Mrs Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’ and the Zones of Turbulence

cranfordMrs Gaskell’s much loved novel, Cranford, was the reading group choice for June.  Much loved, that is, by everyone but me.  Although I have in the past very much enjoyed both Mary Barton and North and South, I had, lodged in my mind, the idea that Cranford was nothing more than a collection of twee episodes in the life of a much fictionalised rural idyll and as such not a book I was prepared to give time to.

Well, that will teach me, won’t it?

I’ll say right from the outset, before any fire-breathing Cranfordites batter down the WordPress offices to retrieve my address and come round and lynch me, that having had to be forced to read the novel, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I could now wax lyrical about the well-drawn characters; about the gentle humour that barely hides the author’s very real concern for the dire straits of women left with neither a source of income nor the skills by means of which to make their way; or about the skilful use of language by means of which Mrs Gaskell is still able to draw the reader into this world over a century and a half after she was writing, but I am sure you all appreciate those things anyway.  So, rather than discuss features that you already esteem what I am going to do is sing the praises of the way in which the novel is structured, because at times I found myself exclaiming aloud at the audacity of the choices the author made in this respect and more especially at how she signalled those choices to the reader.

Like so many novels of its time, Cranford first appeared in serial form and it is easy to see this reflected in the episode structure.  In the early stages each pair of chapters comprises what might be seen as a short story about the inhabitants of this small town.  I am assuming that the chapter structure reflects the serialisation and that it was one chapter to one edition of the magazine because this would mean that each ‘story’ would be interrupted at a cliff hanging moment, leaving the reader to eagerly await the following week’s publication in order to discover what happened next. However, as the novel progresses this pattern begins to break down.  First we have the introduction of new characters who do not vanish at the end of the episode but continue through into the next pair of chapters such as Thomas Holbrook and Lady Glenmire. Then, the neat division of chapters into pairs begins to falter as we reach what has to be seen as the climax, namely the collapse of the Town and Country Bank.

As those of you who have studied narrative organisation will know, one of the ways in which the really important moments in a story are signalled as such to the reader is through the disturbance of established patterns.  We have got used to such features as the author’s style, their pace, the point of view adopted, the choice of narrative voice and suddenly this is disrupted. Such moments are known (in tagmemics, at least) as Zones of Turbulence  and while we may not always be conscious of the specific changes as we read, we do register their effect – the plot is hotting up.

How does Mrs Gaskell achieve this mighty shift in our perceptions of the quiet life in Cranford?  Well, she does, as I’ve said, change the length of her unit, a very common signal.  But she doesn’t adopt any of the more noticeable possibilities such as a change in the narrative voice from first to third person or a move from past to present tense.  She doesn’t even change the point of view from which the reader observes the action.  Oh no, in keeping with the nature of the book and indeed, the people of Cranford themselves, she simply names the point of view that we have inhabited all along.  No longer do we have a nameless young woman acting as our interpreter of village life, we now know that she is one Mary Smith.

This is masterful.  In the world of Cranford, the effort to find out someone’s name is enough to keep local gossip going for at least a week, actually discovering what it is a stroke of good fortune that will keep the successful party at the top of the village pecking order for some considerable time. When Gaskell reveals to us the identity of the previously anonymous narrator, she not only breaks with the established pattern but does so in a way that the reader now knows would cause a flutter in the hearts of any of the Cranford ladies were they to find themselves in our position.

But, just in case we should get too excited at the way in which the story is moving and the audacity of its author in challenging the expectations we as readers have developed, what does she call her narrator?  Is she, say, a Clarrisa or an Arabella or even a Matilda?  No, she is Mary, plain Mary Smith.  I very nearly stood up and cheered.

The dénouement then comes about with the return of Peter, signalled here by the change in status of an existing character.  You can’t get a much bigger change in status than moving from being dead (albeit presumed) to being alive.  But, dear reader, I think you have had enough excitement for one blog post so I will leave you to work your way through that yourself. Suffice it to say that I am a complete convert to Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford.   I totally repudiate any derogatory comments I may have made about it in the past and will almost certainly go back and read it again in the very near future just to revel in the brilliance of her integration of structure, style and characterisation.

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23 thoughts on “Mrs Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’ and the Zones of Turbulence

    1. Do, Liz. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it. I would never have read it if it hadn’t been chosen for the book group which just goes to show how valuable such groups are.

