Saturday, November 22, 2008


I own Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell in an Omnibus edition that contains several texts : Cranford, but also some shorter things like Dr Harrison's Confesion, My Lady Ludlow and The Cage at Cranford, All four were taken as a basis for the 2007 miniseries produced by the BBC. It happens to be my favourite book by the author by whom I had previously read Wives and Daughters (very good) and North and South (letdown). The atmosphere and the point of view adopted is here radically different : we do not follow the lives of the members of a single household in the 19th century but rather of a much larger group of inhabitants of a town called Cranford, which distinguishes itself in the sense that it is the last center of a rural village which cares about victorian traditions that seem to disappear everywhere in the UK due to the industrial revolution. There is a solid conversative side in deciding to focus on such a thing and write about it but what I liked about Cranford was its portraits of a group of amazons, of strong, brave women, often funny, sometimes ridiculous but about whom we care because all their choices are directed towards progress and with a deep sense of fairness. They battle with their fears and do not keep to their respective positions in a stubborn manner, adapt to a new society and perhaps more importantly, help one another. The humour used is subtle and we feel and know that Gaskell cared deeply about each of her (numerous) characters. In the very good introduction to my edition, Jenny Uglow (a Gaskell scholar) explains to us that in 1854, in a letter adressed to the literary critic John Forster, and containing a plethora of gossip, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote :

"Shall I tell you a Cranfordism? An old lady, a Mrs Frances Wright, said to one of my cousins, " I have never been able to spell since I lost my teeth "

The humour of Cranford is another instance in a long tradition of comedies of manners. However, if we and the author laugh at this little community, we do realize throughout that this essentially feminine community which slowly tries to break free from conventions and find happiness is what makes the UK great. The narrative of Cranford is episodic : the narrator, Mary Smith, tells us the events that occured when she visited Miss Matty and Deborah Jenkins : under her pen, it's of course Mrs Gaskell who depicts the coups de théâtre, the micro revolutions, the decisions, the smiles of Cranford. It is, no more no less, an excellent chronicle. With the text of Dr Harrison's Confession, we become privy to a quidproquo when Dr Harrison arrives in town. This young single doctor freshly coming from London has all the women of the town fall head over heels for him and yet - because of his awkardness and because of the particularity of Cranford that makes even the smallest gesture feel like an invitation – finds himself promised to four different women and will almost lose the one he loves.

As for Lady Ludlow, she is a reactionary aristocrat who refuses any education to young women and to the poor because «knowing how to read is not what maid ought to know » : her opinions are extreme and completely unsurprising in an aristocrary that has just witnessed the Terror following the French Revolution. It is precisely when remembering this Terror that Lady Ludlow will describe the escape from France of several of her aristocrat friends who will not reach Callais and will lose their lives. The advantages of the Revolution are never adressed : the narrative perhaps didn't invite for this but even though it was told from the point of view of an aristocrat, the fact is that the French Revolution was not and is still not understood by the surrounding European regimes : when in France we do know the golden legend (which is based on true facts : the battle for true equality for all, also for the abolition of slavery), the UK only remembers the regicide and the hunt for nobles than accompanied it and slowed down the realisation of ideals on the verge of becoming laws. It was interesting to have Lady Ludlow's partial point of view and the narrative of the escape of two of her relatives was very gripping but this particular aspect worried me.

Do read Cranford and these short texts by Elizabeth Gaskell : it is an entire period that is depicted under our very eyes. It seems to me that this Omnibus would make a perfect introduction to a class on the Industrial Revolution and more generally to the transition 1850 symbolised. The miniseries produced by the BBC has an exceptional cast and is a little gem of television, I highly recommend it.