“Her novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, and are of interest to social historians as well as lovers of literature.”–Wikipedia quote

Though of Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell’s works I had originally intended to read and post on both the volume I picked up entitled The Cranford Chronicles and the very long novel (incomplete at the time of the author’s death) Wives and Daughters, because it took such an unconscionably long time to read The Cranford Chronicles (which is in fact composed not only of the novel Cranford but also of two related novellas), I have decided to post on the first only and to leave Wives and Daughters as a project for another time.  When I looked up Mrs. Gaskell’s works, I was surprised to learn that Mr. Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow, which bookend the novel Cranford in the volume The Cranford Chronicles, are in fact novellas usually published separately, so I can only imagine that the unnamed editor/collector at Vintage Books saw some connection amongst the three works, perhaps that of similar fictional locale, since they all three take place in sedate, small villages.  It’s true, of course, that these three novels are not among the novels largely and ostensibly about the industrial North of England, which Mrs. Gaskell is so noted by social historians for having written about; nevertheless, she makes her points about the changes which came to England at the time and their effects upon the poor by showing the changes as they had their impact upon the small family seats and villages [I refuse to say “impacted”–that’s not a correct verbal usage].

First for a bit of background about Elizabeth Gaskell, née Stevenson, courtesy of Wikipedia, the rapid poster’s friend.  Her father was a Unitarian minister who gave up his orders for conscientious reasons and was finally appointed Keeper of the Treasury Records.  Her mother, who produced eight children–only two of whom survived to adulthood–died when Elizabeth was thirteen months old, which her father felt left him no recourse but to send the infant to her mother’s sister, one Hannah Lumb, for raising.  Elizabeth led a life with an uncertain future, but was a “permanent guest” at her aunt’s and at her grandparents’ house.  Her father remarried but Elizabeth did not see her father’s new family for many years.  Her older brother John, however, visited her and her aunt regularly before he went missing (he was a sailor with the East India Company on an exploration to India).

Leaving school at the age of sixteen after having been taught the usual basic skills, lessons, and accomplishments of a young lady of her time, Elizabeth spent some time in London, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Edinburgh with various cousins and friends.  When she was almost twenty-two, she married a Unitarian minister named William Gaskell.  They settled in the northern city of Manchester.  Her married life was apparently checkered with some heartbreak.  The subjects, though not the steadfastness of her tone in her fiction, seem to show it:  her first two children died.  The other four, however, survived.  In 1835, she began a diary on family events and her opinions, which probably put her in the frame of mind to continue to express herself through writing.  The next year, she and her husband co-authored a cycle of poems which were published in Blackwood’s Magazine.  She continued to write for the magazines under various pseudonyms, penning her first novel, Mary Barton, in 1848.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s friends and visitors included Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Eliot Norton, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Hallé.  Her novel Cranford (her best-known work) was published in Dickens’s journal Household Words.  She continued to write novels for the rest of her life, some of which required travel.  Elizabeth Gaskell died in 1865 of a heart attack while looking at a house she had purchased.  Her last novel, Wives and Daughters, though unfinished when she died, was the one she thought her best.  In 2010 there was a memorial for Elizabeth Gaskell placed in Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey.

Now for my own opinion of the three works of hers which I read in the omnibus The Cranford Chronicles, an opinion perhaps not as humble as it ought to be, given that Mrs. Gaskell was such a prolific and talented writer, and occupied and still holds such an important place in English literary history, especially since the revision of the literary canon has been going on.  Her work drags.  I suppose I had been led to expect, by the snippets and fragments of “Cranford” which I managed to catch on the BBC production featured on American PBS programs a few years back, that I would be meeting up with a character as coyly dimpled in the delivery of her lines as Dame Judi Dench, or a railway martinet as sure of his own beliefs as the character whom all the ladies went in dread of on that show.  But as I came to find, the railway scenes from the BBC were a total fabrication when it came to the three works I was actually reading, which Alex, in her recent comments on her own site when she wrote her talented post about Cranford, had warned about.  As she noted, the television mini-series seems to have been a compilation of Mrs. Gaskell’s works.  But to blame Mrs. Gaskell for not having written a BBC mini-series attuned to modern tastes would be a real case of unfairness, wouldn’t it, as well as an unpardonable anachronism?  So instead of saying what’s wrong (the slow pacing) and what’s not there, let’s look on the bright side (now that the task is accomplished) and say what was good about it, or charming, or thought-provoking.

In the first part of The Cranford Chronicles, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, I was pleased to watch Mrs. Gaskell leave the safe and well-known (to her) ground of the female character and venture into the more hazardous waters of the male mentality.  Hazardous because of course Mrs. Gaskell, though clearly understanding men quite as well as women, excels in her portraits of women in different walks of life.  It was a sheer delight, after the basic comedic “givens” of the situation were set up, however, to watch Mr. Harrison (a new doctor) try to follow the sometimes self-contradictory dictates of his older and authoritarian colleague all the while also trying not to get himself married off to the wrong woman (which in this case multiplied itself into “women,” as every single woman within the tiny village of Duncombe who wasn’t absolutely ancient seemed to have an interest other than medical in trying to monopolize the young doctor’s attention).  This shortest of the three works was my clear favorite, not because it was short in this case, but because Mrs. Gaskell managed so much in so short a compass (that is, not because of the shortness, but in spite of it).  Though it’s clear that the novella will have some sort of happy ending, the tensions are handled excellently, and when I finished reading it, I was wanting more.

