Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell is a delight of a book. I knew virtually nothing about it before I started to listen to the audiobook admirably narrated by Prunella Scales and I was captivated by this simple tale.
The book is narrated by Miss Mary Smith who lives in a nearly town with her father but who has lots of friends among the maiden ladies of Cranford, a small market town somewhere in the heart of England. Miss Smith visits regularly and keeps in touch with her friends and describes the events of their lives as well as what they think and the details of their petty disagreements. She has a wry wit with much irony in how she describes the ladies and their doings but at no time is she cruel – the narration has an air of affection at all times.
The women of Cranford seem obsessed with manners and how they appear to others but the novel shows us that many of them are living in reduced circumstances and that the whole town colludes to hide this fact. Many of them are living with unresolved issues from the past and secrets that they hold near to their hearts. As the book progresses some of these become more obvious, especially those of Miss Matty Jenkins who is Miss Smith’s particular friend and whose life changes substantially during the course of the story.
Although the book appears on the surface to be a witty description of social life in Cranford there is a lot of social comment about poverty, restrictions in relationships, class and the issues of being alone and vulnerable. Characters in this book die, are thwarted in love, lose children, lose their income and are orphaned. The book is positive and the stories mostly end happily but the author doesn’t disguise the fact that these women often live in difficult situations. The author has written a warm hearted book but it is rooted in reality.
The story is episodic but as the book progresses characters and storylines from the past begin to merge and form a single narrative. There are no big, dramatic climaxes but there is always something happening; in reality or in the minds of the inhabitants of the town. I was gripped by the story and found myself in tears at a couple of points when I wasn’t smiling. This book is elegantly crafted and reminded me of Jane Austen at her best although the subject is not romance.