Gaskell was a Victorian novelist, also notable for her biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë.
Elizabeth Stevenson was born in London on 29 September 1810, the daughter of a Unitarian minister. After her mother’s early death, she was raised by an aunt who lived in Knutsford in Cheshire. In 1832, she married William Gaskell, also a Unitarian minister, and they settled in the industrial city of Manchester.
Motherhood and the obligations of a minister’s wife kept her busy. However, the death of her only son inspired her to write her first novel, ‘Mary Barton’, which was published anonymously in 1848. It was an immediate success, winning the praise of Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle.
Dickens invited her to contribute to his magazine, ‘Household Words’, where her next major work, ‘Cranford’, appeared in 1853. ‘North and South’ was published the following year. Gaskell’s work brought her many friends, including the novelist Charlotte Brontë. When Charlotte died in 1855, her father, Patrick Brontë, asked Gaskell to write her biography. The ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ (1857) was written with admiration and covered a huge quantity of firsthand material with great narrative skill.
Gaskell died on 12 November 1865, leaving her longest work, ‘Wives and Daughters’ incomplete.
The first instalment (in Household Words), which became the novel’s first two chapters, was originally published «as a self-contained sketch»,and the «irregular way» the further seven instalments were published suggests that it took Mrs Gaskell time to think of making this into a book She was during this period busy writing the three volume novel Ruth, which was published January 1853.
Cranford has been described as «practically structurelesss», and given the irregular nature of how it was first published, it is not surprising that it lacks unity. A. W. Ward describes the novel, as a «brief series of sketches, strung together with easy grace».
The small country town of Cranford corresponds to Knutsford, Cheshire, where Elizabeth Gaskell had spent much of her childhood and where she returned after she married. However, the story’s narrator comes from the nearby industrial city of Drumble, which corresponds to Manchester, where the author lived when writing the novel.
There is no real plot, but rather a collection of satirical sketches, which sympathetically portray changing small town customs and values in mid Victorian England. Harkening back to memories of her childhood in the small Cheshire town of Knutsford, Cranford is Elizabeth Gaskell’s affectionate portrait of people and customs that were already becoming anachronisms.
Chapter I – Our Society
The book is narrated by Mary Smith, a young woman who frequently visits the town and, when away, remains abreast of events through correspondence with the other characters. The first chapter introduces the leading women of Cranford, idiosyncratic yet endearing characters who hope to preserve their gentility, lifestyles (and all-important social customs) from change. Rowena Fowler, possessor of a red silk umbrella, conservatively considers an heir while her infirm body has outlived her kin. Miss Betsy Barker is also determined to preserve the past, but in the form of her cow, which she «loves as a daughter», and which she sews pyjamas for, as it lost all of its hair after falling into a lime-pit. As for Miss Deborah Jenkyns, she establishes the norms and customs by which the town must abide.
However, when Captain Brown moves to town, he challenges the women’s rules of politeness. First, he openly admits his own poverty. This is particularly awful to Miss Deborah Jenkyns, whom Brown also offends by finding Charles Dickens a better writer than Jenkyns’ preferred «Dr. Johnson» (Samuel Johnson). Nevertheless, Brown’s warm manner subdues his detractors’ contention of his supposed social awkwardness; therefore, they allow him to bypass custom and visit before noon. Brown also has two daughters: Miss Brown, a sickly, ill-tempered woman with hardened features, and Miss Jessie, who has an innocent face and, like her father, is naive to Cranford’s social mores. For instance, Miss Jessie boasts that her uncle, a shop-keeper, can provide her with large amounts of Shetland wool. When aristocratic Miss Jenkyns overhears, she takes exception to Miss Jessie’s openness about her uncle’s un-genteel occupation, and worries that the local lady of the manor, The Honorable Mrs. Jamison, will be offended by being in the same social circle as a shopkeeper’s niece.
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