In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple comes to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. What could they do if they were there? The surgeon has his round of thirty miles, and sleeps at Cranford; but every man cannot be a surgeon. For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture in to the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everyone’s affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient.
So begins Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. This opening nicely foreshadows what is to come, as Gaskell lightly and gently describes the country life of the women, and occasional men, in this small English town. It quickly emerges that the ladies of Cranford are nearly all in tight to dire financial straights, and while they are ever concerned about living in properly genteel ways, they also make aristocratic virtues of the extensive lengths to which they must go to economize.
After this promising opening passage, I briefly rolled my eyes and thought, “Really, another 19th century novel of manners?” But then I came to appreciate the features that make this novel unique, and began to agree with its place in all editions of the 1001 Books list. This is a novel that deals with social class in gentle and observant ways, which acknowledges the gossip and small town rivalries that are inevitable in a social microcosm, but which also celebrates a tremendous spirit of basic human kindness that does the ladies of Cranford proud.
There is a section toward the end of the book in which a bank fails, and the behavior of one of the ladies involved and victimized by the failure is a lesson in ethics from which we could only wish that modern bankers and financiers would learn. I came to love this little book, after my initial skepticism, and am glad for my general commitment to seeing (at least well-reviewed) books through to their conclusions.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars