First things first, have you seen how gorgeous the latest Penguin English Library books are? I’m sure they get more and more stunning to behold with each new release! It’s fairly obvious that this is probably my favourite collection of books, and as you might have guessed I’ve amassed a fair collection of them as time has gone by. Pretty as they are (and boy they really really are!), they are also great examples of classic pieces of literature, and I love reading them just as much as I love staring adoringly at the covers! Realising it’ss been a while since I’d read anything from this range I decided to pick up a short little number from Elizabeth Gaskell.
Cranford is of course an extremely well known book with multiple TV adaptations and a firm fan following, but what is it really about? Having now read the book I think the best way to describe it is to say it focuses quite specifically on the inhabitants of Cranford itself and the daily goings of this small community. ‘Dominated by women and governed by old-fashioned ways’, the book looks at several different female characters and the ways in which they interact within this self-contained microcosm of society.
One of the things which initially took me quite off guard and that I wasn’t really expecting was this sense of humour in certain places of the novel. I personally wouldn’t say that this is an overtly funny book which obvious moments of comedy but there are subtle moments of humour for the reader to infer. Indeed, the opening itself has several humorous moments when our narrator is discussing the female dominated town. We read how ‘if a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is . . . fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties . . . ‘ (p. 1). This wry humour, poking fun at the gender dynamics within the society, is quite refreshing to see for a book of this Victorian time period. Traditionally a time governed by a strict patriarchal society, this book allows women some form of agency; they rule this town and know everything which takes place. The character of Miss Jenkyns, for example, ‘had the appearance of a strong minded woman; although she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior’ (p. 14).
As much as I appreciated the humour and gender studies within this book, I would be lying if I said that it blew me away or if I would be necessarily inclined to read it again. One of the things which I found most disappointing was the lack of clear plot. I’m by no means a firm plot driven reader, as I think characterisation is probably the thing I search for the most in writing. Having said that I do think that this book took quite a gentle, almost fluffy forwards motion, without really having a sense of direction. Although a few things do take place, such as deaths and marriages, nothing notable stands out and I can’t really look back and remember certain scenes or passages.
Having previously read Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s much larger novel, Mary Barton, I felt quite disappointed. Mary Barton is a fantastic example of a combination of characterisation, engaging plot and wider social implications. In comparison I felt this novel was quite stagnant and bland, and almost as if I had missed the real purpose of it. Whilst certain characters within this were quite vibrant and vivid, others were left to fade into the background, even resulting in me forgetting several times which characters were which!
Looking back, I feel that with hindsight Cranford is something I would enjoy much more were I to analyse it in an academic setting as opposed to a book which I would read purely for pleasure. I do think that Gaskell is a brilliant writer, and I know through previous reads such as Mary Barton that her books are incredibly well written with an ability to pull me in whilst also providing a great commentary and critique on society. For me personally, this book fell slightly too flat, and I can’t help but feel somewhat disappointed by it.
Publisher: Penguin English Library