Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Book 13: Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

‘Cranford is in possession of the Amazons.’

Confession time again: I adore costume dramas. Bonnets, corsets, stiff upper lips – can’t get enough of them. Give me Downton Abbey and a nice glass of red in the evening and I’m a happy woman. Same goes for the books – the Austens and the Brontes and, of course, the Gaskells – so this was a bit of a treat for me; a not-so-guilty reading pleasure, if you will.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the above admission, I had already watched the BBC’s television version, with Dames Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins at their bonnet-clad best. The TV series was in fact an amalgamation of three different Elizabeth Gaskell novels, adding many more characters and incidents to Gaskell’s quaint and amusing tale of country life. Despite its smaller pool of characters, however, Cranford‘s pages still manage to hum with bustle and colour.

The plot – if there can be said to be a plot in what is essentially an entertaining series of loosely linked sketches – is narrated by Mary Smith, a frequent guest in Cranford, and primarily concerns the experiences of Miss Matty Jenkyns (the unfailingly excellent Dame Judi, for fans of the TV version). Daughter of the town’s late rector, Miss Matty was once a beauty but missed her chance of a happy marriage thanks to the interference of her family and has now settled into life as an old maid in Cranford, leading a modest and quietly refined existence alongside her formidable spinster sister.

Mary Smith is of that long literary line of narrators who tell us a great deal about their friends and surroundings but next to nothing about themselves. We do not even discover this wallflower narrator’s name until the novel is almost at a close, but Gaskell’s simple device cleverly gives us an intimate, unobtrusive window on the lives of the women of Cranford.

I say women, because Cranford is dominated by a set of memorable and fiercely independent female characters. When men do appear on the scene they are almost invariably bumbling fools, disappointing sweethearts or mere irritations, quickly passing away, upping sticks or fading into insignificance. The Cranford women have a rather dim view of matrimony; the only men on whom one can rely are family members, who also seem to have that unfortunate habit of dying or moving on to pastures new.

Miss Matty herself is kind, thoughtful, innocent and sweet almost to a fault – in short, the sort of old woman you’d like to have as your gran. Not a great deal happens in her quiet, sheltered country life, but the beauty of Gaskell’s writing is that it crafts perfectly formed, candy-like slices of narrative out of the mundane. In many ways, the succession of little incidents in Cranford remind me of Jane Austen’s Emma, a slow-burner that paints a vivid portrait of aristocratic rural life and was criticised by reviewers of the time for being uneventful. Now both it and Cranford are rightly recognised as delicious portions of nineteenth century life.

The various minor incidents in the lives of the Cranford residents are quite hilarious in their own right (try imagining a cow in flannel pyjamas without laughing) but it is Gaskell’s subtle and touching portrayals of women’s lives that are more fascinating. While life in Cranford may seem endlessly entertaining and in some senses idyllic, none of the female characters can be said to have entirely happy lives. They are all either widows or spinsters, struggling to live on modest means while upholding their all-important ‘gentility’. What Gaskell has achieved is a portrait of female life that manages to be beautiful without glossing over the warts; day to day life as woman in Victorian England, and particularly as a single woman, was not easy. In this sense Cranford deserves more recognition as a document of female experience in a time when women’s voices often failed to be heard.

So put on the kettle (or pour that cheeky glass of wine), settle down on the sofa and surrender to literary costume-drama indulgence with the knowledge that there is far more to this novel than bonnets and crinolines. And there’s always Downton Abbey for later.

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Book 7: Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

‘On the whole, I dislike my fellow-beings; I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind, and untidy lives irritate me.’

My reading challenge has taken me very swiftly from pastoral life as depicted by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd to Stella Gibbons’ parody of the rural tradition. Published in 1932, Gibbons’ witty and playful narrative about the eccentric, cursed Starkadder brood, a dilapidated farm and nasty goings on in the woodshed lightly pokes fun at the rural tragedies of the kind made popular by Hardy and his contemporaries.

