Few of the famous female writers of the nineteenth century demonstrated the range that Elizabeth Gaskell did in their body of work. In Mary Barton and North and South, the plight of industrial workers and the politics of manufacturing are front and center with hints of family drama and the sense of community that can evolve in densely packed cities. With Wives and Daughters, Gaskell created a compelling family drama among the lower nobility of the country and the relationships between parents, children, and step-relationships. Cranford is more along the lines of Wives and Daughters, taking place in the country among those who are well to do but still look in awe upon the proper nobility. But while Wives and Daughters looks at second marriages and blended families, Cranford focuses on the old maids of a small town, the spinsters who spend their days paying calls and passing judgment.
The narrator, Mary Smith, is the daughter of a family friend for the Misses Jenkyns of Cranford and visits the two older sisters frequently over the years. Through Mary Smith the reader gets a glimpse at the hierarchy of widows, spinsters, and matrons in the country town as they evaluate visitors, relationships, and each other. They support and encourage one another through hardships both financial and familial, as the echoes of their youth come back to bring unexpected life to their old age.
In the early pages of Cranford, the narrator makes a point of discussing how few men there are in Cranford when compared to the number of women. It is the support system these women, particularly the spinsters and widows, have created that is at the heart of the short novel. They provide one another more than simple companionship or amusement and they do more than just gossip about one another and the rest of the town’s inhabitants. Written over one hundred fifty years ago, Gaskell was showing the independence and strength of these women in a way that was amusing but not degrading or dismissive. It’s true that there is some naïveté and humorous character quirks, but they are far from disrespectful caricatures. Miss Matty’s generosity and insistent faith in the good of those around her is not something to be pitied, but applauded and awe-inspiring (something rare in the nineteenth century but even more so in today’s cynical world). Miss Pole’s gossipy nature and quick temper can come across pushy at first, but she proves to be quick to forgive and eager to take action when someone is in need of assistance.
While I love the politics that were interwoven with North and South and Mary Barton, Cranford is a much lighter and happier novel without them. It reminds me of one of my favorite writers when I was younger, L.M. Montgomery. It’s the kind of book you read to feel good about life. There are tragedies within the characters’ lives, but there’s also the acknowledgment that life must be lived and a way to continue can and will be found, an optimism about life that is missing from so many modern novels. It’s nice to be reminded that such an outlook is possible (and some of it can be chalked up to historical attitudes, the fact that it was before World War I, but reading it shows that it’s more than just historic circumstances).
Now I have to go find a copy of the BBC adaptation with Judi Dench to watch.