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,
Cranford. English village modeled on Knutsford in Cheshire, where Elizabeth Gaskell spent part of her childhood, A country town larger than a village, Cranford is “in possession of the Amazons,” in that its patterns of social life and mores are dictated almost exclusively by widows, spinsters, occasional younger unmarried women visitors, and maid servants. Husbands, if they exist, are away on business all week in the neighboring commercial city of Drumble. However, as Drumble is only twenty miles away by railroad, the creation of a railroad line nearby threatens to destabilize the comfortable routines of morning needlework, afternoon calls, and early evening tea parties followed by serious card playing. None of the women, with the exception of Mary Smith, the youthful narrator and frequent visitor from outside, seems ever to leave the town. However, Cranford is, in fact, large enough to possess an inn and a number of shops, including a millinery establishment and a century-old assembly room attached to the inn, which once held balls and parties of county families but is now rarely used. Mary Smith notes that Cranford’s aging population does not read or walk much, so the settings the reader encounters most often are modest cottage interiors, usually at tea time.
Woodley. Country estate of Thomas Holbrook, whom Miss Matty might have married except for her sister’s disapproval of his modest social rank. When Miss Matty and Mary visit the estate in June after a chance encounter only a few months before Mr. Holbrook’s death, readers are treated to roses, currant bushes, feathery asparagus, gilly-flowers, and an old-fashioned but comfortable house. Here is a setting for a wider and fuller life than Miss Matty can live in Cranford, whose social strictures are so stiff and precise that Holbrook for many years made Misselton, four or five miles in the opposite direction from his estate, his market town after Miss Matty refused his offer of marriage.
(The entire section is 1,057 words.)