Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Refreshing Read: Reflections on Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell
After the first three chapters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which was first published serially from 1851-1853, I was having difficulty establishing a sense of plot, even though recurring references to certain characters and conflicts made me believe one was coming; I couldn’t discern who the first-person narrator was or the nature of her relationship to the town; and the principal actors of the first two chapters had died by the time I reached page 30. 

I am hesitant to call the form of the book flawed, even though this rough and scattered start, followed by an increasingly coalescing sense of focus on one character, Miss Matty, and finished with a last-ditch effort at a traditional sense of climax and resolution—all of this suggests a novel that can’t make up its mind as to what it is about.  And yet, when I had finished reading, I found Cranford completely refreshing, and when one can say so about a book, the urge towards analysis seems sadly academic.

Cranford paints a portrait of a small English town whose residents are predominantly female. Gaskell’s rendering of everyday life in the town is pure pleasure to read and provides the chief interest of the book, for while we see the outmoded fashions, the arbitrary conventions the women have developed and wouldn’t dare break, and the quaint understanding these same women share of society’s structure and workings, we see equally their good intentions, their past troubles and heartbreak, and the sacrifices they make to support one another.  In short, Gaskell manages to achieve satire with a heart; her first-person narrator, who frequently visits Cranford, speaks in terms of “we,” implicating herself as both a participant and representative of the community.  At the same time, this narrator lives in the more modernized town of Drumble, which gives her an eye for seeing how quaintly endearing and even laughably backwards some of the Cranfordians’ behavior and ideas are.

While the fabric of everyday life in this outmoded and unconventional town is the chief interest of the book, our focal point in the community is Miss Matty, an elderly woman of Cranford whose good intentions and real kindness makes us forgive her shortcomings and her ineptness.  As I mentioned, the book becomes increasingly like a novel with its introduction of a major conflict: Miss Matty loses her entire income and livelihood when the bank that houses her assets fails.  Forgive me for not having qualms over giving you such a “plot spoiler,” but I truly believe that if you read the book you will see I have spoiled nothing; I repeat, it is the sense of life with all its follies and foibles that makes the book worth reading.

What compels me, above all, to name this book as refreshing to read is its unabashed sentimentality.  Today, unless you’re a screenwriter for Lifetime or the author of books like A Walk to Remember, writers avoid sentimentality at all costs.  And for good reason: I’m the first to gag at such saccharine simplification of intellect and emotion.  But what Gaskell pulls off is a sort of honest sentimentality, an upholding of what is good and simple and pure while simultaneously tempering it with ever-so-subtle realism of encroaching modernity, of the impracticality of living such a sheltered life as the Cranfordians live, and of the selfishness (far removed as it is from the novel itself) that makes a supportive community like Cranford an unreal anomaly.

Most relevant to me as a writer embarking on my second novel is a reminder that a novel doesn’t have to conform to expectations (okay, well, maybe to sell it does, but we can be as idealistic as Cranford for just a moment).  As I read, I found myself thinking of how quick we are to exalt Virginia Woolf for creating the feminine sentence and approaching an arguably feminine form of novel with Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, yet Cranford seems to me to have a prior claim.  True, Gaskell is not the stylist that Woolf is, nor is Cranford the masterpiece that Woolf’s novels are.  But what Gaskell does with her content, with her masterful yet gentle satire, and with a form that privileges small concerns and domestic anecdote over traditional plot structures seems every bit as deserving of our admiration and attention when it comes to naming authors who push convention.

Stay tuned for Thursday’s post when I’ll feature a passage from Cranford—you won’t want to miss it, and perhaps more than any of my previous featured passages, this one will capture in brief the spirit of the entire book whence it comes.

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