Saturday, December 29, 2007

Review: Cranford

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Edited by Elizabeth Porges Watson. New introduction and notes by Charlotte Mitchell. ISBN 0-19-283209-3. Recommended.

Not a novel, not an anthology of short stories, Cranford is perhaps best described as a cohesive series of vignettes. Recounted by a young woman of about 30 from the city of Drumble [Manchester], these stories depict family, friendship, and love lost and found in a village dominated by poor but genteel spinsters and widows. ". . . all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women." Small, rural, and elitist in its way, Cranford is a place out of time, where faded fashions and proprieties still matter.

Gaskell begins Cranford with a series of descriptive statements. Some are accurate, while others prove to be ironic. For example, "Although the ladies of Cranford know all each other's proceedings, they are exceedingly indifferent to each other's opinions." While discovering Cranford and the Amazons who possess it, we also learn the dry perspective and voice of the narrator, who clearly loves the village while gently highlighting the foibles of its female inhabitants. "But I will answer for it, the last gigot, the last tight and scanty petticoat in wear in England, was seen in Cranford—and seen without a smile."

Like Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, Cranford is focused on gender roles and the different lives of women and men. The sexes share many characteristics; Captain Brown and Peter Jenkyns display the thoughtful, neighborly solicitude associated with women (with Peter going so far as to don a woman's dress), while Miss Jenkyns (the woman Peter impersonates) exhibits a manly will and resolution. It is the opportunities they have and the way in which they live that separates the sexes. Captain Brown, Peter, and Signor Brunoni have traveled and seen some of the world, and have even influenced it, while Miss Jenkyns, Miss Matty, Miss Price, the narrator, and their friends are constrained by their gender, gentility, and social code to hearth and home. Here, they perform their small household tasks, including ensuring that their maidservants are not disturbed or distracted by "followers," or interested young men. The social code that prevents any of them from working in "trade" also determines the hours that can be spent outside the home. "Then there were rules and regulations for visiting and calls . . . 'from twelve to three are our calling-hours.'"

In such a small, interconnected village, everything that happens is noteworthy, and every decision is important if the occasionally cruel social order is to be maintained. "The whole town knew and kindly regarded Miss Betty Barker's Alderney," whose fall into a lime-pit warrants Captain Brown's advice, "Get her a flannel waistcoat and flannel drawers . . .," so the narrator can ask the reader incredulously, "Do you ever seen cows dressed in grey flannel in London?" Miss Matty's decision not to marry against her family's wishes keeps the peace at great personal cost, and her wistful decision to allow Martha to have a follower recompenses her later when the outside world intrudes into her realm with its ugly realities—one of the many signs that Cranford must and will change. When Lady Glenmire renounces her title and takes the name of Mrs. Hoggins upon her remarriage, Cranford reels with shock and dismay, and it takes Peter Jenkyns, and his broader perspective from India, to reconcile the village and its de facto leader, Mrs. Jamieson, with the new ways.

The narrator, who divides her time between her father in the progressive world of Drumble and the slowly and reluctantly changing Cranford, finds herself under the village's influence. As an observer, she describes the complex set of rules that governs Cranford society and the social slights they necessitate, not without a sense of regret. She is aware of the absurdity of Cranford society's beliefs and behavior combined with expediency, such as the occasion of Miss Betty Barker's party for the Cranford elite. "'Oh, gentility!' thought I, 'can you endure this last shock?'" when "all sorts of good things for supper" appear. ". . . we thought it better to submit graciously, even at the cost of our gentility—which never ate suppers in general—but which, like most non-supper-eaters, was particularly hungry on all special occasions." More seriously, she pities Miss Matty and her lost love and life, and like her other well-meaning friends determines that she shall be happy.

With the arrival of Signor Brunoni and the ensuing panic over the perceived crime wave that seems to hit Cranford, the narrator loses some of her wryness and seems to become nearly as frightened by the rumors of strangers and robberies as her elderly friends. It is the new outsider, Lady Glenmire, who "never had heard of any actual robberies; except that two little boys had stolen some apples from Farmer Benson's orchard and that some eggs had been missed on a market-day off Widow Hayward's stall." Even while caught up in the panic, however, "I could not help being amused at Jenny's position . . .." When she speaks of Jenny's ghost, the narrator says, ". . . for there was no knowing how near the ghostly head and ears might be . . .."

Through the narrator, who seems to represent Gaskell's own perspective, Cranford pokes gentle fun at a time and place that had already become a fairy tale-like setting, where goodness outdoes pettiness, justice prevails over setbacks and hardships, and even the prodigal son (or prince) can return to set things right. In Cranford, Gaskell reminds the reader of a recent past that is both amusing and moving, a time to look upon fondly but without regret for the changes that Peter and the marriage of Lady Glenmire/Mrs. Hoggins bring about. The one constant in life is change, and in Cranford change is at least as much for the better as for the worse.

Saturday, 29 December 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

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