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REVIEW: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

My route to reading this slim 19th-century novel was somewhat circuitous. Years ago, on romance message boards, I repeatedly read about the greatness of a certain historical romance miniseries called North and South. This was not the rather campy American Civil War miniseries starring Kirstie Alley and Patrick Swayze, but rather a British production, based on the novel of the same name by an author I’d never heard of, Elizabeth Gaskell. Gaskell was a friend and contemporary to Charlotte Bronte (she wrote a biography of Bronte after her death), as well as being a fairly prolific novelist in her own right.

Finally, after hearing about the virtues of North and South many times, I ordered the DVD from Netflix. I loved it. At heart the tale of love between a gruff self-made man and a gentlewoman in somewhat reduced circumstances, set in England at the dawn of the industrial age, North and South was both devastatingly romantic and meaty, examining issues of class and gender in Victorian society. It’s really a great miniseries and I’d recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.

It was only because I’d seen and loved North and South that I DVRed Cranford when it appeared on Masterpiece Theater. Cranford was quite different from North and South; smaller in scope and much more humorous (though not necessarily light; Gaskell had a penchant for examining social issues in all of her books, and she didn’t shy away from depicting tragedy). I loved it just as much as North and South.

But I still didn’t consider reading the book. This was due in large part to my Jane Austen phobia; I’d decided that I could handle twittery 19th-century English folk on the screen a lot better than I could on the page. It was only fairly recently that I got over the phobia and the attendant and rather silly prejudice I’d held. The recent Masterpiece production Return to Cranford reminded me of how much I loved the story and the characters, and so I ordered this book.

Cranford is narrated in the first person by Mary Smith, a frequent visitor to the town who is close to two spinster sisters, Misses Deborah and Matty Jenkyns. Deborah and Matty are as different as night and day; Deborah, the elder, is formidable and emphatic in her beliefs, many of which have to do with her strict notions of propriety. Miss Matty (played to perfection in the PBS productions by Dame Judi Dench) is timid and lacking in confidence about her intellect, a lack that seems not entirely unreasonable in the book. It’s not that Matty is stupid, but she is far from worldly and tends towards extreme naivete. The sisters are both very decent at heart, though, even if Deborah’s rules sometimes stifle them. (The book contains a scene that I remember well from the first miniseries: due to Deborah’s insistence that an orange cannot be publicly eaten in any way that is not vulgar, there’s a scene of Mary, Matty and Deborah each relishing their respective oranges in solitude – it’s really sort of poignant.)

The book feels a bit more episodic than the miniseries, though honestly that may be simply due to different modes of storytelling – both are fairly episodic, in truth (and the first miniseries contains storylines that don’t appear in the book – I’m not sure if they are woven in from another work of Gaskell’s or created out of whole cloth).

Readers expecting a lot of action or emotional melodrama may want to look elsewhere. The characters in Cranford do live – they fall in love, have their hearts broken, marry, die – but they do it all with the restraint one might expect from the Victorian era. Sometimes it’s what is occurring beneath the surface that holds the most interest – the changing of social mores that allows a widow with a title to marry a country doctor (though not without creating a minor scandal), the trepidation one character feels about opening a shop to sell tea, a move necessitated by a financial reversal when a bank fails. The problems and dilemmas that the women of Cranford face are real and relatable. I did some reading in relation to this review and found that some scholars dismiss Cranford as too frothy and silly, and thus not worthy of the consideration given to some of Gaskell’s more serious books. The book is even seen by some as anti-feminist, given the pettiness of the characters and their concerns. But the very first page sums up what makes Cranford, the town and the book, special:

Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.

That the women of Cranford are not visibly suffering, as many of the mill workers do in North and South, and that they spend their time playing cards and fretting over matters of etiquette, may make them seem worthy of dismissal in the eyes of some. But their concerns are real and deeply felt; their losses are all the more poignant for the fortitude and quiet dignity with which they face them. My grade for Cranford is a B+. I’ve already ordered North and South, the book, and am looking forward to reading it.

Best regards,

Jennie

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

30 Comments

  1. Donna Alward
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 15:05:52

    I found Cranford to be much more “slice of life” and enchanting, subtler in its statements and poignant rather than the intensity of North and South. But I love both. I especially found North and South the miniseries followed the book quite well.

    I had never heard of her either – even though I studied English Lit. Why was she not included in my reading list? I have NO idea. :-)

  2. Ros
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 15:16:01

    I would heartily recommend the earlier BBC production of another Gaskell novel too, Wives and Daughters. I loved this one even more than North and South, I think, though I’m probably the only person who did.

