Project Gutenberg Ebook transcribed from the 1907 J.M. Dent edition by David Price. Extra proofing by Margaret Price.
The novel first appeared as a series of stories in 1851 published in Charles Dickens’ journal: Household Words. Gaskell had met Dickens a few years earlier and despite some personal differences, they shared a passionate interest in the plight of the poor as well as razor-sharp eyes for social satire.
Cranford and North and South are great examples of why I love this Guardian 1,000 challenge. I had no Elizabeth Gaskell consciousness before this and would have never read these books. They were fantastic! There’s about two more Gaskells on the Guardian list so I will be looking forward to those.
Cranford is a bunch of short stories unified by the characters of an eccentric little town especially its two main characters: the spinster sisters, Miss Matty and Miss Deborah. I was a little put off at first by the jumping around and shift in various stories; now I understand how it must have appeared in Dickens’ magazine where stringing a bunch of humorous little stories together makes sense. At some point after the first chapter this abrupt scene-shifting settles down and I was firmly rooted in the narrative of this little community. I wonder if Gaskell actually wrote Cranford for Household Words — or cut apart an already-fully formed novel. The University of Buckingham, U.K. has created a wonderful digital repository of Dickens’ journals: Dickens Journals Online so you could actually see Cranford as it was first published. Definitely worth a look-see when I have time later.
Cranford is based on a real town in Cheshire where Gaskill grew up and the stories have a warm patina that I imagine reflected her own memories of a beloved childhood home. Quite a lot of the stories revolve around the absurdities of social snobbery: the main characters wondering if it is all right to “receive” a former friend who has come down in the world by … shock!…marrying a local doctor. A down-and-out military officer isn’t quite considered “nice” because of his non-conformist views but he demonstrates great personal bravery and selflessness in a moment of crisis. And Cranford has many moments of real pathos: an orphaned girl denies her own chance at happiness in order to care for her dying sister; a beloved brother runs away from home after his lively and creative impulses are quashed severely by his conformist parents. One of the stories I loved the most was how a loyal and plucky maid servant schemes to financially support her genteel mistress who has lost her money – without the lady actually understanding what is going on and suffering the social stigma of depending on some working folk. All the stories are narrated by a mysterious “Miss Mary” ; you don’t know that much about her except she comes back to visit Cranford frequently and from time to time helps resolve various crises. I think this must be Gaskell, herself — for she is responsible for many wry and on-target observations about the various absurdities and follies of the “genteel ladies” of Cranford.
I loved this book! And I’m loving this challenge for opening up so many new literary adventures. I’m ashamed to say how little Dickens I have read so it will be interesting to compare his contemporary, Gaskell, when I start on the list of Dickens.
But first….some E.M Forster and probably one or two little detours!