Lively heroine Flora Poste has been orphaned and is left with nothing to live on but her wits and a hundred pounds a year. Blithely rejecting any suggestion that she works for a living, the resourceful Flora decides instead to live with some of her many relatives and writes out to a motley collection of aunts, uncles and cousins, eventually ending up with the Starkadders on their farm in Sussex. But her rural cousins turn out to be an odd bunch and the whole messy situation is clearly begging for Flora’s own foolproof brand of common sense to tidy it up.

While much of the novel is hilariously and pointedly funny, the opening is a little confusing in tone. The early scenes in London are light, comic and clearly satirical, but when the location shifts to Sussex the reader, like Flora, is left somewhat disorientated. Our first introduction to Cold Comfort Farm, glimpsed as ‘Dawn crept up over the Downs like a sinister white animal’, while supposedly mocking the hauntingly picturesque descriptive passages of the pastoral tradition, is a rather wonderful description in its own right.

With the Starkadders and their kin, however, we are on safer ground. Gibbons creates a cast of deliciously grotesque characters, from foolish old cow-loving Adam, to zealous preacher Amos, to reclusive, apparently mad matriarch Aunt Ada, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed. The ghosts of Hardy’s farm hands can be heard in their exaggerated rural dialect and so primitively rural are their ways that they do not even have afternoon tea – imagine! Gibbons also builds up a series of tantalising mysteries, once again in line with the genre she is parodying, from the unspecified incident in the woodshed to the hushed up wrong that has been done to Flora’s father. This may all be the framework of Gibbons’ satire, but it doubles up to make for a genuinely intriguing premise.

Before long Flora is industriously putting her common sense to use in mopping up the lives of the Starkadder clan, transforming eccentric dresser and nature-loving free spirit Elfine into an elegant but bland beauty, tempting Amos to pastures new and generally either moulding everyone to fit her idea of civilised company or conveniently removing them elsewhere. While all this is evidently written in sardonic mode, the novel loses some of its charm as it moves into this all too self-conscious phase of parody and I prefer Gibbons’ earlier imaginative portrait of the strange, ridiculous and often repulsive Starkadder family (beautifully complemented in my edition by Quentin Blake’s spot-on watercolour illustrations; Gibbons provides him with subjects barely less marvellously grotesque than those he so memorably depicted in Roald Dahl’s The Twits).

In another of the novel’s literary nods, almost every loose end is neatly tied up with a marriage and previously troublesome characters have their destinies settled in the turn of a page in true Jane Austen style; Flora’s ambition of one day writing a novel like Persuasion is very nearly achieved in life if not in literature. Meanwhile, the really interesting threads are left frustratingly hanging, no doubt in a deliberate move on Gibbons’ part to eschew the narrative resolution of the texts she parodies and to point out how essentially ridiculous such mysteries are. Yet – and I’m sure this makes me a very unsophisticated reader – I really did want to find out what, for goodness’ sake, happened in that woodshed!

One of the oddities of the text, apart from its collection of weird and wonderful characters, is the unspecified and only ever vaguely alluded to future setting. While written in the early 1930s and retaining much of the social machinery of its own age, including a class structure that is entirely intact, the novel incorporates futuristic elements such as video phones, frequent air travel and a war of some kind that has occurred in 1946, placing the world of the book at some time after this date. This patchy future setting, which seems to essentially be a society that is, apart from a handful of differences, identical to that of 1932, has no obvious function whatsoever and merely serves to bewilder readers.

Disappointing ending and technological inconsistencies aside, Cold Comfort Farm is an entertaining read and Flora is a charmingly flawed heroine; rather in the Emma mould, to return to Austen, although Flora never receives a scolding for her interferences. While the ending is again satirically making a point by aping other texts of the time, I could not help but feel a little let down by the spirited and politely feisty Flora’s very conventional and submissive fate.

Sadly, the eventual return to supposedly civilised society feels dull after the colourful world of Cold Comfort and Gibbons’ novel is always at its best when in the company of the bizarre but fascinating Starkadders. Just make sure you stay away from that woodshed …

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