Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

For some reason, I had the idea that Cranford was a long novel. I must have assumed that from a review or two that I read whose writers thought it lacked plot and dragged on and on. I was mistaken on both counts since it's actually quite short (138 pages in the edition I read), and I, for one, did not think it moved too slowly. Granted, there was not a lot of action, but it was still a charming story - a slice of life narrative in which the characters did mature, deal with adverse circumstances and unexpected joys, and moved beyond their comfort zones, if only just a little bit.

Cranford is a small English village that has remained untouched by the industrial revolution. There is no landed aristocracy in the vicinity, and at the time of this narrative the principal residents of the town consist of aging spinsters and widows who occupy themselves with keeping up their forms of society, in spite of their limited incomes. "There, economy was always 'elegant,' and money-spending always 'vulgar and ostentatious'; a sort of sour-grapeism which made us very peaceful and satisfied." (3) The ladies spend their days observing their self-imposed rules of etiquette by receiving and returning calls in 15 minute intervals between the hours of twelve and three. Their sense of gentility and propriety lend a great deal of superficiality to their friendships, and as a consequence their conversations were usually very trivial as they kept up their appearances and reputation and patronized the working class beneath them. It is not until one of their number is reduced in means that they rally to support her, even in her business of selling tea to make ends meet. Additionally, when a relative newcomer to their society marries "beneath" her and an unexpected family member returns, they learn to value friendship over matters of convention.

Overall, I thought this was a charming story. It was funny, in the sense that I first envisioned it something like a whole town of Mrs. Olson's (from the Little House on the Prairie TV show), ladies who are slightly pretentious and pompous and overly concerned to keep up appearances. But really the little old ladies of Cranford are very sweet and good natured, and it was satisfying to see their characters develop and grow with change, both for good and ill, as the story progressed.

The "Mrs. Olson" factor did give it the flavor of a chronicle of town gossip, and it seemed that the narrative wandered a bit both in characters and time frame. In retrospect, this was actually giving necessary background information, but the narrative did seem to lack direction until it settled on one character, Miss Matty, and seemed less gossipy. I do not like anonymous narrators (as in Rebecca), so I was glad that the younger visitor who relates the story was finally called by name near the end. It would have been nice to hear more of her story, but I'm not sure if Ms. Gaskell wrote more about Mary Smith.

I was wondering how such a small book could be made into almost 5 hours of a BBC miniseries called Cranford, but from what I've gathered that series draws upon two of Gaskell's other short novels in addition to Cranford (all published together in The Cranford Chronicles). I'm not sure if I have the patience to sit through five hours of bustling busybodies, but we'll see.

I did find it interesting to read that Gaskell's style is likened to the American author Sarah Orne Jewett, whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I just picked up because it was about Maine. I will be interested in reading it to compare with Cranford.


Sherry said...

I think you'd like the miniseries, but I did like the book better. I read Cranford probably 30 years ago, and it's been on my favorites list ever since.

Beth said...

I just recently listened to Cranford and really enjoyed the story. What piqued my interest in reading it was watching the mini-series. I was amazed that one story was written from three different books. I thought it was very well done and really enjoyed it.

S. Mehrens said...

I preferred the book to the miniseries, but that might be because I didn't know at the time the miniseries aired that they were taking characters and plots from another set of stories. I thought they were making it up as they went. If you like Cranford as the miniseries you might like the sequel which is airing this weekend (and last) and are available for streaming on PBS Masterpiece's website. Great review!

hopeinbrazil said...

I have only read one Gaskell novel, but hope to add this one soon. I, too, had put it off because someone told me it was slow moving. Come to think of it, I love slow moving books, so why was that a deterrent?

Anyway, I love Country of the Pointed Firs and am now reading Lady in White so I guess we have a few things in common. =)

Framed said...

I've thought about reading this for quite some time but put it off because I had heard the same thing, "long and boring." Thanks for setting the record straight.

Anonymous said...

I had the impression that Cranford was a long book, too. I enjoyed reading your review... Think I'll keep an eye out for this one.

Last year I read North and South and liked it.