Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is one of her most famous novels. A sketch that later became the two opening chapters of the book was first published in Household Words magazine, which was edited by Charles Dickens. The remaining parts of the book were also published in Household Words, and each piece was a self-contained narrative. It was not Gaskell’s initial plan to create a complete novel—she intended to write a series of stories linked by one plot. As a result, Cranford lacks structural cohesion and unity. Gaskell’s contemporaries referred to the novel as a collection of sketches on various topics rather than a novel.
The fictitious town of Cranford shares many features with the real town of Knutford in Cheshire, where Gaskell spent her childhood. The narrator of the novel, Mary Smith, comes from the nearby industrial city of Drumble, which is based off of the real city of Manchester, where Gaskell lived when she was writing the novel.
Cranford is based on Gaskell’s personal experience. In her letters, she refers to the realism of some of the humorous situations that she describes in the novel. The book reflects Gaskell’s nostalgic feelings about the place where she spent her youth.
In the novel, Gaskell portrays with friendly humor the life of a small provincial world ruled by the local women, whom she calls the “Amazons”:
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.
Here everything becomes a topic of conversation in an instant. A wisp of a smile on a gentleman’s face turned to a lady produces rumors about the coming wedding. Therefore, it's no wonder that Captain Brown, who comes to Cranford with his two daughters, immediately attracts everybody’s attention.
The narration revolves around Mary Smith and her friends, Miss Matty and Miss Deborah, both of whom are spinsters. However, the central event in the book is the return of Miss Matty’s brother Peter, who has been living in India,