Most of the descriptions of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford share some common phraseology. It is Gaskell’s “best-known work,” “gently comic,” a novella about country life and manners. Narrated from the point of view of a young woman who occasionally visits Cranford, the book focuses on Miss Mattie Jenkyns, a later-middle-aged spinster, as its main character and tells the tale of Cranford life in a series of sketches.
As I read Cranford (1851), I was reminded of Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). Both books establish a strong sense of a particular community, but Cranford seems to me the more satirical. Cranford is at once an overwhelmingly feminine place and a sheltered place, and the combination makes the inhabitants of the village susceptible to silliness in various forms. Their social phobias and forms, their gullibility, and their occasional self-deception furnish plenty of quiet comedy.
I found it to be a sleepy read in which nothing much happens — until, unexpectedly, the veil would be pulled back and a moment of real pathos or heroism would flare out. These were the moments that redeemed the book for me: Miss Mattie’s history; her response to a bank failure, and the response of the community; the respective fates of her brother Peter and her cousin Mr. Holbrook. In these poignant moments real character shines out and we discover what she is made of. Though Cranford has its stretches of tedium, these are the bright spots that kept me reading.