Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

PENGUIN BOOKS, 2012/1851-53

Cranford is an affectionate and moving portrait of genteel poverty and intertwined lives in a nineteenth-century village. One of Elizabeth Gaskell’s most beloved works, it centres on a community dominated by women and governed by old-fashioned ways. The formidable Miss Deborah Jenkyns and the kindly Miss Matty’s days revolve around card games, tea, thriftiness and an endless appetite for scandal, until change comes into their world – whether it is the modern ideas of Captain Brown, a bank collapse, rumours of burglars or an unexpected reappearance from the past.

As you might remember from my previous post, Reading Cranford in September read-along happened this month. I read Cranford for the first time a few years back, and this time the experience was different but at the same time comfortingly similar. Cranford tells the story of a small country village dominated by women. Men are not a fixture in Cranford, and the women prefer it to be so as they can “decide questions of literature and politics [without] unnecessary reasons and arguments”. Life in Cranford is quiet and comfortable, as the women have their own social code that is followed. However, world is subject to change and the novel looks at how this particular country village handles the winds of change.

What surprised me in reading Cranford was how much happened in such short number of pages. Especially in the beginning, it seems that Cranford and its women are constantly in movement, but still stay the same. This is one of the elements why many see Cranford as a charmingly quaint and sentimental – there is something very warm in the depiction of silly old ladies with tender hearts. However, there is more to the novel than that. Gaskell’s other works, such as North and South, were often set in industrial towns with a large number of characters. In Cranford the surroundings are the opposite, but the ideas are still there. The contrasts between rural life and the industrial towns, men and women, servants and aristocracy, all feature in the pages of Cranford.

Gaskell utilizes irony and wit in her writing, combined with intertextual references. One of the first debates of the novel is between Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown over literature – Dr. Johnson vs. Charles Dickens. Dickens was a friend and editor of the Household Words, in which Cranford was periodically published, so it was interesting to see how Gaskell placed her fellow author into the debate between sexes, between tradition and modernistic values. I know that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I still heartily recommend Cranford both for its heartwarming elegance as well as dry wit and social commentary.


— Mrs Forrester (after they had grown warm and cool again) acknowledged that she always confused carnivorous and graminivorous together,just as she did horizontal and perpendicular; but then she apologised for it very prettily, by saying that in her day the only use people made of four-syllable words was to teach how they should be spelt.


4 thoughts on “Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. This is such a great review. As you know, I haven’t read the novel yet, only the first few chapters. I like this idea of a village solely composed of women, who abide by the old rules, and hate novelty because it threatens the world they have so carefully built. However, I couldn’t quite get into it. North and South drew me in almost instantly whereas Cranford left me a bit skeptical. Maybe it isn’t the right time to read it, maybe I’m looking for something else at the moment. I don’t want to push it since I think it’s a book I might really enjoy…. And your review confirms that ;).

    • Thank you so much for your kind words! I agree that Cranford isn’t as plot driven as North and South, so it does take a little while to get into it. However, I hope that whenever you do read it, you will enjoy it 🙂

  2. Hmm,ok..
    How was the writing? A bit heavy? I mean did you feel that the words or plot were archaic?
    Because Gaskell is a Victorian author,I am not sure if I would like it…
    And the inevitable question: Which one did you prefer,North&South or Cranford? 😉

    • I wouldn’t say Cranford is heavy, because it is rather modern compared to other books published in the same period. However, I must admit that I enjoy North and South more simply because there is more of a plot in that one. Cranford might be considered more as a collection of vignettes that towards the end form a cohesive story.

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