I read Cranford a while back and really enjoyed it so I suggested it to my book club. They chose it for this month's meeting, and we met last night to discuss it. I'm always a little nervous when we discuss a book that I've chosen. I know I shouldn't, but I tend to take it personally when people say negative things about the book. If I suggest a book, it's because I really saw something worthwhile in it. When we read a book that I don't care for, I try not to be negative in the discussion. I will certainly give my opinion about certain aspects of the book -- characters, setting, etc. But, I never just say I hated the book. There's a way to give your honest opinion without being offensive. O.K., I know I'm probably sounding like a big baby right about now. I guess that just shows how anxious I am about choosing a book for discussion. I almost feel like I'm opening myself up for inspection.
Luckily, everyone in attendance really seemed to enjoy the book. So, I was worried for nothing -- as usual. In fact, several of the members had taken the time to do a little research on Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian era. Several others had editions with really nice notes and introductions. One even had a section on the fashion, which plays a part in the book.
I did a little research in preparation for the discussion and found quite a few interesting sites that are worth browsing. There's even a Gaskell Society devoted to studying Elizabeth Gaskell and her works. In looking at some of these, I discovered that Cranford is somewhat of a departure for Gaskell from her other writing. The majority of her other novels were considered "social problem" novels. She was very interested in trying to shed light on the problems of poverty, poor working and living conditions, and the plight of women and children in the cities and factories. Most of these social problems were due to or made worse by the influx of people moving from the country to the city to work in the new factories during the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Gaskell was married to a Unitarian minister, and they worked side by side in the cities trying to help improve conditions for people. Her writing was one way that she could help bring these problems to light. At the time, her "social problem" novels, such as Mary Barton, caused quite a stir because of their realism in portraying the lives of the workers. In addition, many of the owners were upset because of the way she portrayed them.
After publishing Mary Barton anonymously in 1848, she was soon discovered. Charles Dickens contacted her and implored her to write for his serial Household Words. This began a long professional relationship between the two. It's clear that they didn't always agree on things, but they both greatly respected each other. Cranford began as a single episode published in Household Words. She hadn't intended to write more, but Dickens begged her to continue the series. So, she wrote several more episodes that were eventually purchased and put in novel form.
In one memorable scene from Cranford, Deborah Jenkyns is arguing with someone about who was the better author -- Samuel Johnson or Charles Dickens. Of course due to her strict Victorian ideals, she believed that Samuel Johnson was a 'real' writer and that Dickens was pretty much a hack. This illustrates the old argument of the role literature should play in people's lives. During this time period, many believed that literature should be something that improved one's life and not something used for mere entertainment. In addition to Dickens, Gaskell was friends with many others in the literary world, including Charlotte Bronte. In fact, she was chosen by the family of Bronte to write her official biography.
This book pays tribute to a group of women and a way of life. The women of Cranford were still living by the old social order just as life was rapidly changing in the cities close by. Gaskell paints a portrait of these women that is both funny and tender. I highly recommend this book.
The only other book by Gaskell that I've read is Mary Barton, which I would also highly recommend. I want to read North and South, which is similar to Mary Barton in tone and theme.
The Gaskell Society
The Gaskell Web
Elizabeth Gaskell at Victorian Web
Works by Elizabeth Gaskell at Project Gutenberg
Elizabeth Gaskell on the Literature Network