‘Cranford’ sees Elizabeth Gaskell back in the kind of world she grew up in: rural, somewhat secluded from the Great World, a bit over-numerically feminine, full of strict behaviour codes and genteel poverty. The other world of desperate living conditions, starvation wages (or no wages), and disease which she was to get to know so well later (and to write about so well) is not present in ‘Cranford‘, or in any of the short stories in this volume. This in itself is an indication of how much England, and the English, were a country of ‘Two Nations’, as described by Disraeli in his novel ‘Sybil’ (1845). In her novel ‘Mary Barton’ there is some overlap of the two worlds in the way that the industrialised workers are near enough to the countryside to enjoy something of its goodness, but this idyll s rapidly taken over by the book’s concern with the appalling injustices and degradations suffered by the workers.
Here, in Cranford, the biggest social upsets centre around strangers who move in to the little town and, it is greatly feared, will upset the normal tranquillities. These ‘dangers’ and the way the little society copes with them, reminds one very much of Jane Austin. Both writers see the preservation of the social fabric as being of extreme importance. Certain things are just NOT DONE, and those who do them… well…
Both writers extract much humour from situations that would at first seem just ridiculous. And both have a sure identification with the genuine suffering that can result from social slighting and neglect. It’s not hard to enter into Cranford with the author and become one of the little town’s inhabitants, sharing with them all the indignations occasioned by any attempts to change the way of life they have enjoyed for many generations. It won’t last much longer, though. The new railway is making its inexorable way across the English countryside towards the little town, after which things will never be the same again.
As regards the other stories in this volume, best are ‘Mr Harrison’s Confession’, which was incorporated into the recent BBC production of ‘Cranford’ (with the great Judi Dench in a leading role) and sat very well with the story; and ‘Lois the Witch’ which shows Gaskell able to set a story in a setting completely different from either the slums of Manchester or the small-town intrigues of Knutsford (Cranford), her hometown.