Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

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In the end, I sighed with satisfaction. Yes, everything would be alright in Miss Matty Jenkyn’s town of Cranford.

I wasn’t sure I liked Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s Cranford for most of my reading, and to be honest, the snippets of life in the town of Cranford irritated me at first. But in the end, it all comes full circle for me and I almost want to reread the portions that irritated me in the beginning. Some day, I think I’ll revisit this book. I definitely want to read more of Gaskell’s writing.

I think what I disliked most about Cranford-the-town was the superficiality of all the people. It is a town of predominately middle-aged, middle-class women, most of whom are spinsters or widows. From the beginning, though, we learn that there are certain social manners that are “required” to be followed. People with the wrong manners or even the wrong name are shunned. Middle-class people who admit to being “poor” or “unable to afford” something are social piranhas.

I have never been one to succeed in understanding popular fashions and unspoken social codes, and so such a city would seriously be hell on earth for me. I personally try hard not to care what other people think. Subsequently, I disliked most of the women for much of the book because they were so concerned about pleasing each other, and especially with pleasing the widowed Mrs Jamieson.  Even Miss Matty and the narrator were guilty of such pandering to convention and it was rather disgusting to me.

Certainly, that is part of the point of Gaskell’s novel. The narrator herself often expresses frustration at the ridiculous traditions, and her comments shed light on the humor of the situations, because they certainly were humorous. When “sensational” gossip revolves around how long someone stayed to visit (i.e., longer than 15 minutes), you know some priorities are out of order. My copy had occasional endnotes that explained some of the jokes that only those familiar with the Victorian period would have picked up on. For me, most of the book was a rather roll-my-eyes funny because I just really disliked the entire framework. It felt high school-ish and depressing: 50-year-old women were still playing the “popularity” and “gossip” game with their life.

Despite my dislike of the “game” they were playing, I still loved some of the characters. Miss Matty particularly stood out to me, and as she wept in her loneliness, I found myself weeping (I cry when I read books all the time). (Highlight for spoiler) When her friends came to her aid, I wept again. (end spoiler) And I loved Lady Glenmire. I say she was the only true Amazon woman in this novel, for she truly didn’t care what anyone else thought.

The narrator has an interesting presence in the book. For much of the novel, she is nameless, and yet she is obviously present at the various social functions. Only toward the end does her roll and presence become important, and while it was a little jarring to see her as a significant character in the novel (I liked it when she was in the background), it was refreshing to see her sincere friendship to Miss Matty.

Suffice it to say, though, that despite my frustration with the city of Cranford, I felt Cranford was well resolved. (Highlight for spoilers) I loved how Peter helped return the city to order, helping the women, particularly the ridiculous Mrs Jamieson, see that Lady Glenmire could still be a friend, even when her name was Mrs Hoggins. I thought that was a reminder that while it may be fun to sit around gossiping with other women, sometimes we need a reminder to have common sense. I subconsciously wish that it was Mary Smith, our narrator, who was able to knock some sense in to them. Yet, having a man come to the village seemed to indicate that, while a city of Amazons may be a nice idea, men help keep balance and rather make life pleasant. It’s easy to get wrapped up in gossip. (end spoiler)

I finished Cranford about an hour ago, and I rarely write reviews so soon after finishing a book. But Heather’s read-along was what motivated me to read this book in the first place, and so this end-of-the-month deadline has encouraged me to finish it and post about it tonight. I’m glad for that motivation because it is kind of refreshing to write my thoughts when they are still so fresh in my mind. I should do this more often.

(P.S. I just put the Masterpiece DVD on hold at my library too! I’m looking forward to watching it.)

Reviewed on September 29, 2009

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.

  • I was in the readalong too. I didn’t connect with Cranford as much as I had hoped. It was funny in places. But the women did lack a little sense in my opinion. I think it ended great though. In a very “It’s a Wonderful Life” kinda way.

    I’m curious to see the movie. (Though I’m *glad* I had will power and waited until after I read the book.)

    I really loved Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. And I’m looking forward to reading more Gaskell in the future.

  • Cranford is a charming little book with a lot of humor, but it took me by surprise when I read it 10 years or so ago. The only other Gaskell books I had read were Ruth and Mary Barton, both of which are serious social novels that exposed the dire circumstances of the poor, particularly poor women. This was altogether different–but very good. I wonder now how many people reading Cranford will be surprised in the other direction.

