Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (reread)

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Cranford (published 1851) is a quiet book, focusing on traditions in a changing pre-Victorian society in a small rural community. Given it’s slow pace, when I first read Cranford (thoughts here), I really struggled. I felt stifled by the overbearing traditions of the community of Cranford, and I wondered where the plot was. Yet, by the end, I liked it, and I have eagerly anticipated a reread.

This time, I loved it from the beginning. Gaskell’s satiric perspective on a Victorian society of gossipy women seemed particularly applicable to modern life (to some extent). I was intrigued by her plot devices, subtle though they were, and while I still had a few issues with the novel, the reread and our book club discussion was a success. (Only one of the eight people at book club found the book boring from start to finish).

From here, this post may contain spoilers of Cranford.

The Amazons

The novel begins by describing the town of Cranford as being populated by “Amazons.” To me (and to Merriam-Webster), “Amazons” are strong women. On this read, however, I didn’t see the women as strong. The general weakness of the women is one of the aspects that frustrated me. True, Miss Jenkyns and later Mrs Jamieson “lead” the women in their society. But the others (the old maids and the widows) look for guidance or approval for their every decision. With only a few exceptions, they do not dare act against the leader’s wishes. How does bickering with and gossiping about each other made them Amazons? I suspect this is part of Gaskell’s satire. As a whole, the novel’s satire seems just as tame as its plot. Is Gaskell calling for change, or is simply portraying a ridiculous community? What is the point of it all?

Further, I was once again bothered by Peter’s convenient arrival at the end of the novel. Although I had no problem with all the coincidences, I was annoyed by the fact that the city of “Amazons” was unable to solve their internal bickering themselves. They couldn’t learn to abandon the traditions enough for the “Honorable” Mrs Jamieson to accept the now title-less Mrs Hoggins. No: Gaskell found it necessary for a man to come save the day.

That said, I must remember that Cranford was written in the midst of the Victorian era: perhaps Ms Gaskell’s invented community of woman was progressive, simply because the women did solve some things for themselves: for example, Lady Glenmire married who she would, the women of the town rallied to support the impoverished Miss Matty.

Upper-middle-class Victorian Society

As is always the case with Ms Gaskell, she captures the class issues fantastically. The ladies were constantly “putting on an act” in trying to meet the community’s expectations for their social class, even though they were, for the most part, nearly impoverished by the combined fact of their old age and their unmarried status. Although friends looked away when they did something frugally, their frugality was never discussed. Still, each woman continues to act the part of an upper-middle-class woman, and carefully calculates their socializing to fit the community’s standards.

These community standards are carefully explained from the beginning. Ms Gaskell spent all of chapters one and two introducing Captain Brown and Miss Jenkyns in detail, only for both of them to die before chapter three. This created my frustration with the novel on my first read. Just when I met the most memorable characters of the novel, they die.  Despite their deaths, their heritage is central to the remaining Cranford community. Miss Jenkyns, of course, still rules Miss Matty’s decisions from beyond the grave (“But Deborah didn’t like that,” she’d say to Miss Smith, long after Deborah’s demise). Although Captain Brown does not “haunt” the community with his ways as did Miss Jenkyns, the novel seems to capture the society’s changing ways: by the end, Peter’s conduct, which seemed to mirror Captain Brown’s earlier conduct, is not quite so shocking. Rather, it is embraced.

The crux of the novel is Signor Brunoni, a character who I found on my first read of the novel to be an unnecessary “extra,” added for interest. He is anything but unnecessary, I discovered on this read. His magical act causes a stir among the Cranford ladies. Just as they always do, they look around to make sure those that matter (the minister, Mrs Jamieson) are there before they let themselves enjoy the show. In a parallel to how the ladies of the community put on an act for each other, Signor Brunoni likewise puts on an act. He has a mysterious, foreign identity, but even most importantly, he pretends to be something he is not.

