Confession time again: I adore costume dramas. Bonnets, corsets, stiff upper lips – can’t get enough of them. Give me Downton Abbey and a nice glass of red in the evening and I’m a happy woman. Same goes for the books – the Austens and the Brontes and, of course, the Gaskells – so this was a bit of a treat for me; a not-so-guilty reading pleasure, if you will.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the above admission, I had already watched the BBC’s television version, with Dames Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins at their bonnet-clad best. The TV series was in fact an amalgamation of three different Elizabeth Gaskell novels, adding many more characters and incidents to Gaskell’s quaint and amusing tale of country life. Despite its smaller pool of characters, however, Cranford‘s pages still manage to hum with bustle and colour.
The plot – if there can be said to be a plot in what is essentially an entertaining series of loosely linked sketches – is narrated by Mary Smith, a frequent guest in Cranford, and primarily concerns the experiences of Miss Matty Jenkyns (the unfailingly excellent Dame Judi, for fans of the TV version). Daughter of the town’s late rector, Miss Matty was once a beauty but missed her chance of a happy marriage thanks to the interference of her family and has now settled into life as an old maid in Cranford, leading a modest and quietly refined existence alongside her formidable spinster sister.
Mary Smith is of that long literary line of narrators who tell us a great deal about their friends and surroundings but next to nothing about themselves. We do not even discover this wallflower narrator’s name until the novel is almost at a close, but Gaskell’s simple device cleverly gives us an intimate, unobtrusive window on the lives of the women of Cranford.
I say women, because Cranford is dominated by a set of memorable and fiercely independent female characters. When men do appear on the scene they are almost invariably bumbling fools, disappointing sweethearts or mere irritations, quickly passing away, upping sticks or fading into insignificance. The Cranford women have a rather dim view of matrimony; the only men on whom one can rely are family members, who also seem to have that unfortunate habit of dying or moving on to pastures new.
Miss Matty herself is kind, thoughtful, innocent and sweet almost to a fault – in short, the sort of old woman you’d like to have as your gran. Not a great deal happens in her quiet, sheltered country life, but the beauty of Gaskell’s writing is that it crafts perfectly formed, candy-like slices of narrative out of the mundane. In many ways, the succession of little incidents in Cranford remind me of Jane Austen’s Emma, a slow-burner that paints a vivid portrait of aristocratic rural life and was criticised by reviewers of the time for being uneventful. Now both it and Cranford are rightly recognised as delicious portions of nineteenth century life.
The various minor incidents in the lives of the Cranford residents are quite hilarious in their own right (try imagining a cow in flannel pyjamas without laughing) but it is Gaskell’s subtle and touching portrayals of women’s lives that are more fascinating. While life in Cranford may seem endlessly entertaining and in some senses idyllic, none of the female characters can be said to have entirely happy lives. They are all either widows or spinsters, struggling to live on modest means while upholding their all-important ‘gentility’. What Gaskell has achieved is a portrait of female life that manages to be beautiful without glossing over the warts; day to day life as woman in Victorian England, and particularly as a single woman, was not easy. In this sense Cranford deserves more recognition as a document of female experience in a time when women’s voices often failed to be heard.
So put on the kettle (or pour that cheeky glass of wine), settle down on the sofa and surrender to literary costume-drama indulgence with the knowledge that there is far more to this novel than bonnets and crinolines. And there’s always Downton Abbey for later.