Monday, 28 January 2013

Daytripping: Knutsford (Cranford). . .

I suppose on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice I should be blogging about something Austenesque, but even though I am an ardent Janeite, I'm heading north instead to celebrate  Elizabeth Gaskell's equally entertaining world of Cranford.

I've previously read Gaskell's North and South and her biography of Charlotte Bronte, but neither prepared me for the warmth, humour and touching poignancy that envelopes her group of elderly, opinionated and very proper spinsters (and no, I haven't yet seen the BBC adaptation with Judi Dench, which must be rectified as soon as possible!). These independent women are quite proud of their town and position in it, maintaining their dignity and social standing with limited resources and with the presence of as few men as possible, bemoaning the odd occasion when, "it seemed as if ill-luck would have it that we went to the only two households of Cranford where there was the encumbrance of a man, and in both places the man was where he ought not to have been - namely, in his own house, and in the way."  And yet despite the tough mockery and indifference, there is a lingering sadness and loneliness that often surrounds these women with regrets that nag particularly at Miss Matty, over lost opportunities for love and children, along with real fears of financial insecurity and safety concerns that are most prominent in the chapter "The Panic", where over-active imaginations and exaggerated story-telling, though comical, also heighten the legitimate fears of potential robbers caused by strange noises in the night that have visited every woman who has ever lived alone, in whatever century.

I really enjoyed spending time with these characters and there are scenes that still make me giggle, such as Miss Matty and her sister Deborah going off to their rooms to suck on their oranges in private so as not to offend by suggesting an "unpleasant association with a ceremony frequently gone through by little babies", or the description of the town's postman - a man so lame, that his wife has to deliver all the letters, except on special occasions, when the mail inevitably came very late. Cranford is indeed a town where nothing would ever happen, without the women.

It's also based on the town of Knutsford which is barely an hour's drive from Liverpool and where Gaskell herself lived for many years. I was passing through a few weeks ago and found it full of interesting architecture, posh shops and this memorial tower to Gaskell on the main street.

Engraved along the side of the tower are the titles of all of Gaskell's books.

There's also a tribute to Miss Matty herself.

And what is this building now?  A WH Smith.  I'm kicking myself that I didn't go inside to see if they actually sold Cranford, but I was running late and had already spent a fair bit of time in the Knutsford Waterstones (which did sell her books).

The women of Cranford visit each other almost daily and certainly when there is the slightest bit of gossip to impart. They drink tea, play cards and of course - quite delightedly - they knit: "Miss Pole and Miss Jessie Brown had set up a kind of intimacy, on the strength of the Shetland wool and the new knitting stitches". And as chance would happen, the latest edition of Piecework just happens to have an article on "The Knitting Ladies of Cranford" by Mary Lycan, which includes two patterns adapted from actual knitting books published in Edinburgh in the 1840s.

Both are inspired by Miss Pole and her penchant for "elegant economy".  I'm not sure I'd have much use for the Prudence Cap or Neck Ruff which she would have worn in the winter under her bonnet, but I do quite like the Muffatees -  basically fingerless gloves with a nice little ruffle at the cuffs.

I love the serendipitous tingle of classic literature and modern life colliding into each other and I anticipate this happening on a regular basis the more I explore England.

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