Book Review — Cranford (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

A fly-on-the-wall narrator is a dangerous device. In some cases, most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it is a boon, because the narratorial voice, the characters being observed and illuminated and the story unfolding are so captivating and curious that you not only accept but also appreciate the narrator’s taking a back seat. In others, where the voice, characters and story are not so gripping, the fly-on-the-wall style illuminates something else: that the author is drawing so deeply on their personal experience that they have simply neglected to create a character for the narrator. Sadly, for the most part, Elizabeth Gaskell’s broadly autobiographical work, Cranford, falls into the latter category.

But Cranford starts so strongly. Try this on for an opening line: “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of certain houses, above a certain rent, are women.” It’s a ‘strap yourself in’ moment that turns out to be something of a red herring.

What it turns out to mean is that Cranford is a phenomenon unique to the mid-1800s, a small middle-English country town effectively absent of men. Men exist, but they are ancillary, good for functional purposes like doctoring and financial advice but socially obsolete. Thus, the focus of the vignette-style narrative is the mundane goings-on of a small clique of elderly spinsters – Miss Matty, Miss Deborah, Miss Pole, and so on – who occupy the upper tiers of society, whilst also occupying a very low tier of personal income. Billed as satire (a toothless kind, by any standards), Cranford follows their quaint, ill-informed, moralistic navigation of social mores, poverty and interpersonal friendships.

That Cranford was originally published in serial form (in Charles Dickens’s Household Words) shows. The first half of the book meanders from anecdote to anecdote. None of the key characters forms clearly, despite the unfortunate and untimely death of three of them in almost as many chapters, and the narrator remains notable only for being more nondescript than the rest. As Patricia Ingham notes in her introduction to the novel, “Gaskell describes the detail of the women’s daily activities with pleasure: the frugal parties, the sedate card games, the polite visits.” The overall effect of this, delivered in a kind but not engaging diarist’s style, is to leave you wondering for how long this can go on as it began.

And then, wonderfully, when a prudish matriarchal figure has been retired and the cast has narrowed, a meaningful story emerges – the story of the friendship between the narrator (whose name, it turns out, is Mary Smith) and Miss Matty – and with it, characters to whom and a story to which you find yourself endeared.

It’s noted in the introduction that Gaskell wrote the book’s last three chapters as a “coherent closing sequence”, and this, like the opening chapters’ separated geneses, is evident. Gaskell closes in on the understated but resonant trials and intimacies of Miss Matty and her housemaid Martha, and the interdependent resilience of the “Amazons” of Cranford. Finally the marriage of the autobiographical aspects of Cranford with the fictionalised narrative vehicle, finds a story through which Gaskell, in the guise of Mary Smith, is able to elucidate what is truly special and timeless to her about these women.

It’s an impressive turnaround, and one I’ve just now decided to focus on in this, my last paragraph, instead of bemoaning the majority of the novel. (Because, for fuck’s sake, it was first published in 1853, and not every work of satire needs to be as biting, or as far ahead of its time, as Gulliver’s Travels – although big shout to my boy Swift for that rudeness.) In the last six or so chapters, the reader is finally coaxed into the home of a dear and endearingly unique old woman, an independent, proud and yet amusingly conservative woman, who when beset by new, unprecedented poverty and previously unthinkable compromises to her quaint but entrenched sense of properness, adapts with a charming, charitable and self-sacrificial ineluctability. Miss Matty, for all the vagueness with which she was previously described, becomes the subject of a palpable empathetic connection between narrator and subject, and while it’s not entirely Amazonian that her rescue (and the town’s) eventually comes in the form of a man, she remains the novel’s only true Amazon. When Mary Smith observes, “I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us”, I agree. That said, I don’t think it was solely for the sake of practicality that serial novels went out of fashion; continuity is a literary concept that should not be undervalued.

The No Man’s Land Reading Project so far:
#1: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) by Karen Joy Fowler

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