Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Charm of Cranford

Cranford is one of the better-known novels of the 19th century English writer Elizabeth Gaskell. It was first published in 1851 as a serial in the magazine Household Words, which was edited by Charles Dickens. The fictional town of Cranford is closely modelled on Knutsford in Cheshire, which Mrs. Gaskell knew well. The book has little in the way of plot and is more a series of episodes in the lives of Mary Smith and her friends, Miss Matty and Miss Deborah, two spinster sisters.

But what is it about Cranford and its deceptively simple tales of country life that makes the work so appealing? It has been aptly described as ‘a piece of exquisite social painting’ … ‘tender’ and ‘delicate.’ Narrated by Mary Smith, a friend of Miss Matty and frequent visitor to Cranford, the lives, loves, tragedies, and triumphs of the inhabitants of Cranford are woven together seamlessly to create a tapestry portraying timeless emotions and choices.

The petty social bickering, cold shouldering and jockeying for importance in the village’s pecking order are outlined in a humorous yet pointed way—the author loves her characters, with all their faults, and is tolerant of their foibles while holding them up to gentle ridicule. In every community there is an arbiter of good taste, a setter of trends, a leader of public opinion, a foolish gossip, and all the other social whimsies that make up this colourful collection of characters. It is not easy to keep secrets in this closed environment, and as Mary Smith remarks, “It was impossible to live a month at Cranford, and not know the daily habits of each resident ….” Yet, despite the squabbles and occasional ‘no speaks,’ the ladies of Cranford would rather die than see one of their own fall by the wayside. It is this community spirit that inspires Miss Matty’s friends to decide to donate a portion of their annual income to sustain their beloved friend when an investment goes sour.

As a different kind of history book and one that very possibly the author did not set out to write as such, Cranford is actually an analysis of an early Victorian country town. The inhabitants are shaken and disturbed by inevitable changes such as industrialization, the advent of the railway, and other events that force an inescapable transition into an increasingly modern world.

The appeal of Cranford cannot be better described than in the popularity of the BBC drama series. The teleplay by Heidi Thomas was adapted from three novellas by Elizabeth Gaskell published between 1849 and 1858: Cranford, My Lady Ludlow, and Mr. Harrison's Confessions. (The Last Generation in England was also used as a source.)

A gentle, charming read, Cranford has much more to offer the discerning reader than a unassuming look at country life.

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