I saw the BBC series of Cranford when it aired on ABC TV a little while ago, and loved it. I bought the DVD, but will leave it for a little while before watching it again. No such restraint applies to the book though! I decided to read it for the 1% Well Read Challenge 2009 (it’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die) because I’ve left it rather late to finish this challenge and Cranford didn’t seem very long at 175 pages…
What a pleasure it is to read these stories, and what a rarity it is to find that pleasure enhanced by having seen the tales brought to life on film! It is impossible to read Cranford without seeing Judi Dench as Miss Matty, sobbing quietly over the faded letters of her parents, her tears running down the ‘well-worn furrows of her cheeks’. It is heart-rending to see her poor old heart a-flutter over an invitation to visit Mr Holbrook, and her suppressed grief over the tragedy which ensues. (I write ‘her poor old heart’ though she was only 52, now no age at all, but designated an old lady by the times in which Elizabeth Gaskell wrote). Mr Holbrook had asked for her hand when she was in her youth but was not thought good enough for the daughter of a rector who had once had a sermon published. As a window on another time, when social mores restricted the happiness of so many, Cranford is a gentle rival for the preoccupations which have rightly made the novels of Jane Austen the favourite classics of our time.
The TV series was a faithful reproduction, but what it could not quite capture was the voice of the narrator, Miss Matty’s friend Mary Smith. Her wry observations about the genteel economies and eccentricities of the Cranford ladies are kindly meant; she understands why Miss Matty is frugal with her candles. Mary’s droll commentary on the spat about Dr Johnson and Dickens is a cunning way for Gaskell to depict the foolish proprieties which blind Miss Deborah to Captain Brown’s good qualities – but Mary also recognises the extent to which Miss Matty depends on Miss Deborah and the affection between them. Her observations make it clear, albeit with gentle humour, that the privations of Miss Matty’s life are not just material and emotional. Education has been denied to the rector’s daughter too: her spelling is poor and there is no prospect of overcoming her financial embarrassment by teaching because mathematics and geography are beyond her. Mary’s apparent detachment vanishes when she thinks she can locate Miss Matty’s long-lost brother, and more so when the old lady’s scanty income vanishes into a failed bank; Mary is not just interested in caps, gowns and card games – she has initiative, perspicacity and a genuine affection for Miss Matty.
There are short stories in this collection too: Mr Harrison’s Confessions; The Doom of the Griffiths; Lois the Witch; Curious if True; Six Weeks at Heppenheim; and Cousin Phillis. I haven’t read them yet – I’m reserving them for another day.
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Title: Cranford and Selected Short Stories (Wordsworth Classics)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics, 2006
Source: Personal Library, $6.95.