In the first place, Cranford 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 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, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.Cranford is an episodic novella, or a novel-in-stories, about the small town that gives it its title and its mostly female, unmarried, of a certain age, and impoverished but genteel population. The story is narrated by Miss Mary Smith, a young woman who doesn’t live in Cranford herself, but who keeps visiting the town because of her friendship with some of the Cranford ladies, particularly Miss Matty Jenkyns. The first few chapters of Cranford could probably work as short stories, but as the story progresses, new episodes become more and more dependent on what came before.
The first thing you need to know about Cranford is that it’s laugh out loud funny: literally so, in a people-around-you-will-give-you-Looks-and-ask-what’s-so-funny sort of way. This does not of course mean that it isn’t also serious, or that there aren’t plenty of moving, emotionally resonant little moments. The town of Cranford has a bit of an Avonlea feel to it, and Gaskell’s mix of humour, sorrow, irony and tenderness is not unlike L.M. Montgomery’s.
What I liked the most about Cranford was the fact that it unapologetically focused on usually undervalued people and stories. The ladies of Cranford may be unlikely heroines, but look and behold, they do have stories to tell, and they’re not only interesting but universally human. Cranford is a story about what goes on in the hidden domestic sphere; in the private world of unmarried women; in small and seemingly uneventful towns. All these are settings where most would assume nothing of interest could ever happen, but Gaskell clearly takes great pleasure in proving them wrong.
Another interesting thing was seeing Gaskell poke fun at all the social conventions of Cranford while at the same time showing the kindness and humanity hiding behind it all. The Cranford ladies are all very prim and proper—and yet perhaps they are not. To quote from the introduction, “beneath the Cranford ladies’ attachment to outmoded forms and a strict sense of propriety […] there is true humanity.”
The more we get to know these characters, the more this “strict sense of propriety” is eroded, and the more their surface level prejudices – against “trade”, or foreigners, or people who marry “below their rank” – are challenged. Cranford has the same warmth, compassion and humanity I so loved about North and South. Yes, people make up rules about what is Proper and what is not; about who is one of Us and who is one of Them, and they vow to show to mercy to those who fall outside the lines they draw. But in Cranford they’re always meeting living, breathing exceptions that make all these rules fall apart and force them to redefine these lines. Rigid and abstract ideas about propriety become much more flexible when confronted with real human beings – as they well should.
Question: how good is the 2007 BBC adaptation? I don’t normally like movie tie-in covers, but I saw one of Cranford the other day, and I have to say it looked just right. Judi Dench perfectly matches by mental picture of Miss Mattie. I’m seriously considering adding both this and North and South to my Christmas wishlist.
A few passages that made me laugh:
The Cranfordians had that kindly esprit de corps which made them overlook all deficiencies in success when some among them tried to conceal their poverty. When Mrs Forrester, for instance, gave a party in her baby-house of a dwelling, and the little maiden disturbed the ladies on the sofa by a request that she might get the tea-tray out from underneath, everyone took this novel proceeding as the most natural thing in the world, and talked on about household forms and ceremonies as if we all believed that our hostess had a regular servants’ hall, second table, with housekeeper and steward, instead of the one little charity-school maiden, whose short ruddy arms could never have been strong enough to carry the tray upstairs, if she had not been assisted in private by her mistress, who now 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.They read it too: Becky’s Book Reviews, Random Jottings, It’s All About Books, Giraffe Days, A Good Stopping Point, Good Books & Good Wine, The Sleepless Reader, Notes from the North, Eclectic/Eccentric, 5-Squared, Page After Page, Shelf Love, The Avid Reader’s Musings
I have often noticed that almost every one has his own individual small economies - careful habits of saving fractions of pennies in some one peculiar direction - any disturbance of which annoys him more than spending shillings or pounds on some real extravagance. An old gentleman of my acquaintance, who took the intelligence of the failure of a Joint-Stock Bank, in which some of his money was invested, with stoical mildness, worried his family all through a long summer’s day because one of them had torn (instead of cutting) out the written leaves of his now useless bank-book; of course, the corresponding pages at the other end came out as well, and this little unnecessary waste of paper (his private economy) chafed him more than all the loss of his money. Envelopes fretted his soul terribly when they first came in; the only way in which he could reconcile himself to such waste of his cherished article was by patiently turning inside out all that were sent to him, and so making them serve again. Even now, though tamed by age, I see him casting wistful glances at his daughters when they send a whole inside of a half-sheet of note paper, with the three lines of acceptance to an invitation, written on only one of the sides. I am not above owning that I have this human weakness myself. String is my foible. My pockets get full of little hanks of it, picked up and twisted together, ready for uses that never come. I am seriously annoyed if any one cuts the string of a parcel instead of patiently and faithfully undoing it fold by fold. How people can bring themselves to use india-rubber rings, which are a sort of deification of string, as lightly as they do, I cannot imagine. To me an india-rubber ring is a precious treasure. I have one which is not new - one that I picked up off the floor nearly six years ago. I have really tried to use it, but my heart failed me, and I could not commit the extravagance.
(Have I missed yours?)
Also! Have you signed up for the 2010 Book Blogger Advent Calender yet? The calender is now in its fifth year, and it’s a perfect chance for bloggers from around the world to share their Holidays traditions (whatever holidays they celebrate). I had a lot of fun participating in the past three years, so I thought I’d spread the word so those of you interested don’t miss out.