shown on Icelandic TV). (North and South and Cranford have also been filmed for television).

The book was first published as a serial in a magazine in 1851-2, but in 1853 it was gathered together in one volume and published as a novel. It seems obvious that Gaskell originally merely intended to tell some interesting individual stories with only the central characters as a connection between them, which makes the first half or so of the book rather loose and episodic. It isn’t until the latter half of the book that a story begins to be told that continues from chapter to chapter, so in fact the ‘novel’ is really a collection of interconnected short stories and a novella. To the original has been added one extra story, and an essay by Gaskell that fits in well with the rest of the book’s material.

The narrator is Mary Smith, a younger woman who frequently visits her friends, the Misses Deborah and Matty Jenkyns, two elderly spinster sisters who live in the town of Cranford. Miss Matty is the central character, but around her there revolves a group of women, all of whom are either widows or spinsters. Men do not feature largely in the story – as a matter of fact they are viewed with some suspicion by the women – but some of the turning points do revolve around them. The world of these upper-class women is genteel and rather innocent, and all behaviour is controlled by rigid rules that are meant to ensure that things continue to be nice and comfortable and changeless in the face of impending change (e.g. the arrival of the railroad). The value of friendship is the chief message.

I found Cranford to be a sweet and gentle read, sometimes funny, sometimes melodramatic, but always entertaining. It would be interesting to read one of her novels (that were intended as such) to see how she handles a longer narrative structure.

3 stars.

Read Cranford online.

Comments

Maxine Clarke said…
I have just finished watching the TV series, which is now out on DVD, over 5 evenings -- wonderful! I must now read the book to see how it compares. Your review makes it sound very interesting. The series was absolutely marvellous, and I do recommend it.
Bibliophile said…
I will definitely be on the lookout for the series. I don't think it has been shown on Icelandic TV yet, but since most BBC literary adaptations do get shown here I have hopes that Cranford will be too.

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