It’s darling. The ladies who make up the main cast have their quirks that may color them with a shade of silliness, but who of us doesn’t own a quirk that throws some people off? Cranford is dominated by the “Amazons” because most of the principal residents are spinsters or widows. There are the Jenkyns sisters, imperious Deborah and gentle Matty; feisty busybody Miss Pole; the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson, sluggish but aristocratically connected; her friendly, unpretentious cousin Lady Glenmire; kind, unassuming Mrs. Forrester; and a host of other women who come and go in the episodic chapters, like Mrs. Fitz-Adam and Miss Betty Barker. Young Mary Smith, a friend of the Jenkyns sisters, is their frequent houseguest and the narrator. Mary, being an outsider, is the perfect individual to describe Cranford life.
Since the ladies are so insulated in their own little village, they’ve forged the rules of polite Cranford society. Some of the comedy and tension of the book is how they go about following those rules:
(Deborah Jenkyns instructing her guest Mary Smith)
“Our friends have sent to inquire how you are after your journey to-night, my dear” (fifteen miles in a gentleman’s carriage); “they will give you some rest to-morrow, but the next day, I have no doubt they will call; so be at liberty after twelve—from twelve to three are our calling hours.”
Then, after they had called—
“It is the third day; I daresay your mamma has told you, my dear, never to let more than three days elapse between receiving a call and returning it; and also, that you are never to stay longer than a quarter of an hour.”
“But am I to look at my watch? How am I to find out when a quarter of an hour has passed?”
“You must keep thinking about the time, my dear, and not allow yourself to forget it in conversation.”
The book isn’t exactly a novel; the chapters are more like sequential episodes. Most of them have their own story arc. Mrs. Gaskell originally published them in Charles Dickens’s magazine, Household Words, from 1851 to 1853, and only after finishing did she compile them as one volume.
Although all the characters are delightful, I would say the stars of the story are 1) Miss Matty Jenkyns and 2) Miss Pole. Miss Pole brought me the most laughs with her fiery, sometimes foolish, know-it-all-ness:
“She took me so by surprise, I had nothing to say. I wish I had thought of something very sharp and sarcastic; I daresay I shall tonight.” (Miss Pole after she was offended by Mrs. Jamieson)
(Miss Pole trying to learn a magic trick through reading a book) Miss Pole only read the more zealously….“Ah! I see; I comprehend perfectly. A represents the ball. Put A between B and D—no! between C and F, and turn the second joint of the third finger of your left hand over the wrist of your right H. Very clear indeed! My dear Mrs. Forester, conjuring and witchcraft is a mere affair of the alphabet. Do let me read you this one passage?”
Miss Pole may be Cranford’s comic relief, but Miss Matty is its heart. She is gentle, humble, and always considers others better than herself (Philippians 2:3). Her timidity, which sometimes keeps her from doing things she’s capable of, was a little frustrating to me at times, but no one could be perturbed with Miss Matty for long. Through her quiet, steady, principled, unconscious influence, she is a solid rock to her friends. When a misfortune strikes, they rally around her.
“See, Mary, how a good, innocent life makes friends all around.” (Mary Smith’s father when he hears how the Cranford ladies mean to help Miss Matty)
“It was really very pleasant to see how her unselfishness and simple sense of justice called out the same good qualities in others. She never seemed to think any one would impose upon her, because she would be so grieved to do it to them…. People would have felt as much ashamed of presuming on her good faith as they would have done on that of a child. But my father says ‘such simplicity might be very well in Cranford, but would never do in the world.’” (Mary of Miss Matty)
“We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.” (Mary)
In the end, I think Miss Matty has much to teach readers. Although she’s hardly been out of her village and her experiences are limited, she has influence over her circle and has earned their undying respect. That’s within every individual’s power, no matter how young, secluded, or impoverished we are. God wants all human beings to be touched, and if, like Miss Matty, we can only touch a few of them, we are doing what God has called us to do.
Cranford did an excellent job of showing this truth through an entertaining and endearing narrative, without moralizing. Everyone needs encouragement to live graciously with their neighbors, and reading a book like this is a very effective treatment!
Have you ever read Cranford or seen the wonderful Masterpiece Theatre adaptation? What did you think?