My fondness for Mrs Gaskell began with her Life of Charlotte Bronte, which was the first and I sometimes also think the final word on literary biography.   Although Elizabeth Gaskell’s books are of their day, I do find them strangely irresistible. Cranford for one is certainly imaginative, detailed, sympathetic and very well written, as was all of Mrs Gaskell’s output.  Gaskell's works are especially good at describing all levels of society, including the very poor, and as such are of interest to social historians as well as admirers of Victorian literature.  One of the most haunting things I’ve ever read is the description of the suicide of a poor man in North and South – he succeeds in drowning himself in a puddle, and the image stays with the reader forever.

Cranford (edited by Charles Dickens) isn’t strong on plot, which perhaps lets it down, if you’re expecting a story – but it’s that low-key tone that I like; in fact it’s very contemporary, in the way that it’s really a string of vignettes.

In a letter to John Ruskin in February of 1865, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote:

Cranford is the only one of my books that I can read again:—but whenever I am ailing or ill, I take “Cranford” and—I was going to say, enjoy it! (but that would not be pretty!)—laugh over it afresh.

I like this pleasurable idea, that twelve years after she had completed Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell was still lapping it up, and delighting in it, because the pleasures it offers are more complex than they appear.  It is funny, too, which you can probably tell from the name of the manufacturing town where Mary Smith lives—Drumble.  As the narrative is Mary’s, it offers the kind of amused detachment that Gaskell herself was clearly enjoying, but within this there is a lot of sympathetic sharing to be found, and that is the source of the complex response.

To read Cranford is to jump into the world on 19th century etiquette.  All of these practices, quite strange to us even now, existed however to affirm everyone’s status in the town, they are indeed the rules and regulations for visiting and calls.  Everything in fact, is so long gone it is hard to imagine this is the same country, and the same people as we are today.

A few of the gentlefolks of Cranford were poor, and had some difficulty in making both ends meet; but they were like Spartans, and concealed their smart under a smiling face.  We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic.

This distinction between social and monetary capital is gone now, and makes this even funnier.  Although Gaskell finds here day and age absurd, she digs huge amounts of sympathy into it for those playing out, their lives there, and although we consider it tragic, it’s important to remember in Cranford that it wasn’t conceived of as that — but as a human and class comedy.