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I have just laid down one of the most delightful books in the English language. This was my third pass through it, chuckling, sighing in satisfaction over a perfect turn of phrase, exclaiming, or weeping all the way. It’s a lot more than antique chick lit. Beneath the surface of financially strained female gentility is a strong current of ardent feminism, a sharp critique of early Industrial Revolution big business, and another critique of the British class and education systems. Its upper layers give us characters warmly portrayed who would under many another author’s quill pen have been laughed at, sneered at, or simply passed over in favor of exaggeration or titillation.

Dame Judi Dench played the lead role, Miss Matty, in a TV production of Cranford — I think it was a BBC mini-series — some years back. Even she was not able to give us the depths of this seemingly weak, slightly endowed spinster sister, who is nevertheless a sterling leader by example.

Mrs. Gaskell (Elizabeth Gaskell, 1810 – 1865) published the novel Mary Barton in 1848, which won her a nationwide audience through Charles Dickens’ new periodical, Household Words, where Cranford was first published in serial form. She also wrote Wives & Daughters, North & South, Sylvia’s Lovers, and the acclaimed Life of Charlotte Bronte. Gaskell’s insight and writing skill are often compared favorably to the otherwise incomparable Jane Austen.

My copy is a sadly decaying Oxford Paperbacks 1972 edition, which I (wisely, as it turns out) covered in sticky-backed plastic. Get a better copy, and be ready to enjoy life for a good read.