Thus opens Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford, a wonderful, poignant comedy (or comic drama; your choice.) I’ve never read anything by Gaskell before, and I was absolutely delighted with her story of a small town inhabited almost entirely by widows and spinsters. Each chapter, in its gentle way, tells of Cranford’s peculiarities: the way the women get along with each other, their quirks, their interests, the importance they place on “gentility,” their stubbornness and their good hearts, their history and the nostalgia of a place that has not changed with the changing times.
Gaskell’s voice is often witty, the way Jane Austen’s is. She shows the weaknesses and foibles of her subjects in a gentle social satire, and there are also scenes of farce that had me laughing out loud. But the book is not entirely comedy: I also found myself in tears several times, when an unexpected death occurred or a character who had seemed narrow turned out to be generous and kind. The book is acutely observed, full of the detail that brings characters to life, a joy to read. I will certainly look for more of her work, and at 180 pages, you can’t go wrong keeping company with Cranford for an evening or two.