Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell


Cranford (1853) was first published as a series of sketches of life in Knutsford  near Manchester (fictionalised respectively as’Cranford’ and ‘Drumble’), where Eliz. Gaskell (1810-1865) had spent some of her childhood and where she returned, in 1832, on marrying the local Unitarian minister, though they soon moved to Manchester. The sketches, published between 1851 and 1853 in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words, were not originally conceived as a novel and in fact Gaskell was at that time concentrating on Ruth (1853) a much more important though probably less popular work.

The book overall is reminiscent of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1836) in its loosely connected stories and the gentle wit of its narrator. Gaskell’s narrator is a youngish single woman, and the period is some time after the end of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815). Queen Adelaide is mentioned which would make it 1831-37. I don’t mean to say that Mary Smith the narrator is Mrs Gaskell, just that the setting and times were well known to her.

The first two chapters are particularly rambling, and it would be interesting to know if Dickens commissioned them first, and then pressured Gaskell to keep providing more, and if that is how Gaskell ended up writing two books at once. In any case it takes her a while to gain focus but all the little sub-plots are more or less tied together by the end.

The premise of the book is that Mary goes down to Cranford from time to time to stay with Miss Jenkyns and her sister Matty (Mathilda), spinster daughters of the late rector – I was going to use the adjective elderly, but they are in fact in their 50s (late in the novel Matty is 58) – and through them mixes with the genteely poor ladies who make up the bulk of the village’s ‘society’.

Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man .. or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship ..

Most of the women have just one servant and their little economies are explained in some detail. Unlike Jane Austen, the servants are named and given parts to play, in fact the rough and ready Martha who is employed by the Jenkyns’s comes by the end to assume some importance (in the plot). Gaskell’s protagonists in the main are all one stratum down from Austen’s wealthy upper middle class, and she is also more inclined to dip one stratum further, to the upper levels of the trades – the doctor, farmers and so on.

Miss Deborah Jenkyns dies and Miss Matty becomes the central character. Early on she mentions in passing a brother who had joined the navy and of whom the narrator had been unaware.

“And Peter?” asked I

“Oh there was some great war in India – I forget what they call it – and we have never heard of Peter since then.

I made a note that I thought EG had made a mistake, as the information Matty claims she lacks was readily available and widely disseminated in the Navy Lists. Jane Austen, and her characters, used them a decade or two earlier (here). And MST I’m sure must have pored over them for the movements of John Macarthur (a lieutenant in the RN Marines).

It is probably significant that EG’s own brother, John was in the merchant navy, ie. not on the Navy List, with the East India Co. and was lost in 1827.

As I said, there are lots of little plots, the farmer who offered for Miss Matty, but whom she was persuaded by her sister to turn down for being insufficiently genteel; Peter’s loss in India; a travelling magician; a plague of burglars (though nothing actually goes missing); the widow of a Lord who marries beneath her and incurs the wrath of her former sister in law; a banking failure which leaves Miss Matty ruined. But it all comes right in the end.

It’s beyond me to explain Gaskell’s gentle wit, but like Austen she is quite capable of appearing to praise while actually crticising, and that adds to the enjoyment of this peaceful little slice of English village life.


Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, first pub. 1851-53 in Household Words. My copy Wordsworth Classics, not the Penguin pictured.

see also:
Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (here)

17 thoughts on “Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. This was the first of Gaskell’s works I read and I wasn’t all that enthused by it. But I wonder if the issue was that I was reading it in e version which often means I tend to skim rather than read. So most likely missed the subtleties. I should give it another go…


    • Unless you’re trying to get a better overview of Gaskell, once is probably enough. Though if you want a nice quiet read for that last stretch before lights out .. And she does show her claws, just a little, and not too often, which is fun.


  2. Read this at uni and haven’t looked at it since (although I still have that uni copy). I remember quite liking it at the time, but I liked the recent tv mini-series of it much more, starring Judi Dench as Miss Mattie.


  3. In the southern states of the U.S. women are fantastic at saying a compliment that is really something bad. “Bless your heart” is the standard, which basically translates to, “Jesus, take the wheel before I murder this idiotic creature in front of me.” I may be paraphrasing.


  4. My Mum (whose lovely old copy I have just taken into my collection in the last few days) introduced this to me in my teens when I fell in love with Austen. I loved it at the time – the gentle wit and warmth of it. Must read it again. I read a couple more Gaskell’s in my 20s and 30s (North and South, and Ruth) but have my eyes on Mary Barton as the next I want to read. I like her in her crusading role – sometimes! North and South is wonderfull. Ruth is good too. Her heart is in the right place about women’s situation but there’s a little bit too much of the Christian morality (understandable, given her biography) for the crusading to be as powerful as in North and South. (I think, anyhow!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue, I’m sorry for the delay. I’m working.
      That’s a lovely reminder of your mum. My dad didn’t know he was leaving me Walter Scott but it reminds me of him anyway. Mum? Maybe Green Mountain & Cullenbenbong which I’ll explain another time.

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  5. Earlier in quarantine, I picked up a copy of this one in a local free library that we were passing daily on walks. It seemed like just the nice sort of story I was craving. But, then, by the time I pulled it from the hallway onto the shelves, I was into other books and I haven’t recaptured that particular reading mood yet. As others here have mentioned, the mini-series looked good to me, and I do like to read the books first, so I’ll probably get to it before long. I’ve not read her other books but they’re on my TBR too. Maybe I will prefer her as a crusader as well.


    • Oops, I should have said Earlier under lockdown, when we were all to shelter-in-place but were still allowed out daily for exercise. I was just reading your post about being in quarantine and mis-wrote!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Cranford is definitely not my favourite Gaskell. I’ve read a few, but over a lot of years. North and South is probably her best, Ruth is important. Cousin Phyllis which I reviewed in 2017 (which I remember because I picked it up from a bookstall in Madrid and I don’t imagine I’ll ever do that again) is a romance but the background is Gaskell’s religion as a dissenter, which I found interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

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