Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

CranfordIn 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 comes 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 neighboring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. 

I thought North and South was okay, so I wasn't expecting all that much from Cranford, another of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels. But I really loved it. "Gaskell's witty and poignant comedy of country-town life, a gently comic picture of life in an English country town in the mid-nineteenth century,Cranford describes the small adventures of Miss Matty and Miss Deborah, two middle-aged spinster sisters striving to live with dignity in reduced circumstances. Rich with humor and filled with vividly memorable characters, including the dignified Lady Glenmire and the duplicitous showman Signor Brunoni, Cranford is a portrait of kindness, compassion, and hope." Cranford was really witty, kind of similar to Austen, though it's set in a later period. The narrator occasionally comes to Cranford, but she is kept apprised of events by Miss Matty and Miss Pole, two full-time residents of the town.              

The writing is a bit dense, so although the book is short, it took me a bit to read. You just have to work your way through the sentences very slowly to get their full meaning. The book kind of rambles on; each chapter has a different topic. And yet, it is still reentertaining, much more so than North and South. Some of the chapters have these little reflections by the narrator on people's different quirks; I particularly liked Chapter 5, "Old Letters", which remarks on this and then goes on describe an evening or two spent reading old letters, before consigning them to the flames. Miss Mattie also recollects stories, both sad and happy, from her childhood.

I compared the book to Austen earlier; but it is really so different from Austen's sharp-tongued, cruel world of society, full of Miss Bingleys. Cranford is tranquil, and though there are fixed rules, everyone seems to always get along fairly well. It is not the story of young women vying for husbands, but the story of spinsters "striving to live with dignity in reduced circumstances." 

Just like Dickens and Austen, Gaskell's characters are brilliant; so interesting, and so easy to imagine. I do wish the narrator's character had been developed more; we don't even know her name until page 161, and we don't know how she came to be acquainted with Miss Mattie. I realize that the narrator is just supposed to well, narrate, and tell us of Cranford, but if we knew where she was coming from, it would probably be easier to understand her and some of the conversations. 

Still, that was a minor criticism, and I totally understand why Gaskell made that choice, which in some ways was probably good. Cranford is a sweet book, but it can be heartbreaking, funny, witty, genuine. All in one little book of 187 pages. It actually really astonished me, because I wasn't expecting to love it. I was hoping that I would like it, but I couldn't be sure of even that. 

There was nothing urgent about Cranford, yet it kept me reading. I wanted to see what would happen to the host of characters in this novel. Each new chapter brings its own little adventure. I would highly recommend this Gaskell novel.

I really loved this one, and I think I might read Wives and Daughters, another of Gaskell's novels. Also, her Gothic Tales (maybe). And I also want to read her biography of Charlotte Bronte. However, these reading projects are all in the distant future.

Read Cranford:
  • if you like Elizabeth Gaskell
  • if you like British literature
187 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

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