Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Elegant Economy

Just finished Cranford last night, sipping coffee and burrowing into my chair (why does my room always seem so much colder before going to bed?). I have previously read Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (liked it very much) and North and South (didn't like it at all, but have been advised to give it another go), but hadn't thought about reading Cranford until I watched the BBC miniseries.

It was a bit disappointing not to have Dr. Harrison and his newfangled ideas about medicine in Cranford, but I understand the script to have been cobbled together from several shorter fictions. The episodes from the novel included in the script were nearly word for word and very true to the spirit of the book.

In this collection of instances, a narrator visits her friend, Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns, in Cranford on several occasions. We discover her name is Mary Smith, and like most of the inhabitants of Cranford, is a spinster.

"In the first place," the book begins, "Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of the houses, above a certain rent, are women...In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford."

Cranford is a small provincial English town governed by the strict adherence to a social code, an almost religiously regulated way of life. This is a day and age when Dickens was vulgar and Dr. Johnson was preferred. (Vulgarity is feared above all else. Except Irish washerwomen.)Fortunately for the nearly impecunious residents, in Cranford, "economy was always 'elegant,' and money-spending always 'vulgar and ostentatious'..." I am appropriating the useful phrase for my own circumstances.

The episodic narration introduces characters which come and go, small arguments, old lovers, lost brothers, deaths, gossips, and worries. This is the narrow vacillation of a quiet country life, where changes affect the whole community and might even (horrors!) alter the pecking order.

"It was impossible to live a month at Cranford and not know the daily habits of each resident..." says the narrator. I feel the same way. After watching the delightful series and reading my beautiful hardcover copy, I only wish I could visit in person.

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