Friday, March 22, 2013

Book Review: Cranford, by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1851)

Let me start by saying I had no idea this was mid-1800s chick lit when I started reading it.  I plead ignorance.  But I will try to give it an honest review, although I hold the "man card" in reserve to say something "ignernt" as we go on.

Elizabeth Gaskell is a fine writer.  When I pick up a modern novel, half the time it leaves me wondering how the author got through high school.  But with older novels I never see that.  Most published 19th century authors knew how to write.  They knew their grammar, they understood sentence structure, and they were familiar with style.  I don't think my own writing stacks up to most of the 19th century writers I've read.

Gaskell is no exception.  I chose her only because she wrote some gothic horror that I plan to review next fall.

This book is about the tiny village of Cranford and the ladies who live there.  It's a book about little old ladies and for little old ladies.  That's not an insult, and even I, a diehard reader of Clive Cussler, managed to get some enjoyment from this book.  But the opening few paragraphs are apparently meant to scare off readers who might take this for something that it isn't.
In the first place, 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.  In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.
This little bit from a line also helps sum up the general attitude in the book.  Keep in mind that Gaskell meant this to be humorous but representative of the main characters.
After we had duly condemned the want of candour which Mr Hoggins had evinced, and abused men in general, taking him for the representative and type, we got round to the subject about which we had been talking
And this funny but insightful line sums up half the women I have known.

The Cranford ladies have only an occasional little quarrel, spirited out in a few peppery words and angry jerks of the head; just enough to prevent the even tenor of their lives from becoming too flat.
The first thing you look for when reading a book is the plot.  You're trying to pick up on the storyline, trying to figure out the good guys and bad guys, the protagonists and antagonists.  You want to know who to root for, what to care about.  Well, it's pretty long into this book before you realize you'll find none of that here.

First I thought we were to hate Miss Jenkyns and cheer for the family of Captain Brown.  But then they killed him off pretty quick.  Then Miss Jenkyns turns out to be good.  Then suddenly Captain Brown's oldest daughter dies and the youngest daughter gets married...and they leave the picture.  And a few sentences later the youngest daughter's daughter is there, reading to old Miss Jenkyns, who then dies off herself.  So much for consistency of the characters.

But then we finally settle on her sister, Matilda, who stays with us for the rest of the book.  So the book is about her, you think, and something that happens to her.  But then you find out nothing happens to her.  Women sit around and gossip and talk and and chit-chat and some women have this or that little womany-type feud with other women over what dress they wear or something equally important.

It's not that Gaskell is trying to write a boring book, it's that she's writing a brilliant book that shows excellent insight in the inner workings of a group of people in a closed society.  Gaskell is fully aware of the differences between some of her characters and the greater world at large.  This book helps define those differences.  Take this scene for instance.  Captain Brown is a regular guy.  The ladies of Cranford at first shrink from his boisterous manner, but eventually come to accept him.  But how dare he do anything out of the ordinary.  This bizarre but humorous scene is about...
...the circumstance of the Captain taking a poor old woman’s dinner out of her hands one very slippery Sunday.  He had met her returning from the bakehouse as he came from church, and noticed her precarious footing; and, with the grave dignity with which he did everything, he relieved her of her burden, and steered along the street by her side, carrying her baked mutton and potatoes safely home.  This was thought very eccentric; and it was rather expected that he would pay a round of calls, on the Monday morning, to explain and apologise to the Cranford sense of propriety: but he did no such thing: and then it was decided that he was ashamed, and was keeping out of sight.  In a kindly pity for him, we began to say, “After all, the Sunday morning’s occurrence showed great goodness of heart,” and it was resolved that he should be comforted on his next appearance amongst us; but, lo! he came down upon us, untouched by any sense of shame, speaking loud and bass as ever, his head thrown back, his wig as jaunty and well-curled as usual, and we were obliged to conclude he had forgotten all about Sunday.

That was rather eccentric?  And they thought he would pay a round of calls to "explain and apologize to the Cranford sense of propriety..."?  Haha, how funny.  So it's better to NOT help an elderly lady with her package, and just let her slip and fall in the mud.  But that Gaskell writes this shows her insight into the incongruity of propriety vs. common sense.

Some scenes are meant to be serious but made me laugh.  Miss Matty is telling a story from her youth, about her brother dressing up as a woman.  Not sure if he did it just to annoy their father, or stir up trouble in that gossipy little village, or because he liked cross dressing.  But the funny part was when...
he made the pillow...into a little baby, with white long clothes.
Then his father comes strolling along and sees a crowd of people standing outside his fence.  Naturally he thinks they're admiring his flowers and starts thinking up a sermon (he's a rector) about lilies of the field.  That made me laugh out loud.  First, the son is making this pillow into a little baby (something about the wording is just so damn funny), then his father strolling along thinking "oh, look, everyone's admiring my flowers, maybe I'll make a sermon on that", completely unaware that they're staring at his cross-dressing son.

Scenes like that make me think this book has an actual plot and something's going to happen.  But that scene quickly turned tragic and then I felt guilty for laughing.  And then it was over, and we were back to gossipy women.

One of the more interesting parts was when they thought someone was breaking into the houses of Cranford.  There's a whole to-do over hiding the silver and checking under beds.  Few men are around, and that's just how they like it, but for a short time they start wishing more men lived in the village.  There's a butler who lives in a third story garret of one of the houses.  They ring the bell hoping he would come save them from the awful burglars.

...when his night-capped head had appeared over the bannisters, in answer to the summons, they had told him of their alarm, and the reasons for it; whereupon he retreated into his bedroom, and locked the door (for fear of draughts, as he informed them in the morning), and opened the window, and called out valiantly to say, if the supposed robbers would come to him he would fight them; but, as Lady Glenmire observed, that was but poor comfort, since they would have to pass by Mrs Jamieson’s room and her own before they could reach him, and must be of a very pugnacious disposition indeed if they neglected the opportunities of robbery presented by the unguarded lower storeys, to go up to a garret, and there force a door in order to get at the champion of the house.

That might be the best line in the book.  "To get at the champion of the house."  Haha!  Elizabeth Gaskell has a way with subtle humor that I don't think is appreciated as much because she's so little read these days.  I'll try to read more of her books.  Hopefully I'll find some with more storyline than Cranford.

There was one single ongoing storyline in this book, and that was about Miss Matty's brother, the one with the dress and the pillow baby.  I don't want to give anything away, but what the heck.  He shows up again later in the story.  As with a lot of Victorian literature, everything works out nicely in the end that the genteel people end up with plenty of money and don't have to work anymore.  That's another rant for another day.

No comments:

Post a Comment