  • You will LOVE the movie — it’s somewhat different from the book, as certain characters and events are condensed, and it also incorporates two other stories set in Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Dr. Harrison’s Confessions. The screenwriters did a wonderful job tying all the threads together. It is a wonderful adaptation, and a sequel is supposed to air in the U.S. next year on PBS.

    Wives and Daughters is also wonderful — a great book and an excellent miniseries adaptation. One of my favorites.

  • Thanks for the review. Cranford is near the top of my tbr pile, and will be my first book by Gaskell. I’m hoping to get to it before the end of the year.

  • I’m so glad you read this and gave a quick review! I’ve been wanting to read the book for a while, but really didn’t know anything about it. My mom’s maiden name is Cranford and their family came from a village called Cranford in England. I know that the town in Gaskell’s novel is fictional, but it is still fun to pretend that these are long lost family members 🙂

    I can see how it would be frustrating to read about the goings on of “society” in that time and how vain it all seems. Many of the early Pulitzer novels were like that and I got a little tired of reading it over and over again. But, it is good that Gaskell seems to be aware of how ridiculous it all was. It will help me to know that the story will be like that before I read it!

  • Have you read Elizabeth Gaskell’s other stuff? How does it compare to them? I loved Gaskell’s North & South and Wives & Daughters, so am wondering if I should give Cranford a try as well.

  • Thanks for participating in the read-a-long! I’m glad that you did end up enjoying it – I was worried for a while there for you. I posted links to everyone’s recaps today – hope you can check them out. 🙂

  • I haven’t read any Gaskell, though I would like to very much. I think I had read somewhere else that this one was a bit bleak/cranky… I didn’t exactly sense that you got that vibe from this book, but I appreciated you shedding some light on what the novel generally focuses on. I think I would be annoyed by all of the fixation on social pretensions etc., but then again, clearly you did wind up finding yourself attached to several of the characters, so I suppose there is still things to redeem itself! I’m not sure this will be my first Gaskell, but thanks to your review, I will certainly not rule it out of the running!

  • I was impressed reading Cranford how different it was from North and South, and her Life of Charlotte Bronte. None of the three books was perfect, but I was just impressed iwth their diversity. I think it’s easy, now, to look back and say that Ms Gaskell just drew these women who were empty-headed and followed the rules – but in fact, I think that (within the limitations of her time) her point in Cranford was that women CAN work their way through difficulties, without men – even at the end, the man comes back AFTER everything is fixed to be ok. The women are petty, imperfect, even obnoxious at times, in Cranford, but underneath all that they have a love and sensitivity for each other that I thought was kind of embarrasing, actually, in comparison to our more sophisticated society. Not to be argumentative…

  • What a wonderful review. I, too, thought this read along thing very fun and hope to participate more often. And, I can’t wait to watch that DVD! 🙂

  • Becky, I like to wait to watch the movie after I read the book too! I don’t watch movies often, so not usually a problem.

    I’m glad you liked Wives and Daughters. Must read that too!!

    Teresa, it’s interesting that the other novels are about the lower social class. I’m intrigued to see how she pulls it off because the middle class world in Cranford seems so well developed!

    Karenlibrarian, a sequel based on what? I’m always suspicious of movies of books and I”m sorry to hear they felt they had to add to it. But I’ll try to watch it as a separate entity and maybe then I’ll enjoy it 🙂

    Jackie, I hope I do like the movie!

    JoAnn, I hope you enjoy it!

    AK, that is so cool about your heritage! Definitely read this thinking it’s your mother’s family then! The end will just be so sweet.

    Lezlie, I do think Miss Matty was interesting, a little more complex than some of the others, but I still wished that she would just stop caring what the others thought!

    Court, I haven’t read any of Gaskell’s other books, so must remedy that!

    Heather J., yeah, I think it was just the atmosphere of Cranford that irked me. Once a little of plot started, I liked it more.

    Steph, I wouldn’t call this book bleak. The end is sweet! I do hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Jason, “our more sophisticated society” doesn’t have people that come to each other’s aid? I beg to differ. I know family members who do so and my church community does so. There are plenty of tight-knit groups that are sensitive to each other’s needs, I think.

    I hope that’s not being argumentative back. I think you have a great point: while they were petty and self-conscious, they were still friendly. I don’t even know my neighbors’ names (although, I kind of like it that way…I’m a private person and they are too).

    Suey, the movie should be fun!

  • Cranford is definitely different than Wives and Daughters. Its not so much a love story as it is a tale of the goings on in a small town. I guess I’d relate W&D more to a Persuasion type story (sort of) and North and South to more of a Pride and Prejudice type story. I’m glad you ended up enjoying it, I enjoyed it, remember having some similar thoughts as I read it last year. One note, the Masterpiece version has things in the script that didn’t happen in Cranford. I heard they took them from another of Gaskell’s novels and combined to “round out” Cranford.

