Cranford was my book-to-read for the fourth Classics Spin. It was my first Elizabeth Gaskell book and I have heard good things about Wives and Daughters and North and South, whereas opinions on Cranford tended to vary a bit more, so I was a bit hesitant to start my Gaskell reads with this book. However, there was no reason for concern - I loved Cranford.
From the back of the book:
A portrait of the residents of an English country town in the mid nineteenth century, Cranford relates the adventures of Miss Matty and Miss Deborah, two middle-aged spinster sisters striving to live with dignity in reduced circumstances. Through a series of vignettes, Elizabeth Gaskell portrays a community governed by old-fashioned habits and dominated by friendships between women. Her wry account of rural life is undercut, however, by tragedy in its depiction of such torubling events as Matty's bankruptcy, the violent death of Captain Brown or the unwitting cruelty of Peter Jenkyns. Written with acute observation, Cranford is by turns affectionate, moving and darkly satirical.
Cranford is a strange of a place, inhabited mostly (only?) by women:
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. /p. 5/
These vignettes are written in simple, approachable style and with a great amount of humour and wit. There are several funny scenes depicted, my favourite was the one including a lace, a cat and a vomit inducing substance (use your imagination!). However, Gaskell's message is deeply social, for me the themes of wealth and gender came out as the sharpest. How was it at the time when wealth and status meant everything to be poor and still try to be a part of the "society"? She also makes humorous remarks on men throughout the book:
"I don't mean to deny that men are troublesome in a house. I don't judge from my own experience, for my father was neatness itself, and wiped his shoes on coming in as carefully as any woman; but still a man has a sort of knowledge of what should be done in difficulties, that it is very pleasant to have obe at hand ready to lean upon." /p. 149/
I liked Cranford so well that I got the craving to pick up North and South, which has been on my classics shelf for some months now. I am currently reading it and enjoying a great deal.
I would recommend Cranford if you want to read a classic book and don't necessarily require an intense plot development: this book is kind of slice-of-life, very humorous and insightful, and in that sense meets its purpose very well.