At first, I did not see the charm in Cranford, just the bleak existence of its primarily female inhabitants, and I wondered why Mary kept coming to visit the elderly Jenkyns sisters, stern Miss Deborah Jenkyns and her younger and more frivolous sister, Miss Matty.* However, as I continued to read and grow familiar with the cast of characters, I began to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the Cranford ladies as they balance the demands of their society and its gentle entertainments with their limited financial resources - and ultimately reveal true friendship and loyalty beneath the tittle-tattle. As Mary’s father points out, “See, Mary, how a good innocent life makes friends all round.” While it does not possess the vivid characters and memorable romance of North and South, Cranford also provides unexpected humor to offset the pathos: my favorite is when Miss Matty’s maid, Martha, proposes to her gentleman follower, Jem, who is stunned and says, “[M]arriage nails a man, as one may say. I dare say I shan’t mind it after it’s over.”
Of particular interest to me was that, as with many books of this era, including many I have enjoyed in their Masterpiece Theatre incarnations, Cranford was written as a serialization. Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton, had brought her to the attention of Charles Dickens, who encouraged her to become a contributor to his periodical, Household Words. I enjoy imagining subscribers eagerly awaiting the next installment.
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# In fact, this is very timely as PBS will air more Cranford episodes later this month.
* Contemplating the economies of the Jenkyns household, which included a pretense that candles were not necessary, I began to worry again about the demise of my 401K although reading literature is supposed to provide an escape from such concerns!