    You might also be interested in Ruth, a bittersweet, but beautiful story. I posted reviews (without spoilers) if you’re interested.

  • I would argue that there is a difference. I grew up in the LDS church, and can wholeheartedly agree that the sense of community and mutual aid was one of the nicest things about the church. But, the church is a community of choice. As are most strong communities. Particularly in the states, we don’t have enough of a shared communal culture to build communities of birth, the way it would have been to live in a small town, in the middle class 100 years ago. In a sens this is a good thing – a community of birth is stifling in a lot of wAys. I think that is the frustrating part of Cranford. But the problem with communities of choice is a natural bias against people who are too shy, uninitiated, or socially fringe to find such a community. Also, it has it’s own stifling effect since membership is based on at least some level of orthodoxy with the community. The Internet has helped – when millions of people are available to choose from, there ceases to be a fringe to se extent. But still, I think the struggle of these women to find a way to love and care for each other within a set of taboos they are almost helpless to subvert is inspiring – and unfortunately still somewhat rare today. I
    mean, if I were hit by a car tomorrow, Amanda would have a lot of friends in the book blog community to love her, but would they help arrange and pay for her to open a business to support herself?

  • Jason, good points. I see what you are saying. Our community is built on self-reliance. While there is spontaneous helping out, we’re expected to know our own needs to a greater extent. I personally prefer it that way. When I say Cranford would be hell on earth to me, I mean it. I want my life to be private and everyone can mind their own darn business, thank you very much.

    I kind of see blogging world/internet cyberspace as a pseudo society, though, so for me, at least, the analogy doesn’t extend. I mean it in the nicest way, but you are all cyberfriends in my mind. You probably wouldn’t like me in person because I’m different! I don’t reveal my entire self on the web and I don’t reveal my webself in real life. I love blogging, but I wouldn’t call it the real world and while I treasure the friendships I have on the web, it’s a bit different to me. I wouldn’t go to cyberfriends if I needed a job. I’d go somewhere in real life.

  • It’s very interesting that you would say that, actually, because I was just talking about that very topic the other day. I cannot speak for everyone, of course, but for myself – and observation suggests to me that for some others – there is actually something liberating in the ‘pseudo society’ of the internet. Is it the same as IRL relationships? Of course not, but I do not know if it is better or worse – just different. You said: “I don’t revel my entire self on the web and I don’t reveal my webself in real life.” Doesn’t this imply a bidirectional power – ie that both relationships can provide something that the other lacks? I honestly feel wracked, nervous and horrible talking about boosk – or worse talking about philosophy and ideas like this, or even worse, writing the occaisional poem or something – in real life. The standard answer to this, from the masculo-centric environment I live in would be that this is a problem with me, not with real life relationships. But, I would disagree. There is an inherent openness in relationships in which we are merely naked streams of bits and bytes, that simply doesn’t exist in real life – in real life, we are inexorably tied to our filters – our bodies, our quickness or slowness to formulate intelligent responses, etc. This of course is as much an inspirtation for bad things ont he internet as good (after all, a 45 y/o man in real life can pretend he’s an 18 y/o and seduce a teenager, for example). But then, the converse is true – there are problems IRL that I hardly ever experience in the digital world.

  • I mentioned something about this in one of my bbaw posts and it surprised me how many people felt similarly, that they were also hesitant to talk about blogging with IRL friends.

    You’re right it seems to indicate a problem with *US* but I don’t it is. It’s just a nice outlet, and like you say, it allows people to feel like they have a community. How sad we’d all be if we couldn’t talk about reading via the web?! I’m having a hard time getting a book group together IRL!

  • And a book group in real life isn’t a ‘community’ – it’s an activity you go to once a month. Nice in it’s own way, but different. Anyway, I think I should shut up, my comment pontificating is getting kind of embarrasingly long… sorry!

  • I searched around the internet, and the only description I could find is on, under the title “Cranford Christmas.” I’m not sure what it’s based on but it lists Elizabeth Gaskell as one of the authors. I wonder if it’s based on some of her short stories. I know she wrote other works set in Cranford. I hope it’s as good as the first series.

  • Micah, thanks for the visit!

    Karenlibrarian, I started watching the miniseries and I’ve been looking over a list of Gaskell’s books and it does seem she has some short stories that relate to the story I am watching! So far, I’m enjoying the mini-series.

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