The town of Cranford has an aristocracy made of women. The women are single or widowed or the men are away on business. Mrs. Jamieson is the head of opinion who the others look to. Miss Pole is the leading busybody and gossip. The Misses Jenkyns are respected and liked by all. It is the 1850's in England with strict rules governing what is "done". Mary Smith from the nearby city of Drumble narrates a few years in the life of Cranford.
There are rules to gatherings. If Mrs. Jamieson is coming, Mrs. Fitz-Adam must not be invited. Captain Brown and Miss Jenkyns are barely speaking although she visits with his daughter. He insists on reading Mr. Dickens and she believes Mr. Johnson is a superior writer. Dress fashions are very out of date and no one cares. But their caps have to be the latest that Queen Adelaide is wearing.
Elizabeth Gaskell was a happily married homemaker in the mid-1800's. Yet she had an observant eye and a witty, sharp humor. I was laughing immediately when she was discussing men on the first page - "they are so in the way". Gaskell quickly gave a delightful description of their society. The rules, the attention/pretended inattention to time or wealth or living conditions didn't matter if the person was of a "certain class". The reader quickly learns what is expected from the ladies in Cranford.
.The first half of the book goes along nicely as we learn about the wealthier (or pretended wealthy) women and their interactions. Then, about half way through, I started chuckling out loud. Then I was snickering. When I was working at the library bookstore I couldn't contain them. (I'm allowed to read while I'm at the desk.) Finally at least two customers wanted to know what I was reading. Gaskell obviously had been watching her friends, neighbors, and society. She had them pegged. (See my blog for one of the great insights/comments that had me laughing.)
These women may be fictional but feel real. Miss Matty Jenkyns is one of the central figures in the story. She is nice to everyone and accepted by all. Yet when she needed to take a suggestion to support herself, they had to wait until Mrs. Jamieson returned from her travels and sanction the idea.
Cranford also is a reflection of the societal conditions at the time. When Miss Matty found herself in financial trouble, she had little support. In the 1850's. Her family was dead. There was no welfare or Social Security or elder care programs. She had been pampered all her life, living simply with one servant. Now she will barely be able to feed herself and rent a home on her annual salary (think about Jane Austen and their interest in how much a family had per year for living expenses). I am used to those governmental programs in my lifetime, but this book reminds me that most of them started in the 20th century, almost 100 years after Cranford takes place. Gaskell was stating the facts, not making a social commentary.
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a number of books in her life. Some were biting social commentaries according to the introduction in this book. But Cranford isn't the same. Even so, Gaskell shows us how people are and how we act within our own society/culture/class groupings. If you look, it hasn't changed truths, just faces.:
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