(This is a book review about `Cranford' and `Cousin Phillis' of the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Peter Keating.)
[CRANFORD] Elizabeth Gaskell's `Cranford' is very different from her more serious `Mary Barton' and `North and South,' both written with socially conscious messages. In fact, its basic tone is comedy (or tragicomedy) set against the background of the changing local community of Cranford, or `Our Society' which is, as the narrator says, "in possession of the Amazons."
The main characters are all elderly ladies. You meet kind-hearted and timid Miss Matty with her domineering sister Deborah, the most memorable characters in this town. Narrated by one Mary Smith, we are introduced to the small world of Cranford, where smallest things can be pleasure or trouble such as `conjuror' Signor Brunoni amazing the ladies in the town's Assembly Room, or some rumor about `robbery' and even `ghosts' that scare them in `Darkness-Lane.' There is Lady Glenmire, who comes to Cranford, and shocks the community by marrying a doctor (and becoming `Mrs. Hoggins'). With these episodes, Elizabeth Gaskell deftly describes the sisterhood among the gossipy ladies with deep sense of sympathy, and the events are described with her sure-handed touch, which provides funny moments and occasional pathos.
Some part may not be interesting today. Captain Brown and Miss Jenkyns have an argument about the merit of novel reading, and while Captain praises Dickens' `Pickwick Papers,' Miss Jenkyns insists on the superiority of Samuel Johnson This is not only an in-joke (`Cranford' first appeared as eight-part serial in Dickens' Household Words first in 1851), it also reflects that these ladies in Cranford stick to their strict social codes that are clearly getting too old outside the community. The scene itself is humorous, and behind the humor you can find the author's keen eye for details.
But the book can be enjoyed without such historical knowledge, and there are many touching scenes concerning Miss Matty's life. As `Cranford' is written without concrete planning, the entire work looks very episodic. Actually it is episodic (and that's why one major character suddenly disappear at Chapter 2), and it should be read as such, like a series of sketches or short stories.
[COUSIN PHILLIS] `Cousin Phillis' is first published as four-part serial in 1863, and is about a fleeting love affair in a rural community, where the titular daughter of a `minister' (and self-help type of farmer) lives quietly. This is what we call a `novella' and its tone is sadder than `Cranford' but still is written with well-observed descriptions of the characters and the community that we know would undergo drastic change sooner or later.
THE PENGUIN edition by PETER KEATING contains Appendix A: `The Last Generation in England' and Appendix B: `The Cage at Cranford' both by Gaskell. The first one would throw light on the background of Cranford, and the second one (a sequel written about 10 years after the original) is an enjoyable (if not outstanding) short story.
`Cranford' is a delightful book that reminded me of E.F. Benson's equally delightful Mapp and Lucia books. Teachers may not use these books as text in the English literature courses in university, but the fact remains that these books are as priceless as any other Victorian novels.