The Classics Club: Cranford

Originally published: 1851; 1853 
(originally serialized in Charles Dickens' magazine,  Household Words, then published as a novel)
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Format used: audiobook  published by Tantor Media (2010) 
and physical book: Penguin (2005)
Length: 6.5 hours;  187 pages 

The charming adventures of the residents of the rural English town called Cranford. The narrator, Miss Mary Smith,  has moved to a town near Cranford, but visits her friends often, specifically the sweet Miss Matty Jenkyns. A quiet country town dominated by women and governed by old-fashioned habits and rules, this is a slow-paced, dialogue-heavy classic. Don't get me wrong: there are plenty of exciting things that stir up the Cranford gossip mill, including a mysterious magician coming to town, possible burglaries, long-lost relatives, and tragic accidents. But it is not as plot-heavy as other Victorian classics. Instead, it is a collection of vignettes, originally published separately in Charles Dickens' magazine, which can explain why some of the chapters seem a tiny bit disjointed. 
A scene from Cranford by Sybil Tawse (1900-1940). Source

My Thoughts
I enjoyed this classic very much. It didn't have any shocking plot twists, sweeping romances, or many young characters, but it was just so funny. Gaskell sprinkles some satire and wit in the dialogue that was very entertaining. At first look, it is a novel about a group of spinsters; but it is so much more silly and intelligent than that. It's a beautiful look at a group of neighbors who became close-knit friends despite their differences. It's a book about kindness and helping out a friend in need. And it's a book about societal norms and how they can be remarked upon with witty humor. 

If you are expecting a typical plot arc that extends the novel, you won't find it here. The novel reads more like random memories from Miss Mary's recollection, some follow a chronological pattern, while others hop around a bit.

 I love that this books is primarily about women. The men in the story are supporting characters that just further the plot. I have nothing against men in fiction, but it was just a different type of story for me. No big romance sweeping its pages; just women who love being amongst other women in a town primarily populated by their own gender. Speaking, of ... this quote about the town's predominant female inhabitants is hilarious:

“All the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his hip, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.” 

“A man,” as one of them observed to me once, “is so in the way in the house!”

Though not particularly affluent, the women made it up gracefully and humorously: 

“Mrs Forrester ... sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up, though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes.”

"We have always lived genteelly, even if circumstances have compelled us to simplicity."

“I imagine that a few of the gentlefolks of Cranford were poor, and had some difficulty in making both ends meet; but they were like the Spartans, and concealed their smart under a smiling face. ” 

My favorite character was the kindhearted, elderly Miss Matty Jenkyns. She is unsure of herself most of the novel because her older sister, who has passed away, was the one who was always in charge and aware of societal norms, so she feels nervous at times that she'll make a mistake somehow. She has a rather sad story: she is the last one in Cranford from her family and as a young woman, had to cut off a relationship to a man she loved because of her sister's disapproval.  But she grows through the novel to be more comfortable with herself and shows courage, upstanding character, and resourcefulness  when met with possible financial ruin.  I thought this visual of the Jenkyn sisters hiding out in their bedrooms to suck on their oranges was hilarious:

“When oranges came in, a curious proceeding was gone through. Miss Jenkyns did not like to cut the fruit, for, as she observed, the juice all ran out nobody knew where, sucking [only I think she used some more recondite word] was in fact the only way of enjoying oranges; but then there was the unpleasant association with a ceremony frequently gone through by little babies; and so, after dessert, in orange season, Miss Jenkyns and Miss Matty used to rise up, possess themselves each of an orange in silence, and withdraw to the privacy of their own rooms to indulge in sucking oranges.”

About the Author
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was a prolific and widely versatile British novelist (eight books), biographer (The Life of Charlotte Brontë), short stories (thirty-one), novellas (eight), and poetry (two).

I enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell's writing very much. She is incredibly versatile, from the affluent gentlewomen of Wives and Daughters (which is also on my Classics Club list), the middle-class women of Cranford and North and South, or the working class of Ruth. She tackles political and economical issues surrounding the Industrial Age in North and South (the only other Gaskell I have read) while Cranford was much more lighthearted, also proving she has the creativity, skill, and range. I have long thought of her as a blend of Jane Austen's romances with Charles Dickens' working-class social critiques, which is interesting since I recently read that she was influenced by both.  

Three of her most popular novels, North and South, Cranford, and Wives and Daughters, were adapted by BBC that stayed true to the stories, which is how I was introduced to Mrs. Gaskell. 

My Rating

Content Rating 
G (no language, sexual content, or gruesome violence)

Classics Club Stats
This is #3 of 55 books in The Classics Club challenge. See my book list HERE


Have your read Cranford or watched the BBC adaptation? What are your thoughts?