I hadn’t read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell, though I enjoyed the DVD of Wives and Daughters.
This book was originally told as installments in Charles Dickens’ magazine, Household Words. That may be why there doesn’t seem to be much of an overall plot arc, but rather a series of vignettes into the lives of a group of ladies who are friends in mid-nineteenth century England.
At first, when the story began by describing how the community was mostly made up of women, I was afraid it was going to be a pre-feminist rant against men, but thankfully that was not the case.
The two central characters are sisters, Deborah and Matty Jenkyns. Deborah is the stronger of the two, and thus her influence on Matty lingers long after Deborah dies fairly early in the book. Deborah is firm and opinionated: Matty is sweet but easily confused. The story is told through the eyes of a frequent visitor, Mary Smith.
At first, honestly, I was a little bored with the book. But gradually I began to see the humor in various incidents and a little Austenesque poke at the ironies of life in those times, people’s foibles, etc. In one example, the ladies were visiting a Mrs. Jamieson, who had both milk and cream for tea time but gave the cream to her spoiled dog, Carlo. “[Carlo] knew cream quite well, and constantly refused tea with only milk in it: so the milk was left for us, but we silently thought we were quite as intelligent and sensible as Carlo, and felt as if insult were added to injury, when we were called upon to admire the gratitude evinced by his wagging his tail for the cream, which should have been ours.”
By the later chapters the book seemed more of a character study of Matty, who at first seems simple and unassuming but is gradually revealed to bear up under trials large and small, including the loss of a brother, the loss of a possibility, of love, and the loss of fortune with a depth of character, fortitude, and sweetness. Other characters in the book, as well, show strength and compassion in spite of their idiosyncrasies.
One of my favorite quotes in the book comes when one member of the friends is engaged, to the shock of the others. Maddy softens to the idea before the others and says, “A man has a sort of knowledge of what should be done in difficulties, that it is very pleasant to have one at hand ready to lean upon.”
This edition is a Penguin Classic with copious end notes. I’d so much rather they had been footnotes, because it did interrupt the flow of the story to keep having to turn to the back of the book, but I kept doing so, afraid I was going to miss something enlightening. I think there were a few too many notes, unless this was designed for younger students: some of its explanations seemed obvious to me.
I had wanted to watch the BBC film before reviewing the book, but I hadn’t realized it was a five part series including material from others of Gaskell’s books. I might look for it during the summer.
Cranford wasn’t spell-binding and didn’t leave me eager to add another Gaskell book to the queue, but it turned out to be a pleasant read in the end.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)