First Impression: Cranford

Cranford & Other StoriesTitle: Cranford
Author: Elizabeth C. Gaskell

The chapters of Cranford were published as a series in Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens, between 1951 and 1953.

Date read: July 4th – 7th 2013

I will just start right with my thoughts regarding Cranford. The plot – or what’s there of it – will come, mixed within my review.

I always feel bad when I don’t like a classic book. I mean, there is a reason, why that book is still in print after a couple of centuries, sometimes even more, sometimes a lot less. But the fact remains; and it is that the titles from popular classics (from Penguin, for example) are exactly that – popular. Well-loved, widely read. In every generation. So whenever I don’t like a particular classic, I feel like an outsider, an idiot, for not loving that spectacular and brilliant work of that “famous” author! I always thought fame was relative.

I actually feel worse when I don’t understand a classic work, when I don’t get what the author wants to say with his or her book. Why was this book written, aside from the amazing story and/or characters? In such cases, I grab the introduction by some scholars who are much more knowledgeable than me and try to decipher the hidden meanings – and there are so many of them in one single volume! – behind the choice of words, the gestures or the lack thereof, the names and who knows what else. Then I always think, did the author really write this book with the intention of having all these elements discovered by the readers? Isn’t the debate of this very question called intentionalism?

Anyway, to start the review of Cranford, I have to say I: What a turbulent experience this book put me through!
Before I started the book, I was determined to like it, for I had read favorable reviews about it and, well, it sounded jolly. By the middle of the book, I was strongly inclined to give a very negative review. Now, at the end of the book, I’m torn. (The paragraphs above were written when I was in the middle of the book.)

Cranford is a town full of gentlewoman and very precious few gentlemen because most of the latter are “with [their] regiment, [their] ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble” (p. 1). So these ladies have a set of rules, one of which is, ‘even if you have to be frugal, don’t ever state the reason why. We know why, you know that we know, and we know that you know that we know. Anyway, always find an excuse for why you do not own new clothes or have to work home after a party.’
The town itself, Cranford, is modeled after Gaskell’s own village, Knutsford. At least that’s what I gathered from Professor Emeritus John Chapple’s introduction and footnotes.

The narrator, whose name we learn in the third-to-last chapter is Mary Smith, used to live in Cranford, from what I can gather, and she comes back to the town every now and then and stays with Miss Jenkynses when she does. But apart from her chronicles on Cranford and what’s happening there, Miss Smith has no life at all that she can or will tell the readers. Her life outside from her visits to Cranford is of no importance at all, a fact that irritates me because whenever I read a novel, I try to get acquainted and establish a relationship with the narrator. Failing that, I become detached in the whole story arc.

Speaking of which, there is no real story arc in Cranford. There is no build-up, climax and denouement. I like some sort of adventure or crisis in my classics, and what I don’t like at all is stillness, social hierarchy, all those rules and regulations and socializing, period.
All the spinsters and widows seem to look up to the highest person on the social ladder – first Miss Jenkyns as the late rector’s daughter and then, after the former’s passing away, the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson – to direct the rest of them what to wear, how to pay a call, what to do in certain situation etc. It was all so very tiresome. All the time those “genteel women” were trying to keep a strict line between them and those from a “class below” and all those things they couldn’t do or say because they were “genteel”! It made me mad.

What saved the book for me were the characters, especially Miss Matty and her kind, insecure yet good-hearted actions warmed my heart and made it impossible not to love her old, sometimes silly self. Other characters, such as prim Miss Pole, “matriarch” Mrs. Jamieson or bland Mrs Forrester, left weak to no impression on my mind. I am torn about the narrator, but that’s another matter for itself.
Some “secondary” characters (they all feel secondary to me, really) on the other hand blazed through the story, leaving stunning memento behind: Captain Brown and Miss Jessie Brown, now Gordon, Mr. Holbrook (A Visit to an Old Bachelor is one of my favorite chapters), Martha and Signoria Brunoni.

The plot kicked up for me when a real problem presented itself (not the excitement-over-circus and old-ladies’-scare-about-non-existent-ghosts-and-such kind of problem, both of which I disliked): Miss Matty’s investment was gone due to the bank’s bankruptcy and this dilemma threw the genteel ladies into action: Plans were made and rejected, a bucket of tears were shed, a wedding was to be planned, private and secret donations were made, and Mary Smith’s father made an appearance. This crisis made me polish off the last five chapters (the book has only 16 chapters, by the way) in rapt attention. I felt bad for Miss Matty – that a misfortune had to happen to her for me to enjoy the story – but I knew it’d turn out to be all good and I closed the book in satisfaction and a little bit of lingering regret, for I did not care much for the first eleven chapters.

Altogether it was an interesting reading experience and while I do not anticipate her enclosed short stories, I have not completely lost any hope that the other three full-length novels by Gaskell might be of use someday.

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