Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 21

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Cranford tells the tale of an oft-overlooked portion of Victorian population, the middle class.  Many novels of the Victorian era focus exclusively on the aristocracy or on the poor; Cranford, however, is similar to Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in that there are a few upper-middle or upper-class characters, but the primary characters are struggling just to survive in that solidly middle zone (or even in the lower middle-class). The ladies of Cranford put on airs, so as to seem far more dignified and “to do” than they really are. Part of the charm of the novel is witnessing these ladies hold fast to rules of decorum and propriety which would be best suited for lords and nobles, but seems rather out-of-place in their suburban neighborhood.  The story itself revolves around Miss Matty, a single middle-aged woman who is left to fend for herself, after her sister passes away, and their friend, Miss Deborah, who is narrating the story and who hopes to find a way to care for Miss Matty, when she is unexpectedly ruined, financially.  There are minor mysteries and slight intrigue, all of which are blown out of proportion by this community of old hens.

3 – Characters well developed.

The main character of this novel is not any one particular person, it is the community of Cranford.  The most interesting action takes place in coordination with various individuals or groups of individuals who come together throughout the tale – be it interactions between Miss Matty and her sisters (polar opposites in many ways) or between Miss Matty and her maid (who she has no real idea how to command), or between certain of the members of the ladies’ circle – be it Mrs Jamieson, the “Lady” of stature and leader of the group, or the poor Hogginses, who become outcasts for love (but perhaps not permanently).  The relationships between the members of this inner-circle are interesting and hilarious enough to watch, though there is very little growth or change from any of them (certain minor growths are hinted at, after Miss Matty’s fall, but nothing spectacular).  Still, this keeps the story realistic, on the whole.  The addition characters external to the group, such as the mystic-man and his family and, near the end, a long-lost family member of one of the ladies, also adds an interesting layer or two to the story, because it forces the group and individuals to react in their own (and in their collective) ways to new stimuli.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

While I found Gaskell’s language fluid and engaging, and her prose easy to follow and certainly well-constructed, the story itself seemed somehow rushed at times, possibly due to a disconnect or disjointedness in the narrative’s construction.  In the beginning, particularly, it was easy to get a bit lost – hard to remember, exactly, who the characters were and what their relationships were to one another.  The narration pulls itself together eventually, with minor slips here and there right through to the end, but all-in-all, the sense of humor and lightness of the story is matched in its prose, which makes for an enjoyable reading experience.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most appealing about this novel is its close scrutiny of a segment of the population that seems relatively left-out of popular Victorian literature (particularly the Canon).  Viewing life through the eyes of the lower-middle and typical middle-classes is somehow exciting, because it is uncommon – after all, what could be interesting about the “average” class?  The town of Cranford, though, is one steeped in tradition – taken seriously, yet not quite.  The narrator, certainly, seems to find the strictly regimented rules of society rather amusing, and with good reason.  In addition to the examination of class and society, though, are explorations of family, international relations, friendships, economics and world/local trade.  For such a small and seemingly simple book, Cranford and its ladies definitely surprise.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Victorian Literature, British Middle-Class, Family, Friendship, Love/Romance

Notable Quotes:

“I’ll not listen to reason . . . reason always means what someone else has got to say.”

“She would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior.”

–Cranford is book #120 completed for the “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” Challenge.

–Carnford is Book #3 completed for the Victorian Celebration.

–Cranford is Book #3 completed for The Classics Club.

26 Comments on “Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. I have not read Cranford but it is on my reading list for The Classics Club. After reading your review I am looking forward to it.


    • I will definitely be reading more Gaskell – I did like her style and sense of humor.


  2. Another book high on my “as soon as required reading is done” list. I did love North and South and this is on my Classics Club list.


    • I haven’t read North & South, yet, but I plan to! There were a few other Gaskell novels (later ones) mentioned in this text’s notes, which the editor said are considered to be Gaskell’s finest – North & South was not one of them. So, I imagine I’ll try to get my hands on at least one of those three (I can’t remember their titles, at the moment, and I don’t have the book with me) in addition to N&S.


  3. Cranford is on my to read list I loved the tv series and have enjoyed most of Gaskell’s works I have read so I look forward to this. I am tempted to buy 1001 books just to see how many I have read lol


  4. You make me want to explore this one. I like that you say it’s somewhat funny and light, and focused on the middle/lower classes. It’s on my club list, so I will read it eventually! 🙂


    • It was definitely fun and a bit silly – I like that it doesn’t take itself to seriously, though it clearly has purpose (social and economic commentary). There are so many references to Dickens, too (and a funny little interlude where there’s an argument between the merits of Dickens versus Dr. Johnson).


      • References to Dickens? I must read this! I’ve never read anything by Gaskell (in fact everything I know about her comes from Dickens biographies…oh the shame!) and your review sounds delightful. On my ever growing TBR pile, then 🙂


  5. Cranford was the first Elizabeth Gaskell I read and I loved the humour and thought ‘the ladies’ were quite delightful.


  6. I love Gaskell especially North & South. I enjoyed my reading of Cranford though I wasn’t quite prepared that it was more short-stories of the same neighbourhood than a full length novel. Nevertheless, it was an amusing read.

    The BBC series (I’ve not watched the whole of season 1 but…) is pretty good! However, you’ll have to note that it’s not strictly Cranford. I think it’s got another of her story mixed in it too but for the life of me, right now, I just can’t remember which!


  7. I really, really enjoyed this one when I read it (I actually had it has one of the very first readalongs at my blog). I found the ladies to be funny in their opinions and attitudes, and I remember chuckling quite a bit. I also loved that scene you mentioned with the Johnson/Dickens debate. I cracked up at the time since I wasn’t a Dickens fan and knew Johnson. 🙂

    I’m glad you enjoyed it!


  8. Actually I’m more interested in North & South or Mary Barton (I haven’t read Gaskell), but since you said Gaskell mentioned about Dickens in Cranford, now I get curious.. 🙂


  9. I read this book because I enjoy Gaskell’s writing (as well as the miniseries) but I missed a stronger plotline like in North and South.


    • That’s seems to be the general consensus! I do look forward to reading more Gaskell, particularly North & South, as that is probably her most popular work, and also one or more of the “best” three (her later works) that were mentioned by the editor of this edition of Cranford.


  10. I read this one when Allie hosted a readalong a couple years ago. It was my first of Gaskell’s books and my first readalong, so it has a special place in my reading heart.


  11. I have yet to read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell, although War and Peace has been forever in my sights. Thank you for the wonderful detailed review. It was helpful in giving me a full introduction to a book that I was not all to familiar with to begin with.


    • You’re very welcome! Although, I think you might mean North & South, rather than War & Peace (the latter is by Tolstoy). 🙂


  12. My best friend adores Cranford…both the novella and the BBC series made on it. She leant me the series insisting that I watch it, but sadly, I found it a bore. It’s made me a bit wary about picking up the book. But having just had my first taste of Gaskell and having liked it very much, I might not be too intimidated by this novella…I hope!


  13. Excellent, well-organized, and insightful review! I just finished Cranford for my third Classics Club novel. I loved the witty social commentary and friendship between the women. Such an entertaining and endearing read! I’ll link my review, if interested!


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