Cranford (1853)

by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford was written in installments in the 1850s for Charles Dickens's periodical Household Words, and in some ways it is more like a series of sketches than a novel with the traditional buildup to a climax and then a denouement. Nothing in the way of a turning point in the action happens in Cranford, and indeed there is little action. Cranford nonetheless is unified by its setting, characters, and sedate tone reflective of village life.

Everything takes place in Cranford, a fictional British village about 20 miles from a city called Drumble (Manchester). The genteel elderly ladies who are at the center of the comedy of manners never leave or desire to leave Cranford, a town that seems frozen in time. Male characters are peripheral, and some of Cranford's ladies even look on marriage as a misfortune. Never married or widowed, they visit one another and drink tea, play cards, and unmaliciously gossip. Gaskell — through narrator Mary Smith — gently satirizes some of their ways, but she loves these women, and generations of readers have loved them, too. They are not wealthy, but they live by a code of respectability, modesty, and kindness. In the kindest of them all, Miss Matty, Gaskell creates a model of charity. Gaskell concludes the book with Mary Smith writing, "We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us." 

This old-fashioned society might seem irrelevant, although as we get to know these small-town 19th-century women, they seem surprisingly familiar. Like every good novelist, Gaskell knew human nature. If you're looking for gentle company over a pot of tea on a quiet afternoon, you might want to invite in the ladies of Cranford.


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