Mrs 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.