Opposite the Rolls-Royce showroom at the traffic lights in the centre of Knutsford is a small charity shop. Inside three ladies of a certain age are discussing a green cardigan. They are all shop assistants.
"I put it out for sale this morning," says one. Outside the light is fading as the winter's afternoon gives up the ghost. "But, the thing is, I think it might suit me. Do you think it would be awful if I bought it myself?" There is clearly some etiquette of self-purchasing at work here which I do not comprehend.
"Ooooh, no. I'm sure that will be fine," says one of the others, waiving the unarticulated taboo.
"Of course," endorses the third.
"I thought it might look nice with a cream camisole underneath ..." And on they go.
There are a few bookshelves in the corner. I am looking for a copy of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford, a pseudonym for Knutsford, where the Victorian novelist was brought up, married and lived for many years. The "ladies of Cranford, always dressed with chaste elegance and propriety" were, in fact, the ladies of Knutsford, though it would have violated propriety to have said so when the book was published in 1851. But the locals all knew.
And they still do. I have parked my car in Gaskell Avenue, as it was renamed around the turn of the last century, just round the corner from Cranford Avenue. When I eventually find a copy of the novel – which is being broadcast in a BBC1 dramatisation on Sunday evenings – it is not in the section of Waterstone's marked Fiction along with Joanne Harris, Louise Bagshaw, Margaret Drabble and Jane Austen (the women, I notice). Nor is it under Literature (along with Hardy, Galsworthy and Dickens, the men). It is under Local Interest.
Knutsford is, in Pevsner's judgement, "the most attractive town of its size in Cheshire". It long has been. It was here in the earlyn Victorian period that Elizabeth Gaskell (it feels wrong not to call her Mrs) wrote her gentle satiric study of the manners of the inhabitants of a small English country town, their uneventful lives and their preoccupation with hats, and cake and tea – where "the rose-leaves were gathered 'ere they fell, to make into a pot-pourri".
"In the first place," the novel opens, "Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad."
Drumble is, of course, Manchester. The novel is about change, and how the paraphernalia of Victorian commerce and imperial expansion threaten the customs and habits inherited from a previous age. Cranford is on the cusp of change symbolised by the new-fangled railway which is about to arrive in the quiet market town – bringing with it pollution, migrant workers and threatening the peace and order of Augustan England.
The railway is still there but it is the car that dominates now. Easy access to the M6 and M56 is today the great determinant of Knutsford's character. Indeed the place which locals boast was named after King Canute (thought to have camped there while marching to Scotland in 1017) is best known to the nation as a motorway service station.
Perhaps that's apt. Cunetesford featured in the Domesday Book in 1086 and Knutsford men fought with their squire at Crecy. But it has always been both a provider of services and a staging post. It was first granted a royal charter for a market in 1292. And in the days when Over Knutsford and Nether Knutsford were united as a parish by Act of Parliament in 1741 it was a coaching town. Long before Mrs Gaskell arrived, the stagecoach from Liverpool called at the White Bear tavern every evening at 8.30 on its southward journey through Birmingham to London.
The Industrial Revolution never arrived in Knutsford. There was no vast expansion of the population or ugly mills belching dirty smoke into the Cheshire sky. Instead there was cottage industry with silk button-making and flax woven on hand looms. It was, wrote Mrs G, "a very picturesque place. The houses may be mean in their details but altogether they look well". Some years later C E Montague, the celebrated leader writer and drama critic of The Manchester Guardian, wrote of the town: "It glows like a firelit room of old masters in heavy gilt frames; its mellow, settled habitableness, the sum of all that men and women, neither poor nor very rich, could think of, in about 900 years, to make their town good to live in."
Even when the private car doubled the town's population (from 6,000 in 1951 to 13,000 in 1971), turning Knutsford into a dormitory town for Manchester, it was only the moneyed types – Sir Bobby Charlton, Andrew Flintoff, Gary Barlow, Mel C, Bryan Robson and Graeme Souness – who made the journey to the quiet place where Elizabeth Gaskell was brought up by her Aunt Hannah Lumb, in an all-female household that included her fiery-tempered Aunt Abigail and Mrs Lumb's disabled daughter.