Signor Brunoni is blamed for the community wide panic, just as Captain Brown causes a minor panic when he publicly discusses his poverty. Then, Signor Brunoni’s disguise is removed: he is found to be poor Samuel Brown, deathly ill, with a wife and young daughter. Just as Miss Jenkyns came to the Brown’s aid at the Captain’s sudden death, the community then rallies around this other Brown family. Class no longer matters: for the women of Cranford, all that matters is ministering to a family in need.

Samuel Brown, then, is the beginning of the end of the “act” for Cranford ladies. His appearance in the novel leads to the introduction of the non-traditional: Mary Smith discovers Aga Jenkyns, and Peter’s subsequent return brings light-hearted fun to the town, diminishing the power of tradition. After his appearance in Cranford, Lady Glenmire marries below her class (although Lady Glenmire herself never did seem at all concerned about class) and the majority of the ladies in the town come to accept it. Then, when Miss Matty is broken, her friends certainly come to her aid. “Keeping up the act” no longer matters; all that matters is ministering to a friend in need.

String or Candles

I could address more issues in Cranford. In fact, it’s a novel I will definitely reread yet again. I read the Vintage Classics Edition of Cranford, which is published in a volume with two other Gaskell stories and called The Cranford Chronicles. Despite the misleading title, only Cranford takes place in a town called Cranford. I also read Dr. Harrison’s Confessions recently, and I had intended to talk about that short story as well in this post. But I think Cranford deserves its own post. I’ll come back at some point to that fun-but-flawed short story.

I’m behind on reviews right now, and very much out of practice in writing them. I decided to write this review first simply because Amateur Reader said to me in a comment, “Write up Cranford, please! Which is more important to hoard, string or butter?”

My response is that I do hoard rubber bands (although not string). I really related to Miss Smith in that regard! I save them just because they may be useful, though, not because I like to walk around with one in my pocket. I don’t hoard butter or candles (Miss Matty’s favorite) at all. My husband is the equivalent of the candles: he can’t stand it when a room has it’s lights on and no one is in it.

What do you hoard?

Reviewed on February 24, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • What an EXCELLENT review, Rebecca! I have not read this book, but I love your thoughts on the Amazons. I wonder if Gaskell herself thought they were Amazons or if that was just her way of describing biddy old women who gad grown plump around the middle… I am not sure Gaskell was much of a satirist, though, so I suppose she really *did* think of them as Amazons and perhaps it’s more telling for us as a window into Victorian society.

    Also loved your words on Victorian upper-crust society!

    • Aarti, I didn’t think of satire either but then I saw on the back blurb on Cranford that it’s been called a “dark satire.” Now, I think that person who wrote that had never read the book. But I do see Gaskell as making fun of the community. Or maybe as AR says below, it’s Miss SMITH the narrator who’s satirizing society? I don’t know.

  • I don’t know if Gaskell is much of a satirist, but Elizabeth Gaskell is not the narrator of Cranford. Yes, “Amazons” is a joke. Now – whose joke is it?

    The butter-and-string passage is a great favorite of mine, one of the great comic passages in 19th century fiction. The story of the piece of lace comes close. Thanks for the write-up!

    • Amateur Reader, I love the lace! I think that was my favorite part. At my book club we were all mentioning our favorite parts and then we’d crack up. “the lace!!” or “the cow!” It was a fun book club, thanks to Gaskell’s humor.

      Good question on whose joke “Amazons” was. I guess I have a hard time separating Gaskell from her writing, since I just think of it as Gaskell making fun…

  • I admit this book scares me. I’ve never liked Gaskell before, but I’m determined to try this one before I decide to say no more. I really hope it turns out better for me. From your descriptions, though, Im’ not sure it will…

    • Amanda, I can’t say what you’d like of course. I do think one has to know going that it is a slow, scenic type of book. Not a plot-driven one. I really like it, but then I like Victorian lit. A lot.

      • I love character-driven books, far more than plot-driven, but of course in a character-driven book you have to like the characters. That’s what worries me…

  • I want to read this! And then I want to watch the miniseries with Judi Dench.

    I hoard books. Not shocking for a book blogger. And I would hoard Tony Chachere’s all-spice if I didn’t use it up so fast, or if it were possible to be acquired in NYC. :p

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