Analysis

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Last Reviewed on May 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

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...

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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,

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

Cranford

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

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.

Drumble

Drumble. City about twenty miles away from Cranford. It is probably modeled on the large industrial English city of Manchester, which bears the same relationship to Knutsford that Drumble bears to Cranford. In contrast to Cranford, Drumble seems to be an almost entirely masculine destination, although Mary Smith does shop there after returning to her father’s house and before coming back to visit Miss Matty again. The city is never pictured directly but is often spoken of, albeit with a certain ambivalence, a place to be viewed both warily and respectfully.

*Paris

*Paris. France’s capital city, like Drumble, remains a distant, even more remote presence, and again primarily a masculine one. In the minds of the Cranford ladies, Holbrook’s death is probably a consequence of his having visited there. In a later episode set in Cranford, the former Jessie Brown and her husband visit Paris and send as a gift to a Cranfordite a newly chic hoopskirt; the local residents are so baffled by the alien elegance of the metal framework that they believe it to be a parrot cage.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 206

Auerbach, Nina. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. Stresses the virtues of Cranford as a cooperative female community and speculates that the novel may have been influenced by Gaskell’s friendship with Charlotte Brontë.

Keating, Peter, ed. Introduction to “Cranford” and “Cousin Phillis,” by Elizabeth Gaskell. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1976. An informative introduction that stresses Cranford’s representations of social change.

Schor, Hilary M. Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Explores Cranford’s experimentation with narrative, which is especially interesting for its references to other literary works and for its narrator’s attentiveness to Miss Matty’s hidden “woman’s story.”

Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. A survey of Gaskell’s works that stresses Cranford’s depiction of women as limited and marginalized by society. Includes a useful bibliography on Gaskell, Victorian women and women writers, and feminist theory and literary criticism.

Uglow, Jennifer. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. An excellent biography that describes Gaskell’s writing of Cranford and discusses perceptively the novel’s themes, characters, and structure. Sees the novel as “an appeal against separate spheres” for men and women.

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