  3. Alyson H.
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 15:54:17

    I’d never heard of her until grad school. When I dropped in on the Cranford mini-series, I liked the story much better than when I read it because, I think, of the additional story lines Jennie mentioned. I just don’t like episodic novels that much (I had the same problem with Outlander, shame on me).

  4. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 16:02:25

    Wives and Daughters is still my favorite think by her.

  5. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 16:02:45

    thing. THING. Why can’t I type.

  6. DS
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 16:26:46

    I remember reading Cranford in high school.

    Our librarian was very conservative. She did not hold with what was then modern YA fiction. In fact I remember her giving me a book about Albert Schweitzer and asking me to tell her if there was anything objectionable in it. It was painfully boring and probably could have done with a little smut to liven it up.

    The up side of that was that the school library was top heavy with good Victorian and 18th century books that no one read, among them Cranford, which I thought far superior to Silas Marner. (I still hate Silas Marner) Good thing she never asked me about Tom Jones

  7. Castiron
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 16:43:55

    Haven’t seen or read Cranford yet (though I’ve got the Project Gutenberg epub file ready and waiting), but I love North and South, both the book and the miniseries. Interesting characters, and a lot of food for thought on economic issues.

  8. Jennie
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 18:15:24

    I’ve been meaning to look for the DVD of Wives and Daughters, as well as the book. I believe Janet Mullany mentioned that it was her favorite book.

    DS, I don’t think you’re the only one who hated Silas Marner; that and The Scarlet Letter seemed to provoke the most abhorrence in my high school English classes. I didn’t love Silas Marner, but IIRC it was one of those books that sort of worked for me in the end (coincidentally, I’m currently reading Middlemarch). Now, The Old Man and the Sea, that’s another story. A long, boring story about a guy trying to catch a fish. Blech.

  9. m zafra
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 19:58:38

    Great review! I’ve only seen and read North and South but not the others. I’ll be sure to check out W&D and Cranford.

    I hope you’d read the Austen novels and write reviews on them. I’d love to hear what you think of them. JA is my all time favorite author and I’m sure you’ll find her masterpieces amazing.

  10. Kristie (J)
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 20:15:28

    Jenny!!!!! You’re a Crusader!! You’re a Crusader!! Happy dance time *big huge grin*

  11. Bibliotrek
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 20:32:50

    @Ros: I adored the Wives and Daughters miniseries! I was lucky enough to read North and South in an undergraduate Victorian Lit class, and since then Gaskell has become one of my favorite authors. I think the TV adaptations of her works have been the most successful of just about any that I’ve seen. (I know, no Colin Firth, thus heresy — but really!) Her characters are just so real and so wonderful.

  12. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 20:34:35

    I went to Manchester University in the UK, so we got a lot of Elizabeth Gaskell, which I wasn’t sorry about. She was the wife of the Unitarian Minister in Cross Street, Manchester, and she used to go and see families in the slums. What she saw there horrified her. She corresponded with social reformer and enlightened factory owner Friedrich Engels, who was also concerned about the conditions of the slums. If you’ve heard of him, that’s because he later went on to collaborate with Karl Marx on “The Communist Manifesto.”
    Gaskell wrote “Mary Barton,” partly based on her experiences in the slums.
    Now I live close to Knutsford, Cheshire, which is the inspiration for “Cranford.” Elizabeth Gaskell also lived there and the memorial is still there on the High Street.
    She is a kind of bridge between the Bronte’s and George Eliot, as she wrote Charlotte Bronte’s biography, and was a great friend of hers. She is one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era, and should really be better known.

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    Mar 25, 2010 @ 22:52:01

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  14. Jennie
    Mar 26, 2010 @ 00:15:04

    m zafra, I have Persuasion tbr. I need to pick up Mansfield Park at some point.

  15. Ros
    Mar 26, 2010 @ 09:13:24

    PSA for anyone in the UK: Amazon are currently selling all three of the BBC Gaskell DVD’s for £5 or £6 each. If you buy the box set, it’s £30!!!

  16. Pam Rosenthal`
    Mar 26, 2010 @ 10:40:30

    Do read Wives and Daughters, Jennie. Janet Mullany kept insisting on it, and she’s right (I took bits of Fannie in The Slightest Provocation from a character in that book).

    Wives and Daughters and Cranford are by far Mrs. Gaskell’s best books, imo, and I love both filmed versions as well (I think they’re by Andrew Davies, but I’m not sure). I don’t find North and South as subtle a story (she wrote it in order to placate the critics of her more radical, earlier Mary Barton, which looks more squarely at conditions in Manchester) — to my lustful eye, Richard Armitage is by far the best thing about the filmed version of North and South.

