It's going to be hard for me to discuss Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford without also discussing the movie, one of those glorious BBC costume dramas starring insuperable actresses such as Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, and Eileen Atkins. (If you haven't seen it, you really must.)
Reading Cranford satisfies the fifty classics project and it also fulfills my long desire to read it ever since seeing the movie. What I read is actually The Cranford Chronicles, three novels in one volume: Dr. Harrison's Confessions, Cranford, and My Lady Ludlow. The movie skillfully combines the plots of all three and sets them in the village of Cranford, but of the novels, only Cranford takes place in Cranford.
Dr. Harrison's Confessions is an amusing novella about a new young doctor who comes to town and sets the village ladies' hearts a flutter. The fake valentine prank, the hilariously simpering Caroline Tompkins, and Sophie the vicar's daughter from the movie are all present here.
Cranford, the meat of this volume, is about the tiny village of Cranford whose population is mostly genteel middle-aged spinsters and widows. Matilda and Deborah Jenkyns are at the center of the group, along with their gossiping friend Miss Pole, kindly Mrs. Forrester, and B-class aristocrat, Mrs. Jamieson. Great plumes of drama erupt from tiny village incidents: the rumor of a thief in the neighborhood, a visiting magician, a genuine "lady" who arrives and then behaves abominably common.
My Lady Ludlow, the last novel in this volume, is set further in the past (very early 1800's) than the other novels and is narrated by a young girl who has been invited to live with the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, who makes a hobby of adopting young gentlewomen from poor families. In the Cranford movie, Lady Ludlow is an imperious person who won't tolerate education for the lower classes. In one scene, she refuses to hire a girl as a servant because the girl can read. The Lady Ludlow in the book is a more sympathetic character. She's still opposed to education for the lower classes, but uses the horrors of the French Revolution to justify her stance. Her reasoning isn't sound, but you take a more sympathetic view after hearing her story. The 1790's must have been terrifying for any aristocrat, even those observing France from afar. Anyway, the book Lady Ludlow is kindly and not as unyielding as the movie Lady Ludlow. A liberal young clergyman who comes to the neighborhood has the courage to stand up for his convictions and Lady Ludlow has the strength and integrity to be able to change her own convictions.
The Cranford Chronicles is a comic and intelligent look at the social ways of the mid-19th century. Highly recommended.