Friday, June 24, 2016

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Some books make your heart race like a shot of caffeine. Others, like Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, are as soothing as a cup of hot chocolate. Do not read it unless you are perfectly relaxed or you won't be able to appreciate these simple, witty vignettes of small town life in 19th Century England.

The novel centers on the lives of half a dozen spinsters who live in genteel poverty. (The Cranford ladies have only an occasional little quarrel, spirted out in a few peppery words and angry jerks of the head; just enough to prevent the even tenor of their lives from becoming too flat. p. 2) It tells the story of their bravery and faithfulness to one another in the face of life's trials. The main characters are Miss Deborah Jenkyns, and her sister Matilda. "Miss Matty" has always lived under the shadow of her strong-willed sister and defers to her opinions in everything - even after her death.

Although naïve about finances, men, and the world in general, Miss Matty has a strong sense of right and wrong and is unshakable in her integrity. When she opens a small tea shop, she is determined not to take business away from Mr. Johnson's general store. Before she could quite reconcile herself to the adoption of her new business, she had trotted down to his shop, unknown to me, to tell him of the project that was entertained, and to inquire if it was likely to injure his business. My father called this idea of hers 'great nonsense' and perhaps it would not have done in Drumble, but in Cranford it answered very well; for not only did Mr. Johnson kindly put to rest all of Miss Matty's scruples, and fear of injuring his business, but, I have reason to know, he repeatedly sent customers to her, saying that the teas he kept were of a common kind, but that Miss Jenkyns had all the choice sorts. (p. 219)

Miss Matty, while considering herself completely inadequate, is at the same time a rock in the community because of her unwavering principles and her kindliness. Although I was frequently exasperated with her lack of gumption, I was finally won over by her quiet dignity and moral equanimity. She is proof of what George Eliot wrote in her closing lines of Middlemarch:

“the good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and [the fact] that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life....”

Miss Matty and her companions fail to live up to popular ideas of success and adventure, but they infuse their uneventful days with the joys of friendship and sacrificial love. I felt quite privileged to catch a glimpse of their richly mundane world.

This quiet little classic has been made into a lovely DVD series, which you will especially enjoy if you are familiar with the cream of the crop of the BBC's actors and actresses. Judi Dench plays Miss Matty, and the wonderful Jim Carter ("Mr. Carson" from Downtown Abbey) has a small role.


Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

My girls and I are SLOOOOWLY making our way through the first season of Larkrise to Candleford, and this is advertised at the beginning. I think I have this book on my Classics Club list, too, that I've been working on for five years now. Anyway-I'm completely intrigued, and I hope that I can break the spell the internet has cast over my mind enough to enjoy a more challenging read like this again.

Barbara H. said...

I read this a while back and remember not liking it as much as Gaskell's Wives and daughters and North and South, but thought it pleasant. I'd like to revisit it and then see the series.

hopeinbrazil said...

Yes, Barbara, it's quite different from her other novels since it's not plot-driven. I did not like it the first time I tried to read it.