Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Several years ago my friend Eileen Kendall, esteemed founder and patroness of the Georgette Heyer Discussion Group, recommended a new miniseries of North and South, based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, which she said was nearly as good as the Firth/Ehle Pride and Prejudice. Although I am fairly well read in 19th century literature, I had somehow never read Gaskell and knew little about her. Handicapped by being in the middle of law school and prescribed by an upbringing that prohibits multimedia prior to one’s having read the book, I mentally put Gaskell aside for several years. Last winter my book group read North and South, which I greatly enjoyed, so when I learned about the Classics Circuit of Gaskell, I was excited to participate and chose Cranford so that I would finally be able to watch the PBS episodes languishing for many months on my DVR.# I read the Oxford University Press edition, because I had liked the introduction in North and South.Cranford is the story of a quiet English town around 1850, which consists primarily of worthy older ladies living in genteel poverty. As in many comedies of manners, their primary occupation is discussing each other. Cranford itself is viewed through the eyes of Mary Smith, a modest young lady who pays frequent visits to the Misses Jenkyns and who is not even identified by name until late in the book (leading me initially to wonder if Daphne du Maurier’s heroine in Rebecca was not the first nameless protagonist).

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.

Thank you for visiting my blog!

# 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!


Rebecca Reid said...

I enjoyed the miniseries, so I'm looking forward to the PBS new episodes!

I too had a challenge in finding the "charm" of Cranford...I think I need to reread it now that I've seen the miniseries and can picture the setting.

Thanks for joining the Circuit!

CLM said...

Having had to read the last two chapters in a hurry (after I had begun writing my original post), I realized belatedly the "moment" when the book gels is when the ladies of Cranford tell Mary they want to share their tiny incomes with Miss Matty. But that is a long time to wait! Maybe I need to add that to my post!

Laura said...

I enjoyed the PBS series but am not sure I "need" to read the book! But maybe Rebecca has a good idea there, to re-read with the miniseries as an aid to the imagination.

JaneGS said...

I've been reading Wilkie Collins The Woman in White following the novel's original serialization schedule. After reading your post, I'm wondering whether the best way to read Cranford is to read Gaskell's original stand-alone stories rather than the novelization.

I enjoyed your review, especially the end bit about relating it to your 401k...:)

Maria Grazia said...

I'm so glad so many people are discovering Gaskell's work. She deserves it. I discoverd the Classic Circuit only after the Gaskell's tour had already been closed, unfortunately. Anyhow I've read much and posted much about her and her novels on my blog recenlty. I didn't understand if you saw the N&S miniseries your friend suggested you ...that's one of my favourite costume dramas! I hope you liked or will like it, too!