In the village of Cranford, decorum is maintained at all times. Despite their poverty, the ladies are never vulgar about money (or their lack of it), and always follow the rules of propriety. But this discretion and gentility does not keep away tragedy; and when the worst happens, the Amazons of Cranford show the true strength of their honest affections. A masterpiece of social comedy, Cranford is as moving as it is funny, and as sharp as it is tender. Find out more about Cranford below.
6 CDs | Running Time: 7h 02m | ISBN: 978-962-634-850-5 | Cat. no.: NA685012 | RRP: £19.99RRP:£19.99 GBPSRP: US $ 34.98RRP:£19.99 GBP
When it was published, and for quite some time afterwards, Cranford was described as charming, delightful, a refreshing escape from the cares of life, a gentle satire. It was in effect dismissed with patronising praise for its femininity. To some extent, its author has suffered in a similar fashion, her literary and socio-literary skills being overwhelmed by the saccharine thrown over the books by those praising her tenderness. In short, Elizabeth Stevenson (1810–1865) was sidelined by history because of her sex and the expectations of her time.
The author of North and South (1855), Ruth (1853) and Wives and Daughters (1865) contributed in part to her own anonymity. Her first novel was published without a name (although this was not unusual) but significantly, when she became known as a writer, she signed herself Mrs Gaskell, thereby not only assuming the name of her husband but quashing what remained of her own individuality under the marital title, too. The sharp, ironic, loving narrator of Cranford (1853) – who might fairly be said to represent Elizabeth – is given the almost symbolically indeterminate name of Mary Smith. Such concerns for convention and self-negation seem wildly inappropriate for a writer whose many and vastly differing works contain impassioned and deeply humane concerns for the welfare of the working class, sympathy for those normally considered beyond compassion and calls for social reform combined with a delicacy of understanding and a sense of humour that should rightfully place her alongside Austen and Dickens.
Dickens was one of those – along with Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Ruskin, Eliot and Carlyle – who recognised her talent. They had all been struck with Mary Barton, and Dickens essentially told the author that he would be happy to serialise her next work in his magazine as when she could provide it. Cranford was the result, and in it, Stevenson/Gaskell moved away from the urban life she had come to know in Manchester (and had written so powerfully about in Mary Barton) and returned to her youth, creating in the lightly fictionalised Cranford a memoir of her time in Knutsford in Cheshire.
She had been born in London, but her father – a teacher, preacher, boarding-house keeper and keeper of records at the Treasury – could not look after her himself when her mother died, so he sent her to live with Hannah Lumb, his sister. Elizabeth grew to be beautiful and to possess that sweetness of manner so admired by Victorian men. But beneath this exterior were a heart and mind of conviction and purpose. She shared her father’s strong Unitarian faith, becoming a Sunday school teacher herself; and her future husband – William Gaskell – was also a Unitarian minister. Through him, she found herself working with his parishioners in Manchester, and it was here that she first encountered what poverty and cruelty the new industrial revolution could visit upon its workers. She became involved in various charitable schemes, but also pushed for far-reaching social reform, a theme she pursued in her fiction. She seems to have started writing in an attempt to distract herself from the death of her first child, an incident that echoes her parents’ losses – they had eight children, but only two survived. When Elizabeth’s brother died, lost at sea, she went home to nurse her father through a depression that eventually killed him. This tragedy is also given a fictional counterpart in Cranford with the disappearance of Peter Jenkyns and the effect on his mother and father of his running away to sea.
Cranford itself is a series of short stories based on the lives of a group of middle-aged to elderly widows and spinsters, living in a deliberately unfashionable manner in a village twenty miles from the industrial town called Drumble (in reality Manchester). It details their lives – the rules for calling upon each other, the delicate social distinctions, their games of cards, their evident poverty and their genteel discretion about it – and reports upon the small delights and minor catastrophes that fill their days. They are told in a beautifully judged understatement in the first person by a younger lady, Mary Smith, who is the friend of Miss Matty. In style and intention it is a comprehensive shift from the industrial world Gaskell had outlined before, but among her many strengths was an ability to write in many different manners, such as ghost stories, full-scale novels, romances and a widely acclaimed biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë. While Cranford is in some senses nostalgic, it is written in the full knowledge that change is coming to the good people of the village whether they like it or not, and is surprisingly unafraid to shock (deaths and bankruptcies for particular example).
At the same time, for all the delicacy with which it reports on the characters, it is full of satire and authorial asides that are as enlightening as they are entertaining. One character’s method of eating is tellingly described as being not unlike a cow’s; another is represented as being like a sulky cockatoo. It is brimming with understanding of the essential moral goodness of the people while never allowing this to become sentimental or cloying, and it achieves this because its sympathies are never overlaid with any kind of improving precept or idealisation. As a result, any misfortunes are not only unexpected but extremely moving, and the understated response to them all the more affecting. These are not people behaving according to a template of acceptable behaviour, but doing what they believe to be right, despite the cost to themselves and in marked distinction to the prevailing capitalist ethics to be found just up the road in Drumble. There are also moments of extraordinary stylistic invention, sequences where the narrative becomes almost stream-of-consciousness in its fluidity.
Cranford has the right to be regarded as a classic piece of social comedy, considered alongside England, Their England, for example. But with its unusual narrative structure, rich characterisation, ironic detachment, lightness of touch and ability to move readers with what could have been regarded as the minor afflictions of the upper-middle classes (never the easiest group to render sympathetically), it also deserves to be considered one of the finest pieces of short fiction in English. It is indeed charming, delightful and tender. But it is also astute, intelligent and poignant, as those who knew Elizabeth Stevenson should have realised.
