Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review - Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 1853
Format: Hardcover, 257 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy
Miss Mary Smith often visits Cranford. While she provides an outside view of the goings on of this town of "Amazons," she views herself as a true Cranfordian. She usually stays with Deborah and Matty Jenkyns, and later, after Deborah's death, with just Miss Matty. Yet she has been known to stay with the gossipy and often inadvertently hilarious Miss Pole, in particular during the misunderstanding of what a cage is... to some, a piece of undergarments, to Miss Pole, erroneously a parrot cage. Everything is go in Cranford, from cows in pajamas to imagined burglaries, to widows remarrying way too soon to financial disasters. There is love, romantic and platonic. But most of all there is the bond of friendship between all the towns residents. Sometimes life isn't one logical story from beginning to end, but a series of stops and starts, which is what Mary's cunning eye captures in her loving portrait of her, sometimes batty, friends. Just wait for the fake burglaries to understand how batty these ladies can be! Heaven forbid the thought of sleeping with a man, but sleeping with the silver to avoid a theft by gypsies that may or may not be women or men or hunchbacks, that's just common sense.

Going into Cranford I didn't quite know what to expect. I had heard that it was very much a sweet comedy for many years, that's until I saw the miniseries and my expectations went out the window. Aside from the humor, it felt more like Elizabeth Gaskell was a Victorian George R. R. Martin, willing to kill off a character every five minutes. Watching the miniseries you had to have a thick skin and just expect that everyone was fair game. It could also easily be a drinking game where you'd end up very very drunk. So, I was a little surprised than that the book only had three major deaths. THREE!?! Ok, I know that the miniseries was based on some of Gaskell's other writings as well,* but I wouldn't have put off reading this book for so long if I'd known that all the characters I love and care for make it through the book unscathed. I know Heidi Thomas, who adapted the works, has a love of pulling your heartstrings, so much so that it's now a given if you watch anything she does you end up in tears, but still, gaw, you almost made me not want to read this book Heidi. Also, I'm not forgiving her for killing off Martha! She lives Heidi! SHE LIVES! And Deborah doesn't like eating sliced oranges, so there!

*I will also mention here, that because of the two other books integrated into the Cranford miniseries, I went on and read them as well. I personally think that it was a mistake to incorporate My Lady Ludlow and Mr. Harrison's Confessions, seeing as they are, for the most part, where all the depressing resides. My Lady Ludlow was basically a hundred some page treatise on why Lady Ludlow thinks that letting the lower classes read will lead to another Reign of Terror, which was glossed over with one sentence in the miniseries. As for Mr. Harrison, note the "Mr." not "Dr.," it was just the romantic blah that was in the miniseries, but with "Mr." Harrison being far more unlikeable. Enough about Gaskell's other writings, back to the one at hand!

Cranford is more just comical vignettes than a book really. In fact, this is what I would call ideal writing for a piece released in installations, like this one was through Dickens' magazine. You're not overly desperate for the next chapter because the plot doesn't drive the story, the character's quirks and foibles do. Also, while you think a town of widows and spinsters would be sad, Cranford is not depressing, but a melancholy sadness for life and opportunities lost written with wit and understanding. It shows us to make the most out of what you have and to rely on the kindness of your friends. Oh, and cows are awesome in pajamas!

A note on the edition. So, I have to say, that I have coveted the cloth-bound Penguin Classics ever since they started appearing in bookstores a few years ago now. I wanted them all! But, I restrained myself and only bought Cranford. Why only Cranford? Well, if truth be told, I did have other editions, at least two, but the gorgeous lime green with the dark green runner beans was just too too perfect. The thing is, these books where made for display, not for reading, in my opinion. I'm so glad I never bought more of them, because, they're pretty but impractical. Firstly, some of the dark green screen printing has rubbed off with my holding it. Secondly, it was impossible to read because the book didn't want to open. I got cramps in my hand trying to pry the book open long enough to read! It's like Hagrid's Monster Book of Monsters, there has to be an easier way to read it, but I couldn't find it. Also, the fluctuation in font point size depending on introduction, book or appendixes was annoying and pointless. But finally, what put the nail in the coffin of this edition was the superfluity of footnotes and appendixes. There should not be more pages of extraneous "extras" than the actual book is long. Bad job editing Patricia Ingham, I will avoid you at all costs from now on.


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