  1. Dear Alex, You’ve convinced me. I’ve been putting off reading a Mrs. Gaskell novel for quite some time, in spite of the fact that it leaves me with such a hole in my education, but “Cranford” is now on my list. I hate to admit my further ignorance, but what are tagmemics, when they are “at home” to folks? Is that some new kind of narratological breakthrough of the 21st century, or should I bow my head and weep buckets of tears at my own stupidity because they’re older than that? I await enlightenment eagerly! By the way, I’m not totally unexposed to “Cranford”–on American PBS television (Public Broadcasting System, the public and educational channels) there was what I think was a BBC production (definitely British in origin, anyway, hence from your neck of the woods, which should make it easier for you to find it) in serial form of “Cranford.” I caught the “establishing the tea shop” episode, and Judi Dench was in it, if I’m not mistaken. Please catch it if you liked “Cranford” and if you can find it, I feel sure it will make you glad you did (I was also prejudiced against it perhaps without cause, and I felt a flicker of interest which died only when I realized that I had missed several episodes already, and there was no way to recoup my losses).

    1. I didn’t see the televised version. After all why would I want to watch something so banal!!!!!!!!! So, you’re right I really must go back now and catch up with it. I’m sure I’ll be able to rent it fairly easily. If I remember correctly that isn’t just ‘Cranford’. I think they took scenes from some of her other works, especially when it became apparent that they had a hit on their hands and they needed to extend the run.

      Tagmemics is a system of linguistic analysis developed in America by a man called Kenneth Pike. It isn’t commonly practised in the UK; in fact, I think I am one of only two people working with it. However, I like it because it pays particular attention to context and also to the fact that the observer is always going to effect the phenomenon observed. If you google Pike you’ll find out a lot more.

      1. I second the proposal that you must watch the TV series. The acting is marvellous throughout, not just Dame Judi, and the wonderful Julia McKenzie gives a truly moving performance as Mrs Forrester. The bit where she explains why she’s so fond of Miss Matty and would do more to help if she could breaks my heart every time. The Beeb at its best!

        1. That’s a wonderful part of the book and I can imagine that Julia McKenzie would be magnificent. I going over to Amazon now to see what they have available.

    1. I can imagine that it might not work with teenagers, especially if it’s taught less than adequately. If the woman who taught me ‘Emma’ had got her hands on it I’m sure I would never have opened the book again.

  2. I’ve struggled with Mrs Gaskell’s books, though I am a fanatic reader of Mrs Oliphant and now Charlotte Yonge. You’ve convinced me that I need to try Cranford again – I did actually manage to read it but was underwhelmed.

    1. Maybe there is just a right time to read her works, Lisa. Or, Perhaps this isn’t the Gaskell you need. Have you read anything else she wrote? What about ‘Mary Barton’? Very different.

  3. I watched about 10 mins of the bbc series before deciding it had too many “characters” for my taste. Maybe that experience coloured my subsequent reading of the book too much since I really didn’t like it much. Fortunately someone recommended North and South which is far more my cup of tea.

    1. I have now ordered the TV version because I was able to get a very cheap copy that won’t break the bank and will certainly make some money for the charity shop if I don’t enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed ‘North and South’ and I see there is a televised version of that available with Pat Stewart that I might indulge in, as well. Have you read ‘Mary Barton’? If you enjoyed ‘North and South’ then that should be to your taste as well.

      1. i just watched a very good version of North and South but not sure who was in it. I’m hopeless with names of actors. thanks for the tip on Mary Barton. I’ll add to the list for sure

    2. Unfortunately, the BBC tinkered with it and if there’s too many extraneous characters, that’s because they threw in a couple of short stories that had nothing to do with Cranford as Mrs Gaskell wrote it.
      I love Cranford – despite doing it at school – but I’ve never thought about the structure before. What an interesting post. You might also enjoy Cousin Phillis which seems almost to be forgotten today.

  4. I loved the BBC series and I hope you’ll enjoy it too (Judi Dench and Julia McKenzie are just so talented!). I’ve enjoyed all the Elizabeth Gaskells I’ve ever read, maybe it’s time I get back to her for some more!

    1. Apparently, there are a number of shorter novellas that people rarely come across, Smithreens. It might be worth your while looking out for them.

  5. I’ve read this book a few times and there’s always something new there for me. I remember my mother in law saying it was a ‘comfort read’ for her when she was newly married and finding things difficult…

    1. I think we all have those comfort reads, Sarah. I know that if I find myself picking up ’84, Charing Cross Rd’ there’s something troubling me.

  6. So glad this one turned out to be good especially since you weren’t expecting it to! I know lots of people love this book. I’ve not read it but you make it sound so interesting and exciting I am going to have to make sure I get a copy of it to my Kindle so I have it ready when the mood strikes!

    1. If you’re going to get any more time off this summer, Stefanie, it would make a lovely book for a hot summer’s day with plenty of goodies alongside to enjoy while you’re reading it.

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