13 June 2012

Victorian Memory: Return to Cranford

For my classes last year, there were three Victorian novels I skipped because I'd read them before, but as always, I've finally gone and read them anyway, just for fun instead of for notetaking...

Trade paperback, 213 pages
Published 2008 (content: 1851-53)
Acquired and read January 2009

Reread June 2012
by Elizabeth Gaskell

I first read Cranford over three years ago now, and in the intervening time, I've seen about half of the TV show and thought about a lot of the novel (Dr. Thomas Recchio, author of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford: A Publishing History, is my dissertation advisor).  When I went into it, having since read North and South (twice), Mary Barton (twice), and Wives and Daughters, I was expecting/remembering a light piece of fluff that wouldn't be as good as those more serious novels.

I see that in my original review, I commented on the novel's made-up-as-it-went-along nature (indeed, it wasn't supposed to be a novel at all when it started), but it was much more striking this time through.   The first two chapters form a self-contained story about the coming of Captain Brown to the town of Cranford, where "all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women" (5).  He runs afoul of the genteel women, especially the Jenkyns sisters, Miss Deborah and Miss Matty.  Captain Brown dies, then one of his daughters, making for a depressing tale of female community in the face of hardship.  At the end of the second chapter, we learn in passing that Miss Deborah too has died by the writing of the story.

Then, the third and fourth chapters form another self-contained story of their own, about Miss Matty and a long ago love she let slip through her fingers coming back, but still not happening.  And then it ends with him dying, too, giving us four character deaths in the first four chapters, and two stories that aren't altogether cheerful.

In the midst of all this, sadness, though, are of lot of humorous details about how the ladies of Cranford live, and it must have been this that readers wanted more of, because chapters 5-10 have much more of this.  Not that there's no sadness, because there's definitely some, but the emphasis flips.  It makes for an odd structure: had Gaskell planned it as a novel from the beginning, I would imagine we'd start with the fluffy stuff about what to call people with titles and possible foreigners and the panic over the alleged robberies, and after we'd gained some connection to the characters, it would be time for the heavy emotional stuff.  As it is, it feels very odd.

I think that it's around chapter 11 where Gaskell decided she was writing a novel, because that's where we get out first clues about the potential return of the Jenkyns's brother, Peter.  More than that, though, we get what is surely one of the saddest and most moving passages in literature, where Miss Matty recounts how she and her sister used to plan for their futures, and Miss Matty always wanted to have children, and now they don't even express interest in her, and she dreams sometimes that she has one!  How depressing is that!

From there to the end (chapter 16), we get an abbreviated novel about the financial crisis that threatens to ruin Miss Matty's life and how everyone comes together to deal with it; just as the part where she tells of her lost dreams is so depressing, the parts where the community bands together to help her are so triumphant, feel-good in a way that is actually earned by the text.  There's a lot of emotional power in Miss Matty helping out the man with the bad bank certificates, and in her creation of a tea shop, and in the events of the last two chapters. (I'll try to hold something back, spoiler-wise.)

"We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us."  From its quick, depressing beginning, to its humorous middle, to its quite touching ending, this "accidental novel" turns out to be better than I remembered and expected, and I'm now sorry I consigned it to a second tier of Gaskell's works.

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