Author Elizabeth Gaskell
Genre English Literature, Classic
Publisher Heritage Illustrated Publishing
Publication Date March 17, 2014
Format eBook via Project Gutenberg
Setting Regency England, Industrial Revolution
Synopsis: Cranford, sometimes referred to as Chronicles of Cranford, was originally published between 1851 and 1853 as a series of vignettes belonging to a larger body of work by Elizabeth Gaskell in the magazine Household Words, as edited by Charles Dickens. The novel follows the lives of spinster sisters Misses Deborah and Matilda (Matty) Jenkynses and their bevy of matronly comrades who oversee the genteel standards of living for the society of this titular town. The narrative accounts are related by Miss Mary Smith who spends the larger share of each year living with the Misses Jenkynses given her unwavering attachment to the townspeople – though her family moved to and officially resides in the nearby city of Drumble for the benefit of her father’s growing business. Mr. Smith, an industrious man preoccupied with his work, rarely feels Mary’s absence, much to the satisfaction of all principal characters in the story. Mary, in turn, especially benefits from the female society Cranford affords since her mother passed away some years ago, upon whence, she has been left mostly to her own devices in her household. Meanwhile, the women of Cranford take great care to uphold all appearances of dignified living despite any pecuniary shortcomings. What unfolds is a witty commentary of a community that strives to retain the “old ways” despite any modernity the industrial revolution brings to their small town and a heartwarming portrayal of feminine friendship that enlists infallible assistance even in the face of irreparable tragedies.
Experience (some necessary spoilers): Honestly, I did not procure this book until I saw the 2007 BBC adaptation starring Judy Dench and Eileen Atkins last month. I never even listed it among my TBRs. The TV mini-series, however, was very enjoyable and so, as I never deny myself a comparative assessment once I have seen the adaptation of a classic literature, I began reading.
When, in the Making of Cranford, creator and writer Sue Birtwistle (one of the geniuses behind the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) confessed that the crew had taken many liberties while writing the script for Cranford, I did not imagine the extent to which this admission was accurate. If one reads the novel and then seeks any accuracy of narrative or characters in the adaptation, they will feel the discrepancies. However, if the heart of the novel were to be determined, they will discover that the adaptation has amplified Gaskell’s intentions. In essence, while the adaptation made unscrupulous changes to the original story(s), it made up for the one gross limitation of the novel, i.e. a structured plot.
Indeed, it was not until I reached Chapter 12 that I began to see a plot formation. Upon a bit of research into the work, I learned that Gaskell, due to her commitment to writing another novel, was quite irregular with the installments for this one, which must account for why the first half of the book chiefly details individual events in the lives of the various Cranford ladies without amounting to any particular direction in which the overall the story headed. However, the adaptation more than provides for a plot even though the scriptwriters often resorted to omitting certain characters by merging them with others, killing off some characters early in the series while keeping alive throughout the program others who were meant to have died as per the novel, and generally attributing the events of some characters to the roles of others. To wit, there was a lot of shuffling around; however, not always at a deficit. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the adaptation was better than the book but Birtwistle and her team edited Gaskell’s story whereas the original author had not.
Having provided you with a fair warning on book vs. adaptation, allow me to proceed to tell you how I felt about the novel itself. Despite the lack of structure in the storyline, both the subject of the narrative and the writing voice had me vested from the first page. In fact, it boasts one of the better opening sentences I have ever read:
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.”
For a feminist, this line would be of guaranteed interest and I can imagine the popularity the series would have garnered with its very first installation among bluestockings. Indeed, as Household Words aspired to raise the “affection of both sexes”, Cranford was ideal literature towards that objective.
Gaskell, herself, wrote of her characters with much affection, even though she was not impervious to listing their many deficiencies where soundness of logic is concerned, which may have been engineered to recommend the material to the male readers – or, at least, it prevented the reading from becoming wholly unpalatable to her opposite sex given how self-sufficient the characters were. Before the first paragraph is over, we learn that the men manage to find themselves out of Cranford one way or another (“In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not in Cranford”) because the autonomy with which the womenfolk conduct themselves renders any male presence redundant. As if to exemplify, early in the book, the one man who manages to infiltrate this community and endear himself with his unassuming and obliging ways, manages to get himself killed in an act of heroics.
The Misses Jenkynses, who are themselves daughters of the former rector of the parish, act as the moral compass for the community as well as regulators of the general decorum of their society. The women adhere to certain rules, which would not always make sense to outsiders but manage to ensure that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them and lives in harmony with one another. And while the older Miss Deborah Jenkyns passes away early in the novel, her guidelines are continued to be followed by her peers. So much so that the surviving Miss Matty cannot make most of her decisions without in some way counseling with her conscience as to what her sister might have done. In fact, it is one of the distinguishing traits of Miss Matty to second-guess herself and always reflect upon the inferiority of her mental capabilities in comparison to others because she was so determinedly steered by her sister in all things while the elder still lived. It is not until later in the novel, when Miss Matty begins to demonstrate a bit more independence in decision-making – albeit with temerity – that we begin to realize that she is the central character of Mary’s narrative even though so much of their lives is presided over by the spirit of the long-deceased Deborah Jenkyns.
Yet, the women are not without their individualities, from fashion sense to personal peculiarities. For example, Miss Matty always saves on household expenditures by burning only one candle at a time but would alternately burn two candles every day to ensure they are of the same height in a sense of “elegant economy” (since having two candles lit was the due riggeur) for the benefit of witness should they have visitors. While another character Mrs. Forrester regularly washed her prized lace in milk to obtain that fine creamy hue and once, when her cat swallowed the unattended lace with the cream, had even fed the animal current-jelly before stuffing it in a farmer’s boot so it could “return” the favored item, for such fine lace could no longer be procured given the nuns from the continent who used to produce it had stopped. And such was the friendship between the women in the community that such eccentrics were not laughed at nor even found wanting. In fact, I thought for a feminist herself who wished to demonstrate how well women could get on on their own, Gaskell was rather harsh towards her characters, ridiculing them more often than they did one another though there was plenty of inducement. However, such indiscretions on Gaskell’s part could easily be overlooked when considering how honest and consistent her portrayal of each character was.
Nonetheless, as the story progresses, the true intent of the author becomes more visible and the reader may realize that amidst all the satire, Gaskell’s message from the town of Cranford is related by how Miss Matty continues to remain a paragon of goodness and kindliness even in the face of adversity, which without fail manages to bring about the best qualities in others. We see, in an hour of need, the devotion with which other characters come to her aid, self-sacrificing without hesitation, simply founded on an assurance that, if situations were reversed, Miss Matty would have happily ransomed every single one of her comfort to benefit another. Even individuals outside their immediate social circle is fully aware of Miss Matty’s eternally benevolent heart and childlike expectation of others to do only good, ensuring that they mirror the same qualities – at least in their deeds towards her. As Mary’s father, upon learning how Miss Matty’s friends rally around her, aptly explains:
See, Mary, how a good, innocent life makes friends all around. Confound it! I could make a good lesson out of it if I were a person; but, as it is, I can’t get a tail to my sentences–only I’m sure you feel what I want to say.”
And Mary, who grows into a woman under the unconscious counsel of this woman, too emulates to think of others before herself, particularly resourcing ways to make Miss Matty happy one of her priorities, faithfully concludes:
We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.”
Recommendation: There is nothing I love more than a story that depicts the wholesome traits of humanity and this book had this in many folds. I recommend the read to anyone who feels the need to restore their faith in the goodness of mankind and a reminder that kindness begets kindness.