I got this one from a box of old books that a friend gave me some time ago. After seeing the brilliant series by the BBC a couple of years ago, starring Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Philip Glenister and so many other famous names (for full BBC Cranford Cast click here), I wanted to read the novel and see how closely it had been adapted. I also set it as one of my directional reading challenges in January, to read another novel by this author. This is my 3rd Gaskell novel having read Cousin Phyllis and North and South previously.
Written and set during the 19th century this story is essentially a character study of the genteel ladies who inhabit the small Cheshire town of Cranford throughout a series of happenings and local events. Narrated by a young lady called Mary Smith on her many visits to Cranford, she is privy to all the gossip while she stays at Miss Matty's, an old friend of the family as well as a respected and loved member of the community. A paucity of males in the town due to war, illness or old age means that the Cranford ladies have free run to visit, gossip and also to support each other. There are some men, but this story is about early-Victorian middle aged women of certain social standing.
The tone of the book is one of subtle and gentle humour that never fails to hit its mark. After a briefing on town etiquette as regards visiting others and acceptable topics of conversation, we are introduced to the ladies who form the bulk of Cranford society as they prepare for such things as a visiting magician, the protocol regarding a certain Lady Glenmire as a guest, contact from a former suitor of Miss Matty's and the threat of robberies in the local area.
Those who like a substantial meaty plot which progresses at a fast pace will be disappointed with this book. It is gently paced, about small happenings and the interest lies in getting to know the characters who are portrayed with warmth and more than a little satire in a small setting. It is all in the detail.
I really liked it. It is clever, witty and acutely observational. The time period is palpable and a delight. I grew very fond of the ladies, particularly Miss Matty, who lives in her older sisters formidable shadow even after her death. I also liked Miss Pole with her concrete belief in her own exaggerations. It is the kind of period setting that becomes very comfortable very quickly. I felt as if I was there with them, through the various interiors, taking part in town life.
An English classic which would be great for those who love the study of 19th century manners and lots to talk about for reading groups.
There is a free online version of Cranford if you click the link.
The Gaskell Society website can be visited by clicking the link.
There is even a Cranford walk around Knutsford in Cheshire.