Welcome to the quiet backwater of Cranford. The women are in charge, because the men mostly have business elsewhere. So the desperate gentlewomen keep busy sublimating more basic urges into a passion for Victorian social niceties. Clare Wille is delightfully warm and compassionate as the young narrator Mary Smith, fondly recounting the “elegant economies” of her Cranford circle of spinsters and widows. Yet neither Mary’s narrow field of focus nor the delicacy of her humour preclude sharp observations about the frailties of human nature or warnings of the disruption that events in the wider world are about to visit on her unsuspecting friends. The plotlines – a mésalliance between a titled lady and one of the town’s few virile men, a financial scandal, a beturbanned magician, a prodigal’s return – were probably pretty sensational when the novel was first published, but are most important as the frame on which Gaskell constructs a beguiling picture of a dying society. The BBC 1 costume-drama version shouldn’t put Wille’s telling of the original in the shade.
Karen Robinson, The Sunday Times
Done that, been there, seen the TV serial, got the T-shirt (Miss Matty is the lick), but have you read the book? The problem with screen adaptations of period pieces is that they inevitably fall into the same trap. Put a theatrical dame into a bonnet and willy-nilly, no matter how many Baftas she’s bagged, she becomes a pantomime dame. Cranford wasn’t inhabited exclusively by daft old biddies wearing bonnets, shawls and frozen expressions of scandalised incredulity; Mrs Gaskell wrote about real people – some, admittedly, with eccentric ways, but nonetheless genuine. What makes her best-known book, a quintessentially English take on the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, so beguiling is the gently ironic tone of the young narrator, Mary Smith. This is the fourth Cranford I’ve heard – Prunella Scales did the last – and for once, in Clare Wille, they’ve got the right-aged reader. Mary (unlike Prunella) doesn’t judge. She observes. Her cool, clear gaze misses nothing in this mid-Victorian provincial backwater. You can hear her smiling at its preoccupations with thrift, etiquette, class, crochet, ribbons, gossip and the growing coolness between Miss Jenkins, doyenne of the tea table, and Captain Brown, who finds Boz more entertaining than Samuel Johnson. ‘It was the only difference of opinion they had ever had, but that difference was enough. Miss Jenkins could not refrain from talking at Captain Brown, and though he did not reply, he drummed with his fingers, which action she felt and resented as very disparaging to Dr Johnson.’ Oh, if only life were still as simple.
Sue Arnold, The Guardian
Clare Wille’s performance of this gently satirical look at a genteel English village in the first half of the nineteenth century may be the wittiest I’ve ever heard. Like a kinder version of E. F. Benson’s Mapp v. Lucia novels, Gaskell’s ladies of Cranford have their jealousies and their vanities. They also have moments of quiet tragedy (a lost brother, a suitor rejected to please the family but never forgotten) and of high drama. Wille made me laugh aloud at the pompous trumpeting of the late Reverend Jenkins. When Miss Poe comes in out of breath, you could swear Wille was running up stairs while delivering her lines. Her performance is always fully engaged, at one with the story, which is itself a small gem.
B. B., AudioFile Magazine
To prime myself for Return to Cranford, the new Masterpiece Classic sequel to last year’s award-winning mini-series Cranford on PBS, I wanted to read Mrs Gaskell’s original novel that it was adapted from. Since I am always short of reading time, I chose instead to listen to an audio recording, my favorite pastime during my commute to work. After a bit of research on Cranford audio book recordings, I settled on the Naxos AudioBooks edition. From my experience with their recording of Jane Austen’s novels I knew the quality would be superior. I was not disappointed.
A witty and poignant portrait of small town life in an early Victorian-era English village, Cranford was first published in 1851 as a serial in the magazine Household Words edited by Charles Dickens. Inspired by author Elizabeth Gaskell’s (1810–1865) early life in Knutsford in Cheshire where she was raised by an aunt after her mother’s death and father’s subsequent re-marriage, the novel revolves around the narrator Miss Mary Smith and the Amazons of the community: the authoritative Miss Deborah Jenkyns and her kindhearted but timid younger sister Matty, the always well informed Miss Pole and the self-important aristocratic Mrs Jamieson. This gentle satire of village life does not supply much of a plot – but amazingly it does not matter. Gaskell has the incredible talent of making everyday occurrences and life events totally engrossing. Miss Matty’s conservative friends, the middle-aged spinsters and widows of Cranford, do not want their quaint life and traditions altered one bit. They like Cranford just as it has always been, therefore when the industrial revolution that swept through England in the 1840’s encroaches upon their Shangri-La, they lament and bustle about attempting to do everything in there power to stop the evil railroad’s arrival. Gaskell is a deft tactician at dry humor, not unlike her predecessor Jane Austen, and the comedy in Cranford balanced with a bit of tragedy is its most endearing quality.
This unabridged audio book recording is aptly read by Clare Wille whose sensitive and lyrical interpretation of Gaskell’s narrative enhanced my enjoyment of the story by two fold. Her rendering of the different characters with change of timbre and intonation was charmingly effective. My favorite character was of course the kindhearted Miss Matty. Even though she is of a certain age she has a child-like naïveté refreshingly seeing her friends and her world in simple terms. In opposition to our present day lives of cell-phones, blackberries and information overload, a trip to Cranford was a welcome respite. I recommend it highly.
2010 marks the 200th anniversary of author Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell nee Stevenson’s birth on 29 September 1810 in Chelsea, which was then on the outskirts of London. In celebration of her bi-centenary, Naxos Audiobooks will be releasing three additional recordings of her novels: North and South in February again read by Clare Wille, Wives and Daughters in March read by Patience Tomlinson and Cousin Phillis in May read by Joe Marsh. Happily, I will be enjoying many hours of great Gaskell listening this year.
Laurel Ann, Austenprose.com