Wednesday, 9 January 2008

The first book of 2008 - Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell had not registered on my reading radar before the recent BBC production. In fact, I only tuned into the first episode of the BBC production because a colleague mentioned in passing that everyone dies in Mrs Gaskell’s stories. Morbid, I know, but it was enough to pique my interest. I was immediately hooked. The stories unfurled during the four weeks of the series were gentle and witty, tender and gripping, funny and unbearably sad. Such was my addiction that I received not one but two copies of the stories the series was based on (Cranford, Mr Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow) as Christmas presents.

Cranford (1853) is simply sublime. Narrated by Miss Mary Smith, from the first page it is an engaging and wryly amusing take on the predominantly female world of the village of Cranford:

…for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody’s affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maidservants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. ‘A man’, as one of them observed to me once, ‘is so in the way in the house’.

The characters are vivid and engaging. The gentle Miss Matty, kind but easily flustered as she attempts to accommodate genteel manners with the changes in society wrought by the encroaching modern world. Her sister Miss Deborah, a formidable lady who dismisses the modern idea that women are equal to men, as she knows they’re superior! Miss Pole, and her meticulous collection and broadcasting of gossip. Martha, the faithful young servant, and Jem Hearn, her “follower”.

The pace is slow, but only slow in that the narrative is made up of anecdotes and asides. It’s more a smoothly rolling pace of stories related in letters, or told to a visitor to update her on the events of the months since her last visit. There are many stock themes, such as the thwarted love affair or the long lost brother, but they’re so beautifully written that it’s a pleasure to read. There are so many gems it’s hard to isolate my favourite bit, though Miss Matty’s attempts to enter the world of trade are handled so deftly that they’re funny instead of maudlin.

Mr Harrison’s Confessions (1851) is enjoyable, though more than a little overshadowed by Cranford. The plot follows a young and unmarried doctor as he embarks on his first general practice in the small country town of Duncombe, with a series of misunderstanding and practical jokes leading to much romantic misinterpretation.

My Lady Ludlow (1858) was more of a struggle for me. Structurally, it’s interesting but I found it over long. The story about the French Revolution was a bit too melodramatic for me, even as I appreciated that it was an attempt to balance the revolution occurring in the lady’s world as modern life encroaches. The social history, a feature of all three stories, was most apparent, and most interesting, in this story. It reminds me of how far we’ve come as a society in terms of things like universal suffrage, education and protection of children or medical advances.

I’ve now added other Gaskell novels to my list of books to read, perhaps some that deal with working-class life in industrialising and urbanising England, maybe Mary Barton or North and South, to counter the pastoral Cranford stories.

And I’ve gathered two new words for my collection: fain and quondam.

Fain works as both an adverb and adjective. As an adverb, it means:
1. with pleasure, gladly;
2. by preference, by desire
As an adjective, with “to”, it means:
1. Happy, pleased (archaic)
2. inclined, desirous (archaic)
3. (a) willing; (b) being obliged or constrained: compelled

Quondam, an adjective, means “former” or “sometime” and dates from the first half of the 16th century, from the Latin quom, when.

I’m fain to recommend Cranford and, now that I’ve finally discovered her, I hope Mrs Gaskell is never my quondam friend. This was the perfect book to start my reading year.

1 comment:

Liz Svoboda said...

I stumbled upon your blog and noticed you had tagged Elizabeth Gaskell in one of the side bars. I have a reading suggestion for you. It's North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. It is not like the other books you've read by her. Think Jane Austen with a proletariat twist. It's almost a bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel)and not everyone dies in he end. I personally loved it and have been wanting to read more by her.

Read it and see what you think.