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.