Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is a delightful novel, although calling it a “novel” doesn’t seem quite right, as it’s really more a series of sketches which only eventually settle into a conventional plot. It tells the story of a place, the small, isolated town of Cranford, more than it tells the stories of people’s lives, although it does plenty of that too. Cranford is old-fashioned, peaceful, beyond the reach of fads and fashions, and seemingly unchanging, although, of course, new people do arrive now and then, and people grow up, get married (or more often don’t), and grow old, as people must. Hardly anyone does any traveling, and London is portrayed as a far-away exotic place, different in all respects from Cranford, and by no means an object of anyone’s desire. People in Cranford like their lives and don’t see any need to try to make them any better.
As the very first sentence points out, the town is dominated by women:
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.
To call these women “amazons” hardly seems right, as they are by no means warrior-like or fierce. But they do keep their town going, establishing their own customs and habits — their clothes are forever out of date and their social rules different from other places — and they take care of each other, at least when they aren’t involved in petty feuds about such things as whether Samuel Johnson is a more worthy author than Charles Dickens.
The book is not all about the town on a general level, though; it starts that way, and then moves into the lives of particular characters. There is the narrator, first of all, who doesn’t live permanently in Cranford, but visits friends there frequently. We never discover much about her life, except that she has never traveled beyond the bounds of Cranford and her hometown. She makes a good narrator for the novel, as the inhabitants of Cranford ask her to visit whenever anything exciting happens, after which she heads home again, a circumstance which allows Gaskell to skip around in time at will, just giving us the good bits without having to fill in the rest or make awkward transitions from one time period to another. The novel is told in the first person, and the narrator’s voice is quiet and contemplative, as it should be to portray a place such as Cranford properly, but it is also sensitive to the humorous aspects of Cranford, and now and then gently ironic, showing the reader how odd and charming the place can be, but never criticizing or complaining about it. There were moments when I laughed out loud at some of the narrator’s observations.
There is also Miss Matty, who becomes more and more important as the book goes on; she is a sweet, timid woman, getting on in years but still dominated by the memory of her now-deceased sister whose strong opinions ruled her life for many years. Miss Matty comes to seem like Cranford itself — she has her quirks and oddities and is extremely old-fashioned and set in her ways, but she proves to have sources of strength in the face of trials she must face, trials that form what there is of the book’s plot.
In some ways one might call this a conservative novel; it celebrates tradition, stability, and permanence, and it explicitly contrasts the quiet, virtuous lives led in Cranford with the uncertain, dangerous, ever-changing world around it. It values self-sufficient community, where people live peacefully with what money they have rather than seeking riches and self-aggrandizement. The characters are also extremely class-conscious, carefully maintaining boundaries between middle-class merchants and the genteel leisured class.
On the other hand, there is something subversive about this town made up mostly of women. Yes, at the novel’s end money comes in the form of a long-lost male relative returning from the east, but throughout the novel, the women take care of themselves and each other, deciding on their own when they want to invite in some male help. Many of them are suspicious of men, and they clearly value their female-centered community and don’t want it disrupted. They are “amazons” in the sense that they rule their own little world, finding their fulfillment in each other. Men seem to be largely beside the point.
This is the third Gaskell novel I’ve read; at this point I’m looking forward to reading and rereading more.