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Saturday, October 29, 2011


(N.B. At the bottom you'll find the details of a great double giveaway provided by yours truly, MG, here at FLY HIGH!) 

"Miss Jenkyns wore a cravat, and a little bonnet like a jockey-cap, and altogether had the appearence of a strong-minded woman; although she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal indeed!  She knew they were superior" (p. 18)

You must be a great writer to build a masterpiece on tiny, trivial, ordinary events. This is what you discover reading this novel by Elizabeth Gaskell and what Jane Austen's lovers already know very well. Cranford  is the most Austensian of Mrs Gaskell's novels, mainly for its witty tone,  and  I was really glad  to read it  for this event Katherine Cox is hosting at her Gaskell-dedicated blog and to which I was invited: The Picninc at Cranford.

The Plot

The initial episode of the novel features an incursion into the quiet, provincial village of Cranford by Captain Brown, an man initially repugnant to Miss Deborah Jenkyns—the town's tacit social matriarch, a woman nearly obsessed with decorum and the rules of gentility. Brown soon reveals his thoroughgoing congeniality, allowing Miss Jenkyns and the town's all-female social elite to accept him and his two daughters. Following Brown's demise while attempting to save a child from an oncoming train, the aging Miss Jenkyns offers to look after his daughters. The younger of the two, Miss Jessie, decides to forgo marriage to her lover so that she may care for her elder sister, an invalid. All of this changes when the sister dies and Jessie finds herself free to pursue her engagement.
In the following episode, Miss Deborah Jenkyns has also died and the focus of the story turns to her sister, the lovable spinster Miss Matty. Matty has come to replace Deborah as the exemplar of morals and values in Cranford; as such she gradually attempts to change some of the isolationist attitudes that had been adopted by her sister. An adjustment in opinions toward men is already apparent as Matty meets her former suitor, Mr. Holbrook. When she sees Holbrook, Miss Matty discovers that she still loves him, and remembers rejecting him long ago because of her father and sister's objections to his social inferiority. But Gaskell shows that their chance at happiness together has long since passed, and Mr. Holbrook dies soon after the two meet. Meanwhile, Matty decides to allow her maid, Martha, to carry on a romantic relationship with a man—something unheard of while Deborah was alive.
The scene shifts again and this time Signor Brunoni, a magician, visits the town and performs his conjuring act. Shortly thereafter, news of a series of robberies spreads, causing a panic, and the Cranford ladies begin to suspect that the mysterious Brunoni may be the one responsible for the crimes. Later, Brunoni's innocence becomes apparent and Miss Matty steps forward to assuage everyone's fears and end the hysteria.
Sometime thereafter, Matty suffers a near total financial loss as the Town and County Bank—in which she became a shareholder on the advice of her sister Deborah and against that of her father—goes bankrupt. Confronted with poverty, Matty alights upon the idea of putting some old furniture up for sale, and later of selling tea to supplement her vastly reduced income. The community also comes to her aid as a secret meeting is called to discuss ways of helping the old woman.
Towards the end of the novel, Matty's brother Peter, who had disappeared years ago, returns from India to live with her. Soon Brunoni performs again to the delight of his audience, and things seem to have returned to normal in Cranford. The novel's narrator closes the story by paying homage to its heroine, observing, “We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.” (from
As Winfred Gérin states in "Elizabeth Gaskell. A Biography",  "Cranford is not only the most sustainedly witty of Mrs Gaskell's writings but the most relaxed in mood. It is a tale told without apparent effort in a style of intimate confidence, like gossip exchanged with a friend" (p. 124) Is this  why I read it with an idiotic smile printed on my face all the time if not laughing out loud once or twice? I just loved its humorous tone.

"Let me tell you about this dear delightful oddity of a place, practising idiotic but old world courtesies, because before long it won't exist any longer", Mrs Gaskell herself  declared. And the delightful oddity of a place came out of her memory: the  fictional provincial village of Cranford is in fact inspired to the place of her childhood, Knutsford, Cheshire. She was taken there at the age of thirteen months to be brought up by her maternal aunt , Hannah Lumb, after the death of her own mother.

The first thing you notice reading Cranford is this little world, closed to novelty and entirely dominated by the female gender. This aspect of the novel has been interpreted , especially by earlier critics,  as a kind of utopian vision of a female society which comically resists the intrusion of men. The evidence of this is in the opening sentence: "In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons", which literally means to identify a group of middle-aged or old women as warriors.
Patricia Ingham,  who wrote the introduction and notes for my Penguin edition, sees in that Gaskell's direct reposte to the most common  views of the age which thought women incapable of creating a harmonious society among themselves.  Gaskell presents  a case for the loyalty of women to their friends and for the ability to create loyal, deep bonds of friendship among them.
These bonds show themselves most strongly when one of them is in distress and they are not merely ready to give time and money but even to sacrifice their cherished prejudices to help and support the current friend in need  (i.e. Miss Deborah Jenkyns helps Jessie Brown, Captain Brown's younger daughter despite her argument with the woman's father since he preferred Dickens over Dr Johnson, which she considered an offence!)

Cranford - BBC Miniseries (2007)

The sharp, ironic, but also loving,  narrator of Cranford ,  who might  be said to represent Gaskell herself – is given the symbolically ordinary name of Mary Smith and her identity is revealed only a few pages before the very end, as if it were an uninteresting detail.

Propriety and decorum , nobility even in poverty, are the values that cannot be renounced at Cranford. They are mocked at but, at the same time,  they are seen with great respect.

Among my  favourite pages,  those containing the argument between Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown about their literary tastes.  Dickens had to change those pages before publishing them in his magazine, "Household Words" to avoid being accused of self - promotion. In fact, captain Brown's favourite author was Mr Boz and he was so caught in the reading of The Pickwick Papers that he didn't realize a train was coming ...
Charles Dickens substituted the title of his own first published book with that of a collection of poems.
Cranford was in fact written to be published as a series of episodes in Dickens's magazine in 1851,  then published again as a whole in 1853.

Finally,  a thought which might sound bizarre but came to my mind more than once while reading this  excellent little book from my beloved "Classics" shelf.
In Cranford' s  world of female power, I recognize  a  sort of revenge for all the Austen heroines who had had to strive and bear the wrongs of a male oriented society just 40 years before. As if they themselves  had grown old, retired to this little village and decided to do without men, apart from rare exceptions. Who could Miss Jenkyns and Miss Matty be then ,  thinking of all our beloved Austen heroines? Elderly versions of whom? I imagine Miss Jenkyns as an older spinster version of Emma, while Miss Matty somehow reminds me of  Marianne Dashwood.  Have you got any other better suggestion?

Miss Matty and Peter

“In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.”  (ch.1, p.1)

“As  everybody had this  rule in their minds, whether they  received or paid  a call, no absorbing subject was ever spoken about.  We kept ourselves to short sentences of small talk, and were punctual to our time.”  (ch.1, p.2-3)

“She would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men.  Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior.”  (ch.2, p.12)

“It is very pleasant dining with a bachelor.  I only hope it is not improper;  so many pleasant things are.”  (Miss Matty, ch.4, p.34)

“I’ll not listen to reason.  Reason always means what some one else has got to say.” (Martha, ch.14, p.129)

See, Mary, how a good innocent life makes friends all around.”  (Mr. Smith, ch.14, p.141)

“We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.”  (Mary Smith, ch.16, p.160)



Win a paperback + an audiobook version of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford. Just leave your comment + your e-mail address under this post. The giveaway contest is open worldwide and ends on November 10th,  when the winner is announced.


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