Sometimes I am ashamed to remember my younger self. The self that read Cranford after the first round of North and South obsession. The one that thought “oh, this is a short story, so I should be able to finish this quickly”. The one that subsequently rushed through this and in the end never really thought it was about anything at all. I shrugged it off. I never took the time to even try to look beyond these stories about life in the small town of Cranford. Nothing particularly big and eventful (such as romance!) happened, so I had no clue what to make of this book, as much as I knew I probably should love it given how much I had enjoyed North and South and Wives and Daughters. It is not that I am frustrated with my former self for not seeing what I now love in the story – tastes change – it is that I never even bothered to try.
It is strange how perspectives change. Part of me wants to scratch that previous experience of Cranford from memory, especially since I took so little time to remember any of it. Can we pretend that this is the first time I really read Cranford? It feels like it is. And in the midst of that admission, let me add that I had the completely opposite reaction this time around. I was fascinated by the narrative in Cranford, and by all the different perspectives it offered.
In a way, yes, Cranford is about very little. There were moments reading it this time round that I was a little confused or distracted by where the overall narrative was going. Cranford is more a set of short stories about the same characters that start to depend on previously told ones more and more throughout the book than a straightforward novel. But here’s the thing. Part of me does not think that Cranford is about very little. Part of me thinks that this has to do with the expectations we have acquired regarding stories, about the characters and narratives that matter. In fact, I wonder if the fact that my previous instant reaction of dismissal, and this time around of slight confusion, is because Gaskell chose as her heroines people that we are prone not to consider heroic – of which, not accidentally, most are women. That she chose as her narrative that of every day life in a small, ‘inconsequential’ town. If this is why, as Dinah Birch mentions in the preface of the edition I read, Cranford is so often called charming, “a term that can imply condescension, but also acknowledges a magically compelling appeal.”
For me it was not just Cranford‘s window into a – indeed – charmingly, somewhat nostalgic, somewhat utopian, but never uncritical small town that made me love it. And that, through this window, we are shown that these ‘small stories’, these ‘marginal people’, actually are not all that inconsequential. It is also the fact that it was so humorous. The narrator, who begins as a somewhat impersonal observer but later becomes more involved in the story and is identified as Miss Mary Smith, is just at that border of disengagement and involvement in the town affairs that allow her to cast a somewhat sceptical eye, but never an unsympathetic one, on the things happening in Cranford. There were times when I giggled out loud. There were plenty of moments when I found myself smiling along with Miss Smith at the seemingly silly social conventions of Cranford and how they became so very real to the inhabitants.
Not just the humour, but the very warmth of the book turn this into a lovely comfort read. As I said, Miss Smith is just disengaged enough to make her observations funny, but at the same time this book exudes love. Love from Miss Mary Smith for the two sisters with whom she stays when she visits Cranford. The love of the inhabitants of Cranford for each other, and the way in which they take care of each other most of the time. And most of all, love for Miss Matty. It is not accidental that the very last line of Cranford reads:
“We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.”
By the end of Cranford I think many a reader will have difficulty not subscribing to that line’s sentiment.
However, there are other things that make me think this book might almost be my favourite Gaskell (I say almost because I wonder if anything could ever really replace my experience with North and South, even if perhaps Cranford as a shorter novel is in some ways much more balanced). I won’t delve too much into them or this post might turn into an essay instead of a blog post. A few short paragraphs then: [warning: mild spoilers from here on out]
First of all, in the previously mentioned introduction Dinah Birch makes a very interesting point regarding gender in Cranford. Not only is Cranford interesting for its status as a town “in possession of the Amazon’s, all the holders of the houses, above a certain rent, are women”- as the story begins. More than that, says Birch, Cranford holds a lot of moments when female characters display masculine qualities, and when male characters unapologetically adopt behaviour generally considered feminine. Role reversal that at the same time hints at an investigation of society’s accepted role patterns.
Second, some of the upholding of status, and the difficulties of economy, rang just a little true of today’s world, especially when it comes to the moment when one of the bank’s fall, people have to take personal responsibility, and there is a voiced doubt whether or not the board of the bank would feel the same social responsibility. Remind you of any stories in the media?
Third, there is the theme of class throughout the novel. In Cranford there are seemingly artificial and not so artificial rules of social conduct. People who others decide cannot be visited anymore, standards of behaviour that have to be held onto in order to be included in the circle of social standing, etcetera. As in other novels by Gaskell, I sense an ambivalence about this debate. On the one hand, through Miss Mary Smith, Gaskell gets to frown upon these rules. On the other hand, there are also moments when social lines are reinforced. Maids are, to some extent, taken for granted, for example. But then, that taken-for-grantedness does not go wholly silent. Miss Matty’s maid receives a voice, and is given agency, even if in the end it is mostly to help Miss Matty. I fell rather in love with the notion of reciprocity of receiving love and help from those who you have shown to care about. Cranford gives us a very warm picture of society in this manner, even if there are moments of harsh dividing lines and broken social reputations in others. I owe Birch’s introduction for making me think about this aspect of the story. I wonder if perhaps Gaskell’s religious vision plays a large part in this picture of society? Just throwing that out there.
Fourth, and last, I was intrigued by the role Empire and a form of Orientalism play in this small society. It is one of those novels where I, perhaps, would never have expected that subject to pop up. Fiction about a small town, with a highly domestic setting. Nevertheless, it’s there. It reminded me of all the reading I have done on the metropole-colony idea. At first it appears in the figure of Signor Brunoni, a magician, who by his appearance is made out to be highly intriguing, but also foreign, strange, and comes with an associated danger. Following his appearance there are rumours of robberies, and one of the ladies in Cranford mistakes a poor Irish woman for a man seeking his way into her house to rob it. Interesting enough, Gaskell here uses another notion of “Empire” in talking about an Irish woman (not sure how I should feel about that). Moreover, she does not portray this fear of the “unknown/different” as a thing that should be accepted. Instead, through her narrator, she rather ridicules it. Then, last but not least, Empire and the oriental appear in the return of a character called Peter, who entertains the ladies of Cranford with what Miss Mary Smith suspects are exaggerated stories:
“For my own part, I had vibrated all my life between Drumble and Cranford, and I thought it was quite possible that all Mr Peter’s stories might be true, although wonderful; but when I found that, if we swallowed an anecdote of tolerable magnitude one week, we had the dose considerably increased the next, I began to have my doubts; especially as I noticed that when his sister was present the accounts of Indian life were comparatively tame; not that she knew more than we did, perhaps less. I noticed also that when the rector came to call, Mr Peter talked in a different way about the countries he has been in. But I don’t think the ladies in Cranford would have considered him such a wonderful traveller if they had only heard him talk in the quiet way he did to him. They liked him the better, indeed, for being what they called ‘so very Oriental’.”
In summary: I am so very glad that I gave Cranford another chance, as I have known I should for years. This time around, it was not just its charm, its very warmheartedness and humour that made me fall in love. As with all of Gaskell’s novels I have read to date, she always offers a lot to think of for the cultural historian in me.
Other Opinions: So, so many.