Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell – Book Review

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Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell is a selection of shorts stories about a small village set in Knutsford. The village is dominated and ran by the older women of the village, who are either unmarried or whose husbands are away at work or in the army. Life within the village for these women is set by some very strange rules which they must all abide by. Such as no one can be called on until after 12’oclock, to talk about ones financial situation is a no no and they see no difference between themselves and the richer ladies of the land and court.

The stories within the collection are told by a younger single woman called Mary Smith (although we do not find out her name until towards the end as she is of little importance). Mary is an old family friend of the main heroine of the collection Miss Matty. Marys stories are often her recollections of the events that happened in Cranford while she was visiting.

Written originally by Elizabeth Gaskell in instalments in the 1850s. The majority of the stories take place during the 1840s and is told with a sentimental style as Mary Smith is looking back fondly into the past to tell these tales. We know this as she relates early on how she was still friends with one of the younger character when she became an old woman “The last time I saw that poor lady was many years after this…she was old and feeble and had lost something of her strong mind”. However the sentimentality goes even further as stories are told of the old ladies younger years, with tales of their childhood and courtships.

The sentimentally of Cranford is one of its overriding characteristics, with many fans of the collection loving it because it takes them out of the hustle and bustle of the modern world and into a slower pace of life. This is as true today as it would have been for city dwellers in the 1850s. From the beginning modernisation within the collection is seem as dangerous, with one of the main characters killed by a train, which has only just arrived at Cranford. “Oh ma’am!…Captain Brown is killed by them nasty cruel railroads!” Instead this a world that still holds onto old values and simple entertainment. In the evenings they sit by candle light and talk or read. They believe in helping one another and in decorum and honest talk spoke gently. With this in mind Cranford can be seen to be the last outpost of a soon to be gone old world. Gaskell takes this idea further with the ladies in the collection often referred to in mythical descriptions “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons”  and “They were like the Spartans and concealed their smart under a smiling face.” Mary Smith and in turn Elizabeth Gaskell can therefore be seen to be presenting a much loved by lost society that is greatly missed.

Although written in a loving style the book is also very funny, with sarcasm throughout. The most comical figure in the collection for me is Mrs Jamison. Mrs Jamieson is a widower with aristocratic pretentions. She’s a great snob, who falls to sleep at any gathering and the ladies pretend she has merely closed her eyes, despite the fact she snores. The story between her and her recently widowed sister-in-law Lady Glenmire is another piece of comical writing. Although Lady Glenmire is the social superior of Mrs Jamieson, she is more down-to-earth, genteel, intelligent, lively and sociable – the exact opposite, of Mrs Jamieson. The ladies of Cranford are at first disappointed to find Lady Glenmire is far from grand but, once they get to know her, they secretly prefer her company to that of their old friend, Mrs Jamieson. The comical conflict between these two character reaches it high when Mrs Lady Glenmire decides to marry the local doctor. This brings her rank down considerable and more embarrassingly she has to take on the comical common name of Mrs Hoggins.

Honestly I often found this book difficult to read, as it is of a very slow pace and there is little excitement throughout. There is also a lot of characters which can be confusing and the plot line is incredible loose. However it was saved for me by some very moving and emotional stories. For instance I found myself hating several characters, including Peter whose vindictive prank of pretending to be his sister while pregnant could of brought real ruin to her reputation and her family. Further when Peter runs away and the joins the army it is a tragedy. As although it turns out to be the best place for him, his mother dies of worry and his letters return unopened. This makes Peter believe all his family has died and therefore he does not return to Cranford for over 40 years. I also found myself greatly disliking Miss Deborah, Mattys older sister. As she prevented Miss Matty marring her love interest Mr. Holbrook, as she deemed him inferior. Neither Miss Matty or Holbrook ever marry and I personally believe Miss Deborah prevented her younger prettier sister from marrying as she knew she would never be wed herself, and did not want to be alone.

Overall this is a sweet escape book which can be picked up and put down when pleased and will give the reader a real insight into the past and the loving northern people who lived in it.

 

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