Cranford itself, occupying the middle position in this volume, has a very slowly emerging main character, Miss Matty, whose gallant modesty itself seems to constitute the nature of the whole volume.  Which is to say, though this was not my favorite of the three works, I can clearly see that it’s in contention for the position of “the best” (it’s priceless in its portrait of what’s often referred to derogatorially as “decaying gentlewomen,” but contends with My Lady Ludlow, the third work, for first place in the category of comprehensive portraits of society.  As most of the main characters in Cranford are “gentle,” their society is thoroughly painted, but the characters in My Lady Ludlow supply more of a range of different societal positions, and thus have a different kind of interest and variety).  Miss Matty’s and the other ladies’ even more recessive biographer, a person who until almost three-fourths of the way through the book is unnamed, focuses all her discussion on the minor and (as it turns out) not so minor fortunes and misadventures of these ladies, not omitting their foibles and vanities, but encouraging us to appreciate their individuality while particularly and gradually concentrating more and more attention on Miss Matty herself.  It’s rather as if the commonly named narrator Miss Mary Smith is a foil in her constant focusing of attention on the most genuinely humble of the ladies and in her own refusal to say much about herself (and I mean “common” only in the most inoffensive way, i.e., a “frequently occurring” name, as goodness knows, it would not flatter me myself to refer to the name “Mary Smith” as “common” in any rude way, having both Marys and Smiths in my own family tree!)  After quite a lot of rueful comedy is generated by the way in which the ladies gossip and are motivated by silly though human questions of precedence and correct behavior, we see them draw together and operate as a supportive group, disregarding their differences, when Miss Matty has a stroke of ill fortune.  There is an equally modest happy ending which ties up all loose ends, and though the main characters have often been figures of fun, they have humanized their readers, perhaps, by their very lack of major vices and their jumping at the shadows of even small hints of vices.  Though the atmosphere is rather claustrophobic for my tastes with so many maiden ladies and widows and so few men in the mix, yet they are strong and determined women, and thus Mrs. Gaskell has given feminism its due though in the way of her time and taste.

As to the last of the three works I’m considering today, My Lady Ludlow, it’s a rather rambling work which takes place at Hanbury, the family seat of the widowed Lady Ludlow.  A character named Margaret Dawson is the narrator, and here again we have a portrait not only of a main character, Lady Ludlow, but also of those who surround her and constitute her daily society.  In this case, however, the characters run the gamut from Lady Ludlow’s aristocratic relatives to the lowest of the characters on the totem pole, the poachers and tinkers whom Lady Ludlow herself, at the opening of the fiction when Margaret Dawson first meets her, would never think would have contact with the more fortunately placed characters.  Nearly as long as Cranford, this novella describes the gradual (very gradual) relaxing of Lady Ludlow’s strict upper-class beliefs about religion, society, business, in short, upon all areas of life which impinge upon her.  Time after time, some aspect of progress which is usually for the benefit of the poorer characters meet up with opposition from Lady Ludlow.  It’s not that she’s unkind, but she is quite adherent to the preferences of the upper classes to give charitably to those who are under their thumbs rather than to increase the privileges, rights, and capabilities of the lower-class characters by changing the way society operates.  For the longest time, she stubbornly though politely opposes her own steward and the village rector who both have in mind improvements, and it’s a mark of how much she is respected that all but a very few characters follow her absolutely and unquestioningly (until such time as she gives way and changes her mind).  It in fact takes most of the length of the novella for her to change the staunchest of her opinions and procedures, and it is only after a deep personal loss that she eventually brings herself to do so.  It is in fact while she is sad and in mourning that she seems the most to reach out to those to whom she has in the past opposed, and they are more than ready to accept her olive branch.  Once again, the requisite happy ending is in order, in which all parties seem to relax their former standards slightly and to strive to get along as a group.  Mrs. Gaskell is nothing if not supportive of the basic structure of society in these three works, however society may need change from time to time or come to be refigured.

All in all, I am quite glad I read Mrs. Gaskell.  She will never win a prize for the rapidly occurring “hook” at the beginnings of her works, for it takes her some time to build up steam and provide a basic conflict or drama for her characters to participate in.  Her works instead excel in character portraits, to judge only from these three-in-one, and as such the action is secondary.  She is not one of whom Henry James’s dictum that plot is character and character plot is very convincing, because while for James this is true and he shows a tight and firm connection between the two, she by contrast often seems to have very little in the way of plot for long stretches of at least the two later works here, and this disjoins the two elements of structure which for James were so intimately connected.    Of course, she wrote so much that I am quite prepared to be contradicted by others who may have read more of her works.  I would also advise anyone having trouble with characterizations in particular to observe her techniques, her pacing being of less significance in that regard.  She is a highly talented verbal portrait painter, and though she is capable of capturing a significant incident with a few lines, these incidents are quite often moments indicative of interior states of mind or of character analysis going forward.

So, during this long, seemingly never-ending summer, when you’re looking for a book to spend time with and really get in the midst of, you could do worse than to spend time with Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell and to watch her cause characters to materialize right before your eyes.  If nothing else, start with Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, full of gentle though sometimes quite pointed humor, and expect to step back in time with a Victorian chuckle rather than a contemporary guffaw (because, you know, the true ladies and gentlemen in Mrs. Gaskell’s worlds don’t guffaw!).

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1 Comment

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

One response to ““Her novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, and are of interest to social historians as well as lovers of literature.”–Wikipedia quote

  1. Pingback: A Journey “North and South” with Elizabeth Gaskell (and my sister in law, Ann)

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