There are men around today. But, as in Cranford, they seem peripheral. A chubby young man in a heavy chalk pinstriped suit, with spike-gelled hair, walks past as I leave the charity shop. In one hand he is carrying a mobile phone; in the other an open bottle of Mexican beer with a segment of lemon stuck in the top. The Lads and Dads barbershop across the road is empty. Men and their preoccupations were so "vulgar" – the nadir of values to the ladies of Cranford where "gentility" was accorded the greatest virtue.
In Cranford, men did not count. A terrible fate befell them, as with Captain Brown, a local man who undertook to become head of works for the dread railway, and was felled by a train while absorbed in the latest number of Pickwick (written by a man). Of course, this being Victorian England, an era that infantilised women, the widows and spinsters of Cranford were defined by husbands who had died or never materialised. The brother of the protagonist Matty (Judi Dench) disappeared, as did the joint stock company in which all her money was invested. Yet the men were in the background, appearing only to disrupt the placid surface of Cranford's existence, or to do some service, like Mr Woods the butcher, in modern Knutsford, whose shop window displays his Gold Medal awards alongside plump partridges and fine pheasants.
The current BBC adaptation has missed the key point in all this. Fearing that there is insufficient love interest in Cranford the writer has added in stories from other Gaskell works – My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison's Confessions – to get more men in and sex things up. But the point of Cranford was that the men were absent. "The ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient," wrote Mrs G. " 'A man,' as one of them observed to me once, 'is so in the way in the house!'"
Knutsford is still a female province. Nor have the preoccupations changed that much. In the doorway to the stationery shop down the road a couple of svelte women are discussing outfits for a wedding. Inside, the lady behind the counter is continuing the lament against progress. They have been five years building the new shopping precinct on the site of the old coaching inn, the Royal George. "And all we've got is a place selling very expensive children's clothes and a shoe shop which is fine if you can pay £200 for a pair of shoes. It's all constantly putting up the rates."
It all looks pretty olde worlde to me. The town's two main shopping streets curve in parallel, a collection of Georgian shop fronts and 17th-century half-timbered cottages and a pennyfarthing museum. Between them narrow passageways and lanes drop 40ft down to the Moorside. One of these is the new development, so tastefully designed that they have even set it with new cobbles. Jaeger is advertising cashmere sweaters: "£175 for two" (one is somehow never enough). But at the bottom of the wide alley is a street with more modest, if fairly genteel, offerings. Mrs Gaskell would recognise the balance, between wealth and good husbandry, vulgarity and gentility. "If we walked to or from a party, it was because the night was so fine, or the air so refreshing; not because sedan-chairs were expensive," she wrote. "If we wore prints, instead of summer silks, it was because we preferred a washing material; and so on, till we blinded ourselves to the vulgar fact that we were, all of us, people of very moderate means."
Simpson's chemist shop in Princess Street, which was the model for Miss Matty's teashop in Cranford, is now an Oddbins. Alongside Mrs Gaskell in Waterstone's Local Interest section, are books by the area's former MP, Martin Bell. There is no sign of the current incumbent, shadow chancellor George Osborne, nor a previous one, Neil Hamilton, though he could have been filed under Humour.
Up the rickety wooden staircase of the King Street Coffee and Cake Shop opposite, a svelte mother has broken off from her fruit tea and toasted teacake to answer her mobile. She is putting another Knutsford male in his place. "No. Come straight home and I'll take you to Blockbuster later because Madeleine's got her eye test at quarter to five."
We must not mock. Mrs Gaskell has given us advance warning. In Cranford, Matty's brother Peter pinched one of his sister's dresses, put it on, and paraded in front of the town cuddling a pillow, pretending it was a baby. He was flogged for his jape. "He seemed to think," she wrote, "that the Cranford people might be joked about, and made fun of, and they did not like it; nobody does."
Back in the charity shop, the three assistants have discovered a problem. There is a hole in the arm of the green cardigan.
"It wasn't there when I put it out this morning."
"Well, it is now."
"You can't wear that."
Mrs Gaskell would have agreed.
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