Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Cranford by Elizabth Cleghorn Gaskell
The book Cranford begins by describing Cranford as a city of Amazons - the men of the higher classes of Cranford are perennially out of town, and the society is a society of women almost entirely. Amazons? Perhaps. I felt more like it was a city full of Mrs. Bennets from Pride and Prejudice, each of whom grows older and dottier as the book progresses. Only quieter.
Actually, I say that jokingly, but one of the interesting aspects of this book to me was that, while each character fit (and was obviously meant to fit) a particular stereotype (the busybody, the snoot, the shy violet, the know-it-all, etc), Gaskell surprises you by convincing you that you like each and every figure she bothers to examine closely - so that by the end of the book, one is fairly convinced they might be taught to like nearly anyone, if only Ms Gaskell was along to instruct in the ways of liking.
More than anything, this peculiar tendency (at least in my mind) speaks to the central stylistic conflict of the book: on the one hand, this book has the indelible stamp of someone who has read a good deal of Jane Austen, it's different from Austen, in that Austen is always so terribly careful to maintain that charming bit of warm indifference to her subject. She smirks gnetly at you, as she admits to all the worst faults of everybody. Gaskell, in Cranford, is clever, and a good observer, just as Ms Austen is, but her observations are endearing, not witty. One feels as if Gaskell lays out difficult woman solely for the pleasure of showing us how very nice they really are, only different from the reader. Characters I came across in the first fifty pages who seemed like the likeable, counterpoint heroines are quietly, gently married off and moved out of the Amazon scene, and women who seemed like little more than playful comic counterpoints obtain a depth and brilliance of portraiture that makes them sweetly, simply, wonderfully human.
The book is far from perfect - there are spots in which one feels they might like a bit less sugar in their literary tea, certainly, and a few of the odd coincidences one comes to expect from a dear friend of Charles Dickens. Additionally, if you like books that have, say, a cohesive plot, keep walking. This book isn't a story. It's a series of very picturesque anecdotes. For me, though, the plotless musing became almost a blessing - it let one sink back and enjoy the characters, without worrying about the possiblity of such characters changing over time.
This is something worth bringing up - the characters don't change, not really. The world changes, the situation of the characters changes, the characters themselves are obstinately, humanly static. The literary genius of the book lies in this, in examining what happens to human beings who wish to quietly live out an old world in the midst of a new one. The bonds of the old aristocracy, throughout the book, breakdown, the intense horror at the idea of commerce and middle-class propriety (very different from upper class propriety), these things come, and these women, who at the beginning seem to base their whole existence, on the idea of their own nobility, somehow manage to take it all in stride. Outside the book, it sounds like nonsense. Inside, it's lovely, because, in a subtle sort of way and without the characters themselves being aware of it, we see the outer layers stripped away, the worldly mental and emotional baggage put down, and peer quietly at naked souls. Not particularly exciting souls, just normal little souls, going about and trying to figure out where they belong in the world. It was a wonderfully enjoyable way to remain to quietly remember the humanity of everyone around me, not just the romantic or interesting.
If you are a fan of Jane Austen, read this book, I think you'll like it. If you liked, say, Anne of Green Gables, read this book, I think you'll like it. If you liked listening to stories from your grandmother, and she was very proper and small and neat, read this book, I think you'll like it. If you're Hamilcar, the part in the middle where they all get attacked by zombie-dwarves kicked butt... who would have figured Gaskell for the Zombie Dwarf type?