Many readers will remember the 2007 BBC TV series called Cranford. It adapted the novel along with some of Elizabeth Gaskell’s other writing into a short series. Judy Dench as Miss Matty is a strong memory. The book at the core of the series is this month’s choice for my reading group. We like to read classics from time to time, and I must admit that I had not previously read this novel. My only connection was with one episode of the TV series. But I am so pleased to have read it now for it is very enjoyable in its quiet and detailed way.
The novel began its life as a piece in Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens in 1851. Our Society at Cranford, as it was called, painted a quaint picture of a mainly female population, genteel but not wealthy, proud of its conservatism, and hostile to outsiders and change. Dickens rightly saw the potential in this first piece and encouraged Mrs Gaskell to write more.
A dozen more sections followed at irregular intervals in subsequent editions of Household Words. The whole was gathered together and published in 1853 as a novel. The manner in which Cranford was created determined its structure and its lack of narrative drive.
Change is a big theme of Cranford. The changes brought from outside the town include the railway, which sadly claims a victim in an early episode: Captain Brown saved a child which had wandered on to the track but was himself crushed by the engine. The railway brought closer connection to the nearest city: Drumble, standing in for Manchester, which was expanding fast, and bringing new practices such as the joint stock bank which holds Miss Matty’s meagre fortune. Travel allows brings other visitors to Cranford including the magician Signor Brunoni, actually a soldier called Samuel Brown, Lady Glenmire, and finally a brother returning from India.
Cranford ladies have their routines and traditions, and do not like them to be upset. The imperious Miss Jenkyns determines matters of protocol; after her death the task falls to Mrs Jamieson. She is thrilled when her widowed but titled sister-in-law, Lady Glenmire, comes to stay. But the lady’s engagement and marriage to the local doctor are deemed by Mrs Jamieson to be a great coming down for a titled lady. But this episode marks the beginning of a loosening of the rigid attention to status that has ruled the lives of these ladies.
When Miss Matty is plunged into poverty, her friends rally and make a secret arrangement to keep her more or less in the style to which they believed she was entitled. The loyalty, friendship and mutual support of the women is shown as a very positive aspect of Cranford.
In contrast, the ladies are quite able to whip themselves up into a false panic. They are convinced that foreigners or gypsies are haunting the dark streets of Cranford at night-time, just waiting to knock the unprotected women on their heads and to steal their belongings. It is quite clear that there is no such gang, and it is also evident that the presence of some strangers set off the panic.
The episodic nature of the plotline is a little confusing. The narrator, Mary Smith, is a woman who never quite comes into the light. She is younger than Miss Matty and her friends, but not a young woman. She has connections with Cranford, but lives with her father in Drumble, while making extended visits to stay with the Cranford ladies, in particular with Miss Matty. She knows them all intimately, their different foibles and qualities and busies herself with their affairs, but we never see her for herself.
Cranford is a quiet book, respectful of the foibles of the main participants, but strongly on the side of kindness, patience, and forbearing. It also chronicles changes to the urban settings even as the big cities of the industrial revolution were undergoing complete transformations. We are left in no doubt that those who adjust to the new in Cranford are the more open-minded and accepting.
Born in 1810 Mrs Gaskell grew up in Knutsford in Cheshire, the original town of Cranford. In her other novels she explored the effects of the industrial expansion of the 19th century on the people of the great northern cities. Mary Barton: a tale of Manchester Life (1848) and North and South (1854) were two such novels. She also wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë, and many other short stories and novels. She died in 1865.
The BBC tv adaptation of 2007 starred many well-known actors: Judy Dench, Imelda Staunton, Eileen Atkins, Julia McKenzie, Julia Sawalha for example
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1851-3. I read the edition from the Oxford World’s Classic series. 216pp