  17. Sandra Schwab
    Mar 26, 2010 @ 11:20:17

    Jennie, the book feels so episodic because it’s not really a novel, but a series of short stories that were first published in Dickens’s “Household Words”. :)

    I love both “Cranford” & “North and South” – what surprised me most about the latter is the sensual language. Indeed, that came as a bit of a shock; it’s not something that you would expect from a Victorian author.

  18. Janine
    Mar 26, 2010 @ 17:10:57

    I have never read Gaskell. I’ve always been stymied by the fact that my taste in classic literature seems to run counter to mainstream sensibilities. I prefer Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre, A Room with a View to Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby to anything I’ve read by Hemingway. For that reason, I don’t really know what to make of recommendations, even ones from friends whose tastes I usually trust. I read Trollope’s Ayala’s Angel at Meredith Duran’s recommendation a few years ago, and it… wasn’t bad. You loved Lolita but I couldn’t finish it. I think I’m just destined for a lot of trial and error when it comes to classic lit.

  19. Jennie
    Mar 26, 2010 @ 23:57:25

    Hmm, Janine. I think a lot of it tends to be hit and miss for me, too, but usually I can find *something* to appreciate in a classic. Like, I didn’t really like Crime and Punishment, but it had its moments. I’m not sorry I read it.

  20. Janine
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 01:40:40

    @Jennie: True. Even Hemingway has his moments, though for my money, they are few and far between.

  21. LizA
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 13:47:46

    Janine, I so agree with you about Hemingway! I think his work is really overrated and much prefer F.Scott Fitzgerald.
    Same with the Brontes – I thought Jane Eyre was fairly dull when I read it but loved Wuthering Hights. Maybe it’s because the describtions of the moor are so intense – I love that landscape.
    As for Cranford, it is on my TBR pile – coming up!

  22. Janine
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 21:49:32

    @LizA: Wow! You are a kindred spirit! I think you are the first other person I met who prefers Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre. Please feel welcome to throw recs for classics my way anytime!

  23. Jennie
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 22:23:38

    I think a lot of readers (especially female readers) don’t really care for Hemingway. The only book of his I can stomach is A Moveable Feast.

    I’ve had Wuthering Heights tbr for quite a while now – I need to get to it at some point. I’m curious as to what I’ll think about it because I think some readers really hate it but I get the feeling it’s more because of the characters and plot than the prose.

  24. Janine
    Mar 28, 2010 @ 16:11:08

    The characters in Wuthering Heights are deeply flawed and the selfishness of their towering passion seems to get under many readers’ skins. It’s been years since I read the book but I remember that I ate up the angst and torment they inflicted on everyone like soft-serve ice cream. It’s a turbulent, extreme kind of book but that was part of what I loved about it.

  25. Hydecat
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 09:11:46

    I have to put in another plug for Wives and Daughters by Gaskell. It’s the only Victorian novel I’ve read that I feel deals with the growing-up story of a girl in ordinary society. The amazing thing is that all of the action happens in one town — it really gets across the fact that women did not travel as much as men, or get very many changes of scene and society.

  26. vib
    Mar 30, 2010 @ 13:22:39

    The non-Cranford bits of the Cranford TV series were lifted from one of her other novellas – Gaskell did a lot of melodramatic short stories. There’s a brilliantly readable biography of Gaskell by Uglow (but I write this as someone who eats up massmarket history nonfiction with a spoon)

    *another vote for Wives + Daughters, lovely*

  27. Jennie
    Mar 30, 2010 @ 18:13:38

    Thanks, vib – I assumed that those plotlines weren’t written in by another writer, but I appreciate the confirmation.

  28. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and a discussion of books as products of their times « A Good Stopping Point
    Aug 12, 2010 @ 15:29:49

    [...] Dear Author [...]

  29. Katherine Cox
    May 25, 2011 @ 00:39:17

    Aren’t the adaptations of Gaskell’s work lovely? And of course I love her novels too. A lovely review of Cranford, I look forward to reading your thoughts on N&S.

    “The book feels a bit more episodic than the miniseries”

    Cranford was originally written as a short story for Dickens’ Household Words but I think her love for the characters and how they reminded her of Knutsford (where she grew up; the ‘real’ Cranford) lured her to write more. :) I’ve written a post that goes more into detail on its publishing history.

    “I’m not sure if they are woven in from another work of Gaskell’s”

    The two adaptations did incorporate some of Gaskell’s other works. The first mixed in Mr Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow as well as an essay, The Last Generation in England which many say is what triggered Gaskell to write Cranford.

    The second mixed in the storyline of The Moorland Cottage.

  30. Jennie
    May 26, 2011 @ 16:50:03

    @Katherine Cox: Thanks for the interesting information! I really should hunt up more of Gaskell’s writing (though I still haven’t gotten to reading N&S, yet!).

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