Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell


"In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.

I love the first line of this book. The reader knows from the beginning that this is going to be a fun book. Elizabeth Gaskell doesn't disappoint. There are some men in the story, but they remain on the sidelines. They are not essential to the story. In fact, that's quite the premise of the book -- men aren't necessary. Considering that Gaskell wrote this book in the early 1850s, this is quite shocking. During her day, women were expected to be dependent upon men for everything. So, Gaskell does something quite out of character within the Victorian period by fleshing out these eccentric women who are quite independent. The book was first written and published in installments in Charles Dickens' Household Words beginning in December 1851. The book is written as a series of vignettes as we follow the women throughout their lives. There really is not much of a plot, but rather brief glimpses into the lives of these women.

The women all abide by a very strict code of propriety. For example, visiting hours are strictly kept to after twelve noon. It would be unheard of to come to a neighbor's home before this time. The women also practice what is called "elegant economy." They feel it vulgar to discuss money, and everyone pretends that they have more than they do. For instance, they pretend that they walk instead of getting a buggy because it's a beautiful night -- not because it's expensive. They want to keep at bay any appearance of impropriety, which also extends to their household help. The maids are forbidden to have "followers" or boyfriends. One exception to this is later in the book when Miss Matty is older and her sister has died. She allows her maid Martha to have a follower, although it still bothers her. It's as if these women are holding out against the changing times. But, eventually they begin to see that change comes to all of us no matter how hard we try to hold it at bay. This is a delightful little book. The women are eccentric, kind, funny, strong and yet vulnerable. I highly recommend this one.

9 comments:

jenclair said...

I really am going to have to make the effort to read E. Gaskell! Every blog that reviews her work gives her a thumbs up. I think this one sounds like great fun.

Lisa said...

jenclair, I think everyone should try Gaskell at least one time. The only other book of hers that I've read is Mary Barton, which is very different but also very good. If I remember correctly, it's set in Manchester and focuses on the plight of the poor during the Industrial Revolution. So, as you might imagine, it's not a light, happy book, but I really enjoyed it.

litlove said...

There's been a TV adaptation of this on lately that I couldn't watch because I'm hideously squeamish and in no time at all there was screaming and kitchen table operations. You remind me that there is a very good book behind it that I'm sure I could read with pleasure! Thanks for the lovely review.

Dorothy W. said...

I've enjoyed all the other Gaskell novels I've read, and I've got this one on my shelves, so I'll have to make sure I get to it. It sounds great.

Lisa said...

litlove, I didn't see the TV adaptation, and from your description I'm glad I didn't. The book didn't have anything like that in it. I think you'll enjoy it.

dorothy, having only read Mary Barton, I don't know how much like any of her other novels Cranford is. But, I suspect you'll like it even if it is different from all of the rest.

Iliana said...

I really want to read this book. When B&N was having their classics sale earlier in the year I went to a couple of stores and none carried it. I'll keep this one on my wish list for sure!

Lisa said...

I actually read the BN classics edition. I ordered it online. It was a nice paperback edition. I always enjoy the introductions in these books, which add to the understanding and enjoyment.

Tara said...

I just read this too. I really like Gaskell - she is so readable given the time she is writing in. Don't miss Cranford on Masterpiece Theater! It is a compilation of 3 books, thus the surgical scenes , and was wonderful! Love the bookcase photo above.

Lisa said...

tara, oh thanks for clearing that up. I didn't know that the TV adaptation was a compilation of several books. I couldn't figure out why they inserted a surgical scene in the book I read.