I listen to more and more audiobooks these days. Life never seems to get any less busy and if I only reviewed the books I actually read in the traditional format, I think I might only manage a couple a month! C’est la vie. It’s interesting, though, and gives you a different perspective on an author’s work.
I have posted here many times about Elizabeth Gaskell – I have reviewed North and South and am a regular visitor to her home in central Manchester, a beautiful and calm space in one of the busiest areas of the city, close to the Manchester Royal Infirmary and the universities. Gaskell also has a strong association with the Cheshire town of Knutsord. She lived there with her aunt after her parents died. It is where she met and married Unitarian minister William Gaskell, and where she is buried in the modest churchyard of the Brook Street Unitarian Chapel, close to the railway station. Knutsford is a short drive from my home and I am a frequent visitor to the magnificent Tatton Park, the entrance to which is on the periphery of the town.
I was delighted to find that an audio version of Gaskell’s second novel Cranford (which was first published in serial form between 1851-53) was available as a freebie in my audiobook subscription. The reading was by Prunella Scales, an actress I love and whose voice we seldom hear these days as she has been living with dementia for some years now.
I had never read Cranford, thinking of it as one of Gaskell’s less serious works, and neither have I ever watched the much-acclaimed television series which includes most of Britain’s acting royalty, including several Dames and Sirs! Listening to the audio, however, was a joy. With its wit, irony and observation of character I think it is up there with Jane Austen’s best work.
Set in the fictional market town of Cranford (which is so recognisable as Knutsford that it is remarkable to think that almost two hundred years have passed), it is narrated by Mary Smith, a regular visitor to the town as the guest of the ageing Misses Deborah and Matty Jenkyns. Mary Smith writes detailed accounts of events in the town, mainly insofar as they affect the female community, the widows and spinsters. There is a powerful social hierarchy here, as well as a strict code of behaviour and manners. This is a country town, but the industrial revolution hums in the background – Drumble (aka Manchester), lies not too many miles away.
Change is coming to the community, suggested by a death on the railroad, by the happy marriage between the widowed Lady Glenmire and the local surgeon Dr Hoggins (considered by some to be an affront to the social order), and by the collapse of a bank which leaves Miss Matty virtually penniless. All these events unsettle the established order in Cranford. But what the episodes reveal is the tender humanity beneath all the appearance (and indeed the inhumanity of some).
Cranford is a treasure of a book. Written by Gaskell mainly to generate income, it shows the professional writer at work, honing her craft, exploring her creativity and drawing on ‘what she knew’ in the pursuit of her art. Great fun but also poignant and truthful.