‘Cranford’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

There is something particularly moving in Gaskell’s writing and in the way she gives us an intimate view of the lives of women at a historical period when the world was changing so fast and so decisively as never before due to the Industrial Revolution and the consolidation of capitalism. Cranford is a good example of that.

Contrary to North and South, the factories and union strikes are far away from the almost idyllic village where these refined, endearing, but almost impoverished spinsters live, exchange gossip, have set call hours and visiting rituals. However, all along we are made aware, in various ways, that this is a fragile world that is bound to soon disappear forever. The winds of change are barely kept at bay and the breaking of the old bonds that link communities together are always looming in the horizon: there are new ‘unorthodox’ people coming into town, people marrying below and above their state, people returning from the colonies, a bank financial insolvency that forces an old genteel lady to become a tea seller, the railway, and even the latest Paris fashion. The idea that Cranford is a protected, peaceful, picturesque representation of ‘Old England’ is true only at surface level. This is a world that is fast-changing and these changes are profoundly reflected in the way these women manage their lives and their relationships.

There is real skill in the way Gaskell treats her subject. She is as veiled, discrete and neat in the construction of the plot and the characters as the Cranford Ladies themselves. The reader will not find here any of Dickens social justice commenting or the kind of Dickensian situations that modern readers may find perhaps quite sentimental. And yet, poverty, social inequality, female financial dependence, troubled relationships and broken lives are all there. But also is the sense that it does not matter how much the world may change, the bonds of true friendship and affection will still stay true and will never be completely severed.

Gaskell, E. (2007) Cranford and Other Stories. London: Bloomsbury.