This Week In My Classes: The Comforts of Cranford

We’ve started our discussions of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford in 19th-Century Fiction, and like last week’s reading, it has special resonance in these turbulent times, but not because it is a call to action: more because it provides a refuge. This is not to say that it’s “escapist” in the pejorative way that term is often applied, or that it is all (metaphorically) rainbows and lollipops. Actually, rereading the first few chapters I’ve been particularly struck this time by how melancholy they are, despite the wonderful touches of comedy. There are so many deaths — not nearly as many as in Valdez Is Coming, of course, but whereas in that novel most deaths leave little emotional mark, each of the losses in Cranford is deeply felt. There’s little drama (well, Captain Brown’s is pretty startling) but much tenderness. I love the delicacy with which we are brought to understand the depths of Miss Matty’s grief after Mr. Holbrook dies:

Miss Matty made a strong effort to conceal her feelings–a concealment she practised even with me, for she has never alluded to Mr. Holbrook again, although the book he gave her lies with her Bible on the little table by her bedside. She did not think I heard her when she asked the little milliner of Cranford to make her caps something like the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson’s, or that I noticed the reply–

“But she wears widows’ caps, ma’am?”

“Oh! I only meant something in that style; not widows’ of course, but rather like Mrs. Jamieson’s.”

This effort at concealment was the beginning of the tremulous motion of head and hands which I have seen ever since in Miss Matty.

One thing I want to talk about with my class is the structure of the novel, which seems especially loose and episodic coming right after the elaborate vastness and intricate patterning of Bleak House. Though there is a bit of a through-line, Cranford is really built around vignettes; it’s heard even to identify a central protagonist. This makes sense for a novel named after a town, and before long I think we realize that the town itself has a personality, and that’s what the novel is about. And what characterizes Cranford above all is the way it operates as a community. In it, people go to all sorts of trouble–mostly but not only on a very small scale–to help everybody else along. Here too there are comic elements, such as the amiable pretense not to know that the hostess “who now sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up,” had been busily baking them all morning: “she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew,” as Mary Smith explains. It’s not just about keeping up appearances, though. “But, to be sure,” says Miss Jessie,

“what a town Cranford is for kindness! I don’t suppose any one has a better dinner than usual cooked, but the best part of all comes in a little covered basin for my sister. The poor people will leave their earliest vegetables at our door for her. They speak short and gruff, as if they were ashamed of it; but I am sure it often goes to my heart to see their thoughtfulness.”

When Miss Matty opens her tea shop, even her competitor “repeatedly sent customers to her, saying that the teas he kept were of a common kind, but that Miss Jenkyns had all the choice sorts”– and there are so many other examples of similar small acts of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity that even when it makes you cry, Cranford also makes you hopeful.

It definitely also makes you laugh, though, and I hope that my students can appreciate its humor, that it won’t seem too quiet and twee after the flamboyance of Dickens’s comedy. One of my favorite bits in this week’s chapters is the “great event” of Miss Jenkyns’s new carpet, and the great struggle to protect it from the unruly sun:

Oh the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless windows! We spread newspapers over the places, and sat down to our book or our work; and, lo! in a quarter of an hour the sun had moved, and was blazing away on a fresh spot; and down again we went on our knees to alter the position of the newspapers. We were very busy, too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper, so as to form little paths to every chair, set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet. Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?

Not in Halifax we don’t, no–but we do pull the living room drapes to protect floor and furniture from the afternoon sun, which may be why this amuses me so much. We’ve also had the furtive orange-eating, the difficult peas, and (particularly funny because Cranford was published in Household Words) the great Boz vs. Dr. Johnson dispute. What a nice place Cranford is to be for a while!

4 Comments to This Week In My Classes: The Comforts of Cranford

  1. February 7, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    I have been listening with perfect joy to Prunella Scales reading Cranford – she captures the pathos and affectionate comedy with unerring sensitivity. How I love the unostentatious goodness of people in this book – such a relief after the endless nastiness in the current vogue for psychological thrillers.

  2. February 8, 2017 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    The tweeness is dissolved but that little bit of acidity in Mary’s narration. It doesn’t take much.

    What a treat to read this book in class – I wish I had. So many great details to linger over.

  3. April 6, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    This was the first Gaskell I read and I was disappointed – I accept you say there is a touch of melancholy but it was generally a bit too much on the light side for me. I prefer the social commentary of North and South

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