My mother has been telling me to read Cranford for years. She read it at school aged fourteen, and could still quote from it and recall things she had been taught about it more than fifty years later. A testament both to Miss Tranter, her teacher, and Mrs Gaskell.
But I resisted.
“In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women. If a married couple comes to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week …In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. What could they do if they were there?”
For a long time I thought, well how entertaining could a story of spinsters and widows be?
Now that I have read it I have to say that Cranford is wonderfully entertaining..
It was originally published in a serial format in Charles Dickens’ Household Words. Each chapter stands as a story in its own right, but there are common threads running through that bind those stories together.
And those spinsters and widows are so beautifully drawn. The spinsters – Misses Deborah and Mattie Jenkyns, daughers of the former rector and Miss Pole. The widows – Mrs. Barker, Mrs. Jamieson, and Mrs. Forrester.
The story is of everyday lives of these women as they hold fast to their traditional way of life in a world that is caround them.
And so we travel throgh the social rounds of Cranford. Occasionally, of course, we are disrupted by some of life’s bigger events.
There is even the odd appearance by a man – Captain Brown, Mr. Holbrook, Peter Jenkyns, Signor Brunoni – though they never stay for long.
The wonderful narration brings everything together. Making the narrator, Miss Mary Smith, not a resident of Cranford but a frequent visitor was a masterstroke. She loves the village and its ways, but she is also just a little bit more worldly and aware of how the world is changing. Her tone is warm and chatty, and it is easy to feel that you are catching up with an old friend.
Cranford is a wonderful portrait of an age and a lost way of life.
My mother was right!