I was inspired to read Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell after watching the PBS/BBC miniseries last year. The town of Cranford is dominated by women. There are relatively few men, at least in the social circle of the characters in this book. The main characters are all single, either spinsters or widows, and they fiercely guard their way of life.
The book, originally published serially in 1853 in Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words, is a series of vignettes of the daily life of Miss Mathilda Jenkyns. This book is definitely character driven and starts off slow. Nothing truly exciting ever happens in Cranford and you have to get to know the characters before you understand how small disruptions can make huge waves in their lives. Gaskell manages to convey how important small events are to these characters. You get the sense that if anything big ever happened they'd die from the shock. The narrator, Mary Smith, a frequent (and slightly more worldly) visitor to the town tries to keep molehills from turning into mountains and for the most part is successful. But, sometimes even she gets sucked into the daily drama.
Fans of the miniseries might be disappointed with the book. Many of the funniest storylines from the series are added. But, the loyalty and friendship the characters display towards each other should endear this book to all but the most jaded reader.
I was surprised by how much I liked this book. I'd been planning to read North and South, but I'd never read anything by Mrs. Gaskell, and Cranford is much shorter, so I decided to read it first and see how I liked her writing before starting a longer book. I wondered how interesting a book about a bunch of old ladies could be, but almost immediately I found myself laughing out loud again and again at their ridiculous little quirks and traditions, as well as some of the flat-out hilarious lines they came out with.
Cranford isn't just comedy though. Once you get to know the ladies you become attached to them, and there are some very emotional moments when it comes to retelling the stories of their younger days and confronting their old age, and the loyalty and kindness between all the ladies is truly touching. There is not much romance, but what little there is is sweet and yet realistic. I recommend this book to fans of both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. (Dickens and Gaskell were friends, and he comes up more than once in Cranford.)
Charming village tales that maintain their freshness 150 years later. I can reread this book over and over again.