Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge (item 19).
Cranford is a warm, gently wry look at provincial life in the mid 19th century. On the surface, whimsical and twee, but underneath are knowing winks and nods to the foolish vanity of polite society. Elizabeth Gaskell loves her characters generously, and her ribbing is never other than gentle. Some characters are innocent of the hardness of life, others choose not to acknowledge it.
The book has a big heart. Miss Matty is the focus of everyone’s concern and is the gentlest soul who brings out the good in others.
The structure of society, particularly the hierarchies of social standing, are simultaneously important to Cranford’s residents and rules to be broken, with the genteel mixing with their servants quite happily. Intrigues and squabbles between the ladies who think themselves grander than they are, are described with a warm humour. Elizabeth Gaskell seems to be winking at us through the pages.
The book is set in the period I deal with at work, and gives a different view to that of commerce and innovation found in the records I look after. This is a society predominantly made up of women, and retired women at that. The narrator is a young woman who divides her time between Cranford and Drumble, the nearest large town. Drumble is based on the city where I work. As an almost outsider, the narrator is able to view the oddness of Cranford society with a twinkle in her eye, and others who appear in the village having experienced life elsewhere do the same.
Nostalgia can be a strange thing. The book made me nostalgic for something I have never known – the quiet life in a village at a period of great economic and social change, where life continues quietly, and residents are often unaware of the kind of events taking place in cities that would eventually bring in the modern era. There are no rose tinted spectacles. It is a snapshot of a particular way of life at a particular time in history.
Cranford is a warm hug of a book, but not one that smothers with sentimentality.