STUMP » Articles » Weekend Book: A Sweet Traipse Through an English Village » 1 March 2015, 11:59

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Weekend Book: A Sweet Traipse Through an English Village  


1 March 2015, 11:59

In pre-Victorian times, natch.

I don’t know what inspired me to grab the audiobook of Cranford from the library. I was in the mood for listening to something new, and remembered someone, once, remarking favorably about Elizabeth Gaskell. I had a hazy idea that she was an author Jane Austen read, but the moment it started, I realized that Gaskell was much, much after Austen (and definitely had read her.)

The novel of Cranford is very light on plot, following the lives of a small circle of single middle-aged ladies (widows and spinsters) in an English town. When I learned about its publication history,) I realized why it started out very inchoate, and then resolved on a type of plot later on.

I understood the theme of shabby genteelness and social change in the pre-Victorian days (just before Victoria, as the monarchs referenced are William IV and Adelaide, Victoria’s parents.), but what caught me in the first chapter was the reference to Pickwick Papers, which I will write about another time. Perhaps this is how Mrs. Gaskell caught the ear of Charles Dickens, as he published her stories in one of his magazines. It turns out it was a very irregular publication, and Gaskell regretted one of the main events early on in the “book” (as it came out in chapters) – she killed off a character she realized would have made for a more interesting plot. I understand she wrote some other novellas set in Cranford, and those, plus the original story, were used to create a BBC series with some notable British actors. I’ve never seen that show, so I don’t know how good it is; however, I do know that many of the actors are excellent.

Back to Cranford: what I like about the story is how the characters develop over time – particularly two of the main characters, the narrator (whom one barely knows initially, and you don’t find out she has the very common name of Mary Smith til much later on) and Miss Matty Jenkyns, who seems like an inconsequential figure, especially as she’s eclipsed by her sister. But you realize by the end that she was the most important person in Cranford the whole time.

Being a middle-aged lady myself (though not single), I was very happy to see a novel told, very sympathetically, from their point of view. It is a gently comic novel, with the sort of observational humor one is used to from sitcoms and stand-up comics… and it works for the very same reason those do, and works better because the fun being made is not mean-spirited.

Even if you are not fond of plotless stories of middle-aged English ladies who have status anxiety, and very little income, if you are interested in social history, this is a great book. There is more here in how English country society worked than you would get in Dickens (who was best at reflecting London society, from high to low) and even Austen does not get into this much detail.

I am still wondering why Captain Brown was to apologize to “the quality” of Cranford for having carried a lady’s meal for her on a slippery Sunday, accompanying her from the shop where she bought it to her home. My only guess, given that it was a hot meal purchased elsewhere, was that the woman was lower class than the Captain and the shabby genteel ladies of Cranford. People may be surprised to learn that fast food predates McD’s — lots of people couldn’t afford their own cooking stoves, and had to have their food cooked elsewhere.

I think Cranford would be a great pick for an in-person book club, especially as many (most?) of those are populated by ladies of a certain age who may also find sympathy with the Cranfordian society.

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