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)