Posts Tagged ‘Victorian Era Fiction’

cranford cover elizabeth gaskellCranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (Mrs Gaskell) ~ 1851-53. (It appeared as a serial before being published in book form post-1853.) This edition: Everyman’s Library, 1942. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 9/10

What a joy this little book was. I cannot believe it has taken me so very long to read it, such an essential part of the “English novel” canon!

Our narrator is one Mary Smith, a young lady of good family, who visits and corresponds with the good ladies of a small (fictional) English village, Cranford, in the early years of the 19th century. Round about the 1830s, to be more exact, from the references to Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers being then newly released in their serial form. King William IV and his Queen, Adelaide, reign over the land, soon to be succeeded by the young Victoria. The ladies of Cranford, though far from London in more ways than distance, keep a keen eye cocked on the doings of high society and the nobility, and form their own society accordingly.

In 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 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 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 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.  What could they do if they were there?  The surgeon has his round of thirty miles, and sleeps at Cranford; but every man cannot be a surgeon.  For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture in to the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody’s affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient…

The Amazons referred to are a select group of upper class ladies who rule Cranford’s restricted society. Spinster sisters Miss Deborah and Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns (rather elderly daughters of the some-years-deceased rector), the know-everything Miss Pole, snobbish Mrs Jamieson (sister-in-law to the late Earl of Glenmire, she’ll be happy if you’ll remember), and quiet Mrs Forrester (genteelly poverty stricken but held locally in highest regard due to her familial ties to the aristocracy) – all these ladies take the leading roles in Cranford’s major occasions.

Mary Smith frequently comes to stay with the Jenkyns sisters, and she is able to comment on the occasional village tempests. A certain Captain Brown and his two daughters, Mary and Jessie, settle in Cranford, and Captain Brown’s attendance at the previously all-female tea parties keeps the ladies on their toes, though he deeply offends Miss Deborah by his preference for the up-and-coming young writer Charles Dickens over the stately Dr. Johnson.

As the years slide by, reports from Cranford show us a peacefully microcosm in a gentle state of flux. Several characters move on or pass out of the worldly sphere altogether, several marriages occur, and a birth or two. Lady Glenmire arrives to the initial glee of her hostess, Mrs Jamieson, but soon confounds that lady by demonstrating some rather “low” tastes; nouveau-riche Mrs Fitz-Adam comes into her own at long last; a burglar alarm has the ladies all in a tizzy; and the failure of Miss Matty’s investments rallies the ladies to new heights of beneficent plotting.

It’s all very low key, but it is gloriously funny, and occasionally deeply pathetic (in a traditionally fictional way), and I am looking forward with interest to reading more of Mrs Gaskell, now that I’ve at last made her first-hand acquaintance.

And, last but not least, the Cranford references I continually come upon in my other reading will no longer leave me feeling quite so dreadfully ignorant of the original. Oh, happy day, indeed!

Yes, these women are stuffing a cat into a boot. I shan't tell you why; you will have to read the novel yourself to find out. But I assure you that Kitty comes to no harm, and the "operation" is a decided success! (You'll never guess it; it's a uniquely Cranfordian situation!)

Yes, these women are stuffing a cat into a boot. I shan’t tell you why; you will have to read the novel yourself to find out. But I assure you that Kitty comes to no harm, and that the “operation” is a decided success. (You’ll never guess it; it’s a uniquely Cranfordian situation!)
Illustration is from the 1904 J.M. Dent edition, illustrations by C.E. Brock.


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