Cranford is the first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I have read. It's a Victorian novel set in the small town of Cranford, that for various reasons has come to be inhabited mainly by women. These women are genteel, but on the verge of poverty, and much of the story details the routine matters of visits, family history and dinner parties. In some ways more of a collection of short stories than a coherent narrative, Cranford follows the fortunes of Miss Matty, a spinster living on her own following the death of her elder sister, as told by her friend Mary Smith.
It took me quite some time to get into Cranford. It's unquestionably well written, but it's a gentle, slow paced sort of novel that submerges you completely into Cranford life. The first few chapters are only loosely connected, and I have to admit that I was a bit bored with the day to day lives of the Cranford ladies to start with. There seemed to be no drama, no conflicts and way too much time spent worrying about keeping up appearances. But Cranford is a sneaky sort of book and as I reached the half-way point, I realised that I was enjoying it very much. It's true that nothing really happens for most of the novel, but the characters have a way of growing on you, and I gradually realised that there was more happening under of the surface of the ladies than I had given them credit for. Miss Matty in particular is an endearing character who it is hard not to like.
Cranford is really about the dignity that can come from living a quiet sort of life, in a community where everyone looks out for each other. The story does build into an overarching plot in the second half of the novel, and it's here that we get to see the characters come into their own as Miss Matty is faced with a problem. Gaskell shows that there can be strength in quietness, that women are as capable as men when facing life's dilemmas, that living a good and honest life can be rewarded. It was good for me to be reminded that you don't have to go out and achieve incredible things for your life to be worthwhile, that how you choose to live and interact with people on a day to day basis is just as important.
By the time I finished Cranford, I was a fan. It's not a book to pick up if you are in the mood for something gripping and fast-paced, more something to enjoy slowly, a reflective sort of read. I'm not sure if I will ever read it again, but it definitely made me think about the importance of the everyday.
The Classics Club: Book 26/72
My full list of titles can be found here.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1853
Edition Read: Rockliff Publishers, 1954 (and a gorgeous edition it is too)
Score: 3.5 out of 5