“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 the fourth Elizabeth Gaskell book I’ve read, following North and South, The Moorland Cottage and Sylvia’s Lovers. I had been hesitant to read this one, despite it being highly recommended by other bloggers, because I wasn’t sure it sounded like the sort of book I would enjoy. A few weeks ago, though, Hesperus Press sent me a review copy of Gaskell’s novella, Mr Harrison’s Confessions, which is described as a prequel to Cranford, so I thought it would make sense to actually read Cranford first.
Originally serialised in Charles Dickens’ journal Household Words in 1851, Cranford is set in a small English town populated mainly by women, most of whom have either never married or are widows. Our narrator is a young woman called Mary Smith who lives in nearby Drumble but who spends a lot of time staying with her friends in Cranford. Through Mary we meet the ladies of Cranford, listen to their gossip, join them at their tea parties, and watch as they go about their everyday lives. The book has a very episodic feel and feels almost like a collection of short stories, particularly throughout the first half of the book. Later in the novel, we focus more on one storyline – the collapse of the Town and County Bank and its impact on the people of Cranford – as well as returning to some of the earlier storylines and developing them further.
At first it seems that the narrator doesn’t have an active role in the novel and that her main purpose is to act as an observer, reporting on the daily lives and routines of her Cranford friends. Unless I missed something we don’t even learn that her name is Mary Smith until the fourteenth chapter, yet she is obviously an integral part of Cranford society, a loyal friend to several of the ladies and regularly invited to their parties and gatherings. Towards the end of the book we finally get to know a little bit more about Mary and she does eventually play an important part in resolving some of the novel’s storylines.
If the novel has a main character, though, it is not Mary but her friend, Miss Matty Jenkyns. Matty’s story is quite sad: her brother Peter left for India years ago and has never been heard from again, and now that her parents and older sister are dead, Matty is the only member of her family left in Cranford. She’d also been romantically linked with a Mr Holbrook decades earlier but their relationship ended as Matty’s sister, Deborah, disapproved. As the narrator observes: “She had probably met with so little sympathy in her early love, that she had shut it up close in her heart; and it was only by a sort of watching…that I saw how faithful her poor heart had been in its sorrow and its silence.” Despite her troubles, Matty remains a loving, kind-hearted person, liked and respected by everyone in the town and also by the reader – this reader at least!
The story of Matty and Mr Holbrook is an indication that although many of the Cranford women are happy with the absence of men in their lives, not all of them are single by choice. I also thought it was interesting that it’s mainly the more genteel ladies who are unmarried, while their servants do have ‘followers’, as they call them. Matty’s early heartbreak makes her more sympathetic to her twenty-two-year-old maid, Martha, and she allows her to have a follower and consider marrying him, whereas some of the other women would never have agreed to such a thing.
Cranford is also a very witty book filled with lots of funny little anecdotes about the women of Cranford. I won’t go into too many details here, but I particularly enjoyed the stories of Miss Betty Barker’s cow who fell into a lime-pit, Miss Matty’s habit of rolling a ball under her bed to check that there’s nobody hiding under it, and the time Mrs Forrester’s cat swallowed her favourite piece of lace. But while there’s a lot of humour in Cranford, there’s also a good balance between funny scenes and moments of sadness and even tragedy.
It seems I was wrong about Cranford not being my sort of book, because I did enjoy it much more than I thought I would. If I’d known it was such a short book (only about 200 pages) I’m sure I would have read it before now. When I reached the end I was sorry to have to leave the world of Cranford behind, but at least I can still look forward to reading Mr Harrison’s Confessions!