Cranford (by Elizabeth Gaskell)

Although I had, of course, heard of Elizabeth Gaskell ("Mrs Gaskell") as a classic 19th century writer, I had not read any of her books. Possibly I would never have done so, but for the BBC television series Cranford based on the book, of which we saw some episodes. I was intrigued, so when I spotted this available free for my Kindle, I downloaded it.

'Cranford' is a character-based novel set in the fictional town of the same name. First published in the middle of the 19th century, this is inevitably rather dated and rambling - yet surprisingly readable. Having said that, I felt rather as if I waded through the first couple of chapters on my Kindle, wondering when it was going to get to the point, or at least begin the story.

It opens with a lengthy description of the fictional town of Cranford, ruled by middle-class and upper-middle class ladies. While there was gentle irony in much of the description, I found myself drifting off at times. The disadvantage of reading on the Kindle is that it's difficult to flick through to see whether the style changes!

However, I persevered, and gradually the story gets going. The narrator - Mary Smith - does not live in Cranford but makes regular and lengthy visits there, usually staying with the delightfully vague Miss Matty and her sister. When there, she takes part in the everyday life of her friends: paying calls, discussing local events, playing card games. In that sense, it's a lovely piece of social history, giving glimpses - albeit caricatured - into life in this era, in this kind of small town. I could quite see why it was made into a TV series and also why it was so popular in that format.

There isn't a huge amount of plot in the book; people come and go, and rather a large number die (not untypical of the time). I didn't find myself empathising with anyone in particular, or moved - but I did smile a few times, and after the first few chapters, looked forward to finding out what might happen next. I was pleased that there was an encouraging, if rather coincidental ending.

I'm not strongly inclined to get hold of the sequels, but I enjoyed this as a bit of gentle historical fiction and am glad I read it.

(Note that the above links are to paperback versions of 'Cranford', which is still in print on both sides of the Atlantic; the Kindle versions are either free or inexpensive as this is long out of copyright)

Review copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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