Up until a couple of days ago, I had been dreading writing this review. This is my first official blog read-along and I really, really did not want to hate the book and so give it a negative response. It wasn't until I was well into the second half of the book that my attention was caught. The chapter called The Panic was so hilariously funny, I decided to go back and re-read the whole thing! I figured that I wasn't really giving the novel my undivided attention (which I really wasn't), since I was in the middle of reading 4 other novels.
I think the main problem was, in my case, that I had seen the Cranford BBC mini-series, and was expecting quite a different novel. I did not realize that the series was not only based on Cranford, but other short stories by Gaskell as well. I loved the Cranford film, especially the male characters, so when I get to the book and all the male characters die in the first few chapters, I was really disappointed to say the least, not to mention the complete absence of the young doctor, who really made the series to me. It took me a while, but I eventually forgave Gaskell for not combining all her writing into Cranford. A novel that is about mostly women and their contained lives within a small town in mid-nineteenth century England does have some redeeming qualities, after all.
It is at times very dark and very real, at times heartbreaking and other times awe-inspiring, and still others times, rip roaringly funny. There is quite a good amount of death happening, and most of it is so very sudden, without much commotion corresponding to the event. It is almost as if, since death happens so often and so easily at this period in history, people are more accustomed to the aftermath. I actually like that it is written in a mostly vignette form with very little plot continuity. It enables the reader to sit down and read a chapter whenever he/she feels the urge. It definitely helped me after I decided to re-read the whole bloody thing. (I cannot tell a lie--I did skip over some of the vignettes the second reading. Some are really just too boring and too filled with inconsequential details.)
Miss Matty is by far my favorite character in the novel. I love her naivete, her caring attitude towards others, her sense of doing what is right and what is honest, and her acceptance of people for who they really are. She honors the memory of her sister Deborah in her healthy sense of propriety, but at the same time, she does eventually move on to live her own life after her death. Miss Matty tries to hold on to the traditions of her sister, but because of Matty's strong sense of, not necessarily a moral code, but a strong sort of empathy for others, she does let many of the senseless (though she herself would never call them that) rules go in favor of a more caring, make-everyone-happy approach. I also love how the narrator, Miss Smith, and her observations and contributions really increased the depth of compassion that we feel towards Miss Matty. I think Miss Matty made the novel for me. I entirely felt her pain and understood her softness amidst her sister Deborah's authoritarian rule. She respected her sister and many of the other characters in this small town. Miss Matty is definitely a character to whom I can relate.
I don't wish to say too much, since I am only reviewing the first half of the novel, so I will finish my first review with a tentative 4 stars for this novel, with more to come next week for the review of the final half. (I am subtracting one star, not for any fault in Gaskell's writing, but in the fact that there are times that my attention flagged and the book did not sustain my interest.)