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Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

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Location: On the Banks of the Hudson

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post by Telynor » Mon September 29th, 2008, 3:59 am

In the last few years or so, I've been noting a resurgence of a writer who was very popular in nineteenth century England. Not quite as famous as Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell did find a niche writing about everyday people in the small towns and villages that dotted England's landscape.

Cranford is a slim collection of vignettes. Each little story explores a person, a gathering, or an incident in the past or present. Some are humourous, others are very poignant, and some just look at the life and manners of the time. In specific, to one particular group in the village.

For Cranford, as we are told in the opening sentence, is a place that is governed by Amazons. The Amazons are a group of elderly spinsters or widows who have fallen into genteel poverty, supported by meager savings left from legacies and inheritances. As a group, they inhabit nearly all of the homes of Cranford, deciding on questions of taste and morality, the correct behavior of servants, managing gardens, discretion in clothing and so forth. And where are the men, you might ask? Nearly all of them have fled, it seems -- to the military, to the navy, to the nearby city of Dumble (a stand-in for Manchester), frightened off, no doubt, by the formidable array of feminity before them.

As the 'leaders,' there are the two daughters of the former vicar of the town. Miss Jenkyns and her younger sister Miss Matty, have risen to a level of respectability in the community, leading their little bevy of companion in acts of charity, mourning, welcoming (and shunning) strangers, and even to such details as what is to be considered suitable literature. When we first meet them, the town has been sent into turmoil by the arrival of a retired military man with two daughters -- and he has the temerity to actually suggest books to Miss Jenkyns. Horrors!

But there is more to the story, and as the nameless narrator leads us through the various members of the village, there are stories that are humourous, such as when a string of burglaries occurs, or when a traveling magician arrives. Other stories are very poignant, such as Miss Matty and a collection of old letters, or when a bank in Dumble defaults and one person's savings are wiped out.

What makes this collection stand out is the level of compassion between the various women as their little world is shaken up by the encroaching Industrial Age, and their somewhat stubborn intent on keeping their village just the way it is. And underneath some of the bristly exteriors, there are acts of selflessness and care that they extend to each other. This and the humour that the author brought to each story, was what made the book for me.

I really don't want to reveal much more of the book as not to spoil it for anyone. The collection itself is rather slim, just sixteen stories of about twenty pages long. Along with the stories, there are extensive notes that have been added by Patricia Ingham, which really do help to understand the terms and usage of the language, and help to clear up some very unfamiliar terms. This edition has a cover tie-in with the recent BBC/PBS miniseries that was recently shown in the United States. If Epinions does add this edition to the database, I will move this review to the new location.

All in all, a very enjoyable read that is much lighter in tone than most Victorian fiction. Great fun to read, and to sigh over as well.

Four stars. Recommended.

Elizabeth Gaskell, with Patricia Ingham, editing and notes
2006; Penguin Group USA
ISBN 978-0-14-303941-9

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