Cranford cover


Elizabeth Gaskell

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.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  State of the Nation titles

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.

Miss Matty and Peter from Wikimedia Commons:

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!

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell

Free download available from Project Gutenberg:

Other books I’ve read by Gaskell:  none, yet.  I’ve spotted at least three others on the Guardian list:   RuthMary Barton and Cranford.  Gaskell wrote North and South in 1855.  She was friends with Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte (whose biography she also wrote), Florence Nightingale and a whole lot of other famous Victorians.  She was the wife of a Unitarian minister and had a strong interest in the poor and disenfranchised.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  State of the Nation titles

Some quick thoughts about this book:

  • It is not about the American Civil War
  • It is modern and sexy.
  • It’s all about power to the people!
  • There’s some weird slang in this book — I guess the lingo of 1850 Manchester, England.  I could figure out most but in case you get hung up, “to clem” means to starve.

If you are put off by the idea of plunging into a Victorian Novel with a capital N:  envision sexy Richard Armitage or Brendan Coyle in the lovely 2004 BBC miniseries based on the novel, hold your nose and plunge in!  Or even— watch that first, or read this book as you watch.  Either way, you won’t regret it.  This book was written 160+ years ago and its ideas, dialogue and characters are as fresh and vibrant as any novel today.  There are no long sermons, Gothic passages in the moonlight or incomprehensible political references, I promise!

Briefly, the story goes like this:  lovely but somewhat naive Margaret Hale, who has been brought up in London as a lady-companion to her rich cousin, returns to her parents’ home in the South of England.   Margaret’s dad, a very idealistic and cool minister (he reminds me of an early hippy)  has decided that he must leave the church because he can’t go along with some of its precepts.  He moves Margaret, her mom, and their cranky maid, Dixon, to Milton — which is actually the real-life Manchester, in the North of England.  (Get it, North vs. South….).  They arrive smack in the middle of the Industrial Revolution.  Envision:  dust, dirt, smoke, lots of grubby scrounging peeps, tubercular factory workers, etc.  This move is a big come-down for the Hales — Mr. Hale cheerfully goes to work as a private tutor-professor — but this smoky nasty town is a major paradigm shift for the gentle Mrs. Hale (who has some sort of aristo connections), spunky Margaret, and the ever-whiny Dixon.   The other two families that feature in the book are the Thorntons — nouveaux riche factory owners and the Higgins — struggling factory workers.  Margaret develops a love-hate sexual tension thing with John Thornton, the young, ambitious factory owner and a touching friendship with Bessie Higgins, who is dying from some lung problem picked up working in the factories.  Bessy’s dad, Nicholas is a leader in the nascent Union movement.  The cool thing about this book is that it portrays all the classes of English society of the times:  the old, languid aristocracy (Mrs. Hale and her relations), the intelligentsia (Mr. Hale and his Oxford buddies), the industrialists (the Thortons) and the workers (Higgins and crew) and treats them all with intelligence and sympathy.   Gaskell is very in tune to the plight of the workers but she balances that with the struggles of the Thorntons realistically and fairly.  Margaret and John’s relationship is symbolic of the misunderstandings between the older way of life (pastoral, agricultural) and the new way (industrial, mechanical).  Their love story is sweet and simmery.  In turn, Gaskell also demonstrates that workers and bosses have a lot in common and can work together productively.  There’s a lot about labor and management in this book — but it doesn’t come off preachy or sodden thanks to Gaskell’s deft handling of plot and character

I really loved this book.  I loved its modernity and big message.  This was a great addition to my Guardian 1,000 challenge reads.  On to Cranford!

Richard Armitage as John Thornton in North and South. He said in an interview that North and South was a favorite read. Me, too!