Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

"She would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior."
-- from Cranford, p. 13

In between vixens, and needing a break from literary angst over the place of women in society, I meant to read Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (which probably would just have switched up the angst a little). Instead, I took a scenic byway to her Cranford, a village ruled by a group of women "of very moderate means" (4), who "each has her own individuality, not to say eccentricity, pretty strongly developed" (2).

Gaskell's novel, published in 1853, must be the spiritual ancestor of Miss Read, of Mapp and Lucia, and all the cozy series (book and television) about life in quaint British villages, with or without a constant stream of murders. An air of melancholy lurks in the background, as aging spinsters remember lost loves and long-ago family tragedies, but in the forefront is the amusement to be had watching a straight-laced, insular, and even, we'd say today, passive-aggressive community facing the upheavals of life, from new fashions, traveling magicians to -- gasp! -- widows remarrying. Even in the time period of the novel, the village is old-fashioned: "things that many would despise, and actions which it seemed scarcely worth while to perform, were all attended to in Cranford" (17), and yet, at the end of the year 2015, that quiet concern with tradition is part of what makes it a charming read.

Although the subject matter is consciously quaint, the style seems strikingly modern for a novel written in 1853, the same year Bleak House was finished. No one would mistake a work by contemporaries like Dickens, or the Brontes, for a novel of the 20th century. But really, if I didn't know, I might not guess that this was written substantially earlier than, say, E.F. Benson's works in the 1920s - 1930s, or someone like Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh in the '40s or later. Not that Dickens or the Brontes are old-fangled or anything, but Cranford certainly seems less of its time. It bypasses the expansive mode so favored by the Victorians, with Gaskell willing to leave the novel short and sweet, putting a microscope on a single place and time, rather than connecting it to the larger world, either through plot or narrative moralizing.

Another thing that gives that modern feel is the device of a self-effacing first-person narrator, witness and minor participant in events, who's retelling them with ironic amusement and great affection for the foibles of her friends. We'll see this again in Mitford's novels -- not to mention The Great Gatsby. In this case, the narrator is the generically-named Mary Smith, a former resident and frequent family visitor, about whom we know barely anything until late in the book.

A few literary connections: the novel begins when Dickens' Pickwick Papers were first being published, which pushes the novel's time period back to 1836.

Miss Matty's obsession with the unhealthiness of green tea (see pages 133 and 160) is of interest to any Gothic fans who've read J. Sheridan Le Fanu's awesome short story "Green Tea," published in 1872. I don't know off-hand if this was a common concern, so for the moment, for fun, I can enjoy the belief that he was tipping his hat to Gaskell.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

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