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Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell 

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. 

Elizabeth Gaskell

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


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Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil

School stories formed a significant part of children’s literature in the early 20thcentury, especially schools for girls. Angela Brazil is one of the writers famous for popularising this genre. Joan’s Best Chum, published in 1926, begins as a school story, but develops into a novel about surviving without parents or income after the First World War.

This is the third post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. One theme is beginning to emerge. This is the third book in which parents have been absent. One could say that boarding school novels are predicated on the absence of parents. In this example parents are absent through death. Will this trend continue with books later in the series?

The story of Joan’s Best Chum

Joan is 14 and a keen tennis player. She wants to be in the school team, and even more she wants to board at Allendale School in Pemberton. She has an older sister Ursula, and brother, Rex. For several years Joan and Rex have been in the care of their sister, who depends upon a small legacy in the charge of their solicitor uncle. Looking to the future in post war Britain, Ursula sees that she will need to earn a living and so goes to train in the secretarial arts while the younger ones go to boarding schools.

Meanwhile Mollie, the best chum, arrives at Allendale and is nominated as Joan’s chum or buddy. She too has no mother and her father has only a sporadic interest in her. They have arrived from Australia and he leaves her in Pemberton. On her father’s death she becomes part of Joan’s family. When the boarding facility (hostel) is closed at Allendale School the girls have to live at home. But money is tight, the investments having disappeared, and eventually Rex runs away to sea and the girls move into the YWCA. The resourceful headteacher finds an occupation for Mollie, in Menton, near Nice. Here Mollie finds Rex and the truth about her origins.

It all ends satisfactorily with Mollie able to realise some worthy dreams everyone paired off. 

Being poor but middle class in the 1920s

Angela Brazil reflects on the independence required of young women in the years after the First World War.  

Ursula was working away grimly at the Commercial College, as determined as a female Dick Whittington to become a bread-winner and make the family fortune. She knew that post-war girls have to depend upon themselves. The old, easy, sheltered days of reliance for support upon fathers and brothers have passed away for all but a favoured few. The majority must shoulder their share of the world’s work, and trust to their own hands and brains. (54-55)

The girls in this novel all have spirit and determination, even if from time to time they become weary or depressed. The school ethos encourages this capable attitude, and there is no suggestion that marriage is the answer to the girls’ problems, or that any of the young women aspire to a husband.

The values that are lauded in this book include always telling the truth, helping one another, being positive, mucking in and so on. Joan wants to become a tennis champion, and Mollie is good with delicate young children. They all do their bit at organising bike rides, a special pet day, encouraging friends who enter natural history competitions and so on. The adults are resourceful in helping the young people to solve their problems, and have limitations themselves (school governor’s decisions, absence through sickness for example).

Loyalty to friends is a major theme, and is reflected in the title. A chum is a close friend, mostly used in the UK. The origin of the word seem to be in sharing rooms at Oxford University in the 17thcentury, chum coming from chamber-fellow.

The middle class world is very safe. Twice Mollie goes off to France. She has care of two children even though she is only 15. Rex disappears quitting his opportunity for a career as a solicitor and leaving a note lacking in all specifics. Even though he is only 16 everyone assumes he will be all right. 

It is also a stratified social world, and even though Ursula, Joan and Mollie are so poor they cannot give each other presents, a trip to the very poorest part of Pemberton points up the contrast between their lives and those of the slum dwellers. In France there are servants in the hotels in Menton near Nice, and women who look after the mules. 

Despite a very small degree of liberation (women over 30 had been given the vote in 1918) the world favoured men, and if they needed to work young women trained, as Ursula had, to work in offices, servicing the men.

Angela Brazil

This prolific writer lived from 1888 to 1947. She had written 50 books, mostly set in schools, by the time she died and many short stories. She did not write for moral instruction, and believed in a liberal approach and a certain amount of freedom for young women. As a result, there were people who sought to ban her books, but they were popular with the readers. Her readership came mostly from the UK. She had already published 29 novels since 1904 when Joan’s Best Chum  appeared. 

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil, published in 1926 by Blackie & Son Ltd. 320pp

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1930-1939. I plan to read Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.

Here’s the link to the first two books in this year’s Decades Project focusing on children’s literature, which were 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

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