Cranford started out not as a novel, but as a series of related stories published in Household Words, a magazine published by Charles Dickens. Compiled as a book, Cranford lacks a cohesive plot but is filled with a few memorably funny moments (the tale of the cat and the lace collar springs immediately to mind) and a lovely scene that shows the power of female friendship. It also describes idyllic domesticity in a quiet English village at a time when industry, filth, and poverty ran rampant in England's larger cities (which were, ironically, the subjects of many of Dickens' works).
Cranford is unusual because it focuses on a world where there is no room for men, and where marriage is considered more of a nuisance than a blessing. The few male characters appearing in this novel are generally regarded either with suspicion or scorn. The bulk of the novel focuses on the life of Miss Matty Jenkyns, an aging spinster who takes in a frequent guest from a nearby town: unmarried Mary, who narrates the story. Miss Matty lives in the small town of Cranford, which is full of unmarried or widowed women. If a man moves into town, he somehow disappears. These women live quite happily in each other's society and are genteel despite their uncertain finances. The novel is full of gossip and intrigues - ways for the Cranford women to spend their time since it isn't occupied by other things.
Of course, in this remarkable little world of the Cranford ladies, something eventually must happen to one of their own. Miss Matty's bank goes under, and she finds herself bankrupt, deprived of the 127 pounds per annum that she had to live on. She takes it all in stride, but the other ladies of Cranford get together to help her in a very touching way that allows Miss Matty to maintain her lifestyle.
Marriage eventually finds a place in Cranford. Miss Matty's servant marries a charming young man, and the couple is very happy. The local surgeon marries one of the ladies in town who is above his station, a scandal that is endlessly discussed among the women; but despite the couple becoming outcasts, they seem very content.
Gaskell's book appears to be the antithesis of Jane Austen's works, which predate this story by about 40 years. The Introduction and Notes by Patricia Ingham complement the story by giving some historical background about English domestic life in the mid-19th century, and appendices include essays, a follow-up to Cranford, and illustrations about the fashions of the time, which is an important aspect of the book. Some of Gaskell's letters are also included. All in all, this is a complete, if sometimes uninteresting, examination of the domestic life of 19th-century English women.