In the village of Cranford, decorum is maintained at all times. Despite their poverty, the ladies are never vulgar about money (or their lack of it), and always follow the rules of propriety. But this discretion and gentility does not keep away tragedy; and when the worst happens, the Amazons of Cranford show the true strength of their honest affections. A masterpiece of social comedy, "Cranford" is as moving as it is funny, and as sharp as it is tender.
Welcome to the quiet backwater of Cranford. The women are in charge, because the men mostly have business elsewhere. So the desperate gentlewomen keep busy sublimating more basic urges into a passion for Victorian social niceties. Clare Wille is delightfully warm and compassionate as the young narrator Mary Smith, fondly recounting the elegant economiesA" of her Cranford circle of spinsters and widows. Yet neither Mary's narrow field of focus nor the delicacy of her humour preclude sharp observations about the frailties of human nature or warnings of the disruption that events in the wider world are about to visit on her unsuspecting friends. The plotlines - a mesalliance between a titled lady and one of the town's few virile men, a financial scandal, a beturbanned magician, a prodigal's return - were probably pretty sensational when the novel was first published, but are most important as the frame on which Gaskell constructs a beguiling picture of a dying society. The BBC 1 costume-drama version shouldn't put Wille's telling of the original in the shade. - Karen Robinson, The Sunday Times Done that, been there, seen the TV serial, got the T-shirt (Miss Matty is the lick), but have you read the book? The problem with screen adaptations of period pieces is that they inevitably fall into the same trap. Put a theatrical dame into a bonnet and willy-nilly, no matter how many Baftas she's bagged, she becomes a pantomime dame. Cranford wasn't inhabited exclusively by daft old biddies wearing bonnets, shawls and frozen expressions of scandalised incredulity; Mrs Gaskell wrote about real people - some, admittedly, with eccentric ways, but nonetheless genuine. What makes her best-known book, a quintessentially English take on the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, so beguiling is the gently ironic tone of the young narrator, Mary Smith. This is the fourth Cranford I've heard - Prunella Scales did the last - and for once, in Clare Wille, they've got the right-aged reader. Mary (unlike Prunella) doesn't judge. She observes. Her cool, clear gaze misses nothing in this mid-Victorian provincial backwater. You can hear her smiling at its preoccupations with thrift, etiquette, class, crochet, ribbons, gossip and the growing coolness between Miss Jenkins, doyenne of the tea table, and Captain Brown, who finds Boz more entertaining than Samuel Johnson. 'It was the only difference of opinion they had ever had, but that difference was enough. Miss Jenkins could not refrain from talking at Captain Brown, and though he did not reply, he drummed with his fingers, which action she felt and resented as very disparaging to Dr Johnson.' Oh, if only life were still as simple. - Sue Arnold, The Guardian Clare Wille's performance of this gently satirical look at a genteel English village in the first half of the nineteenth century may be the wittiest I've ever heard. Like a kinder version of E. F. Benson's Mapp v. Lucia novels, Gaskell's ladies of Cranford have their jealousies and their vanities. They also have moments of quiet tragedy (a lost brother, a suitor rejected to please the family but never forgotten) and of high drama. Wille made me laugh aloud at the pompous trumpeting of the late Reverend Jenkins. When Miss Poe comes in out of breath, you could swear Wille was running up stairs while delivering her lines. Her performance is always fully engaged, at one with the story, which is itself a small gem. - B.B., AudioFile Magazine To prime myself for Return to Cranford, the new Masterpiece Classic sequel to last year's award-winning mini-series Cranford on PBS, I wanted to read Mrs Gaskell's original novel that it was adapted from. Since I am always short of reading time, I chose instead to listen to an audio recording, my favorite pastime during my commute to work. After a bit of research on Cranford audio book recordings, I settled on the Naxos AudioBooks edition. From my experience with their recording of Jane Austen's novels I knew the quality would be superior. I was not disappointed. A witty and poignant portrait of small town life in an early Victorian-era English village, Cranford was first published in 1851 as a serial in the magazine Household Words edited by Charles Dickens. Inspired by author Elizabeth Gaskell's (1810-1865) early life in Knutsford in Cheshire where she was raised by an aunt after her mother's death and father's subsequent re-marriage, the novel revolves around the narrator Miss Mary Smith and the Amazons of the community: the authoritative Miss Deborah Jenkyns and her kindhearted but timid younger sister Matty, the always well informed Miss Pole and the self-important aristocratic Mrs Jamieson. This gentle satire of village life does not supply much of a plot - but amazingly it does not matter. Gaskell has the incredible talent of making everyday occurrences and life events totally engrossing. Miss Matty's conservative friends, the middle-aged spinsters and widows of Cranford, do not want their quaint life and traditions altered one bit. They like Cranford just as it has always been, therefore when the industrial revolution that swept through England in the 1840's encroaches upon their Shangri-La, they lament and bustle about attempting to do everything in there power to stop the evil railroad's arrival. Gaskell is a deft tactician at dry humor, not unlike her predecessor Jane Austen, and the comedy in Cranford balanced with a bit of tragedy is its most endearing quality. This unabridged audio book recording is aptly read by Clare Wille whose sensitive and lyrical interpretation of Gaskell's narrative enhanced my enjoyment of the story by two fold. Her rendering of the different characters with change of timbre and intonation was charmingly effective. My favorite character was of course the kindhearted Miss Matty. Even though she is of a certain age she has a child-like naivete refreshingly seeing her friends and her world in simple terms. In opposition to our present day lives of cell-phones, blackberries and information overload, a trip to Cranford was a welcome respite. I recommend it highly. 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of author Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell nee Stevenson's birth on 29 September 1810 in Chelsea, which was then on the outskirts of London. In celebration of her bi-centenary, Naxos Audiobooks will be releasing three additional recordings of her novels: North and South in February again read by Clare Wille, Wives and Daughters in March read by Patience Tomlinson and Cousin Phillis in May read by Joe Marsh. Happily, I will be enjoying many hours of great Gaskell listening this year. - Laurel Ann, Austenprose.com