Cranford was so thoroughly charming I couldn’t stop reading it. It made me laugh, sigh and even get a little misty-eyed at times. The structure of the book–reminiscences by a woman who divides her time between Cranford and a neighboring town and is good friends with the main characters–is simple but elegant. Stories and flashbacks both detailed and simple bloom organically from the overall structure. As you read the book, you feel the rhythms of a small town and the people who live there–you learn about the characters and their interconnectedness just like anyone else new to the town would.

And the characters! Members of “The Last Generation,” they’re mostly the middle class unmarried women of the town, who cling to an identity of aristrocracy and elegance that they’ve only known as ideals, not realities. They assiduously avoid discussing their monetary woes and do their best to pretend, ignore or argue away the realities that their precarious financial situations bring. Chief among them in terms of the book are the Jenkyns sisters: acid-tongued, literature-loving (hee hee) Deborah and her younger, milder sister, Matilda (Matty).

Although the action of the book seems to focus on the smaller events of life, larger touches of tragedy invade the narrative quite frequently–from the death of strong-minded Deborah to Matty’s financial ruin, the outside world and its darker realities is never as far away from the borders of Cranford as the ladies would like to pretend.

Still, that’s where most of the humor comes: a delightful, ironic wit about these women and the way they’ve chosen to approach life. Like so many of my favorite authors, Gaskell (author of my beloved The Life Of Charlotte Bronte) has such affection for her characters that their foibles seem real and endearing. You admire them and sincerely want the best for them, even when they’re behaving badly.

Although there’s not a satisfying “ending” as such, the book manages to spin into something quite lovely, with a restoration of sorts being made to Miss Matty’s life that really got to me. The flashes we’re given of her private emotion and pain–especially in terms of her would-be romance with a gentleman from her youth–are handled nimbly and tenderly without revealing too much. Just as they’d have it, the ladies of Cranford in the end remain the masters of their emotional domains, only revealing as much of their inner lives as they want to. The fun for the reader is to match their efforts against the facts, and more than often, smile at the disparity.

Plus, there’s a cow in a flannel costume. 🙂

I loved this book!