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This collection of novellas centers around the fictional English town of Cranford and surrounding areas and forms the basis for the 2007 BBC mini-series of the same name. The first novella, Cranford, was first published in 1851 and tells the story of the Jenkyns sisters and their nosy neighbors. Next is Mr. Harrison's Confession, a witty piece about a young doctor who recently moves to the town of Duncombe and is involved in many misunderstandings. My Lady Ludlow, written in 1858, is set before the other two novellas. In it the narrator recounts her childhood growing up in Lady Ludlow's household while documenting her observations of political and country life at the time.
A note for those like me who saw the BBC adaptation first: My enjoyment of these novellas was not compromised, although I was sometimes confused when trying to tie the plot of the adaptation to what I was reading. Unlike the adaptation, the stories of the three novellas are distinct, and the characters do not interact amongst them. Only the first novella takes place in the town of Cranford; the other two take place in similarly small towns and also feature large casts of eccentric widows and spinsters. Aside from my minor confusion, seeing the adaptation first also made me appreciate the skill of the adaptation creators in keeping the essence of Gaskell's original works while at the same time creating a unique and intertwined reworking of the stories.
With reference to other fiction by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Cranford Novellas are of a looser format and more casual tone. Jenny Uglow, in an excellent article at the Guardian, says Gaskell's novellas "read like the stories people relate casually, in letters with lots of asides or in a circle of storytellers round the fire." While each novella does tell an over-arching story, the chapters within them are self-contained, short stories unto themselves. On a personal note, I preferred this casual writing style of Gaskell's novellas over her novels that I have read so far (North and South, Wives and Daughters). While the novellas didn't have the same dramatic power of a cohesive novel, they seemed more realistic and personal. The Cranford Novellas are not page turners, but Gaskell's format and style provides a readier canvas on which to portray the manias, heartbreak, tragedy and joy of rural England at the time. How lucky we are that Gaskell recorded these tales so that in them we gain insight into a way of life that otherwise would have been lost forever.