Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell
1853, England

Originally published between 1851 and 1853 in a series of installments in the periodical Household Works, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is outwardly a charming illustration of a small slice of English village life at a time when the world was changing rapidly around it. Cranford is ruled, socially at least, by the “Amazons”—for the genteel classes are represented entirely by women, the men apparently finding it inconvenient to live long in this safe harbor of femininity. But into the charm of the village life, we also see at times the finger-hooks of outward realities creeping in. Cranford is no stranger to death and sorrows, and at times Gaskell, known for her novels depicting the hardships of working-class life in the mill towns of England, sneaks some of her critiques in here as well. No matter how genteel a lady, she must have something to live on, yet the truth of Victorian England is that there are few options for a gentlewoman to make a respectable living. The spinsters of Cranford may be resistant—at times almost comically—to the idea of marriage, but we are reminded of Jane Austen’s writing: marriage was often the only way for a woman to secure her future economically.

I found Cranford slow to get into at first, with its episodic early chapters that seemed divorced of each other. But as I read more, I grew familiar with the regular characters that populated the pages, tying the story together, and the brief episodes began to give way to a more linear structure, the events of one chapter more strongly linked to the preceding. By the very end, episodes and characters that seemed all but forgotten had returned to recollection, of both the town and the reader.

It is the characters that are perhaps the strength of the book, with their individual quirks and foibles. Their personalities permeate the novel; their fears, their hopes, their anticipations, their follies bring the pages to life. We are aided entry by the narrator, Mary Smith, a non-resident who visits frequently and shares with us her keen observations, even as at times she gets caught up in events herself and no longer remains a passive observer. But it is her very involvement that allows the reader to enter the town and become invested the story; to be touched by the real generosity of spirit seen not just among the principal characters, but among their servants as well. These are people that care about each other and each other’s well-being, even while they may be resistant to outsiders and changing ways of life.

Cranford is not quite the same as the other Gaskell I’ve read (Mary Barton and North and South). The intrusions of the outer world are gentler, the love stories are to the side or in the past. But in its gentle way, and in the warmth of its population, I find that it may just be my favorite.

I read Cranford as part of my Realists and Romantics project list and for Back to the Classics, Classic with a Place in the Title.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw
Henry James
US, 1898

Every year as summer rolls into autumn, I’m tempted to read something appropriately seasonal—something spooky or mysterious, a story shrouded in mist of the moors or night’s chill darkness. The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps my ur-example, but The Turn of the Screw very neatly fits the bill as well. It is—by all outer appearances, at least—a ghost story: an inexperienced governess tasked with overseeing the care of an orphaned brother and sister who are all but neglected by their uncaring uncle soon sees evil in every corner, in the form of ghostly apparitions, and makes it her mission to save her young charges. But there are more questions raised than answered, and readers and critics alike can’t seem to agree on if this is actually a ghost story or if is really the story of a mentally unstable governess: Jane Eyre with Bertha in the role of governess.

In some ways, I find this a curious question—the story works, no matter how it is read. There are hints that perhaps the governess is unhinged, and the ghosts are “all in her head,” but at the same time it is not implausible, based purely on the text at hand, to assume it is indeed a ghost story. Much is left vague in the text, with things left unsaid or half-said, and characters seeming to talk to each other, but by way of omissions perhaps actually talking past each other. In the end, either there are ghosts, of a most evil variety, or the governess has entirely lost her mind and brings the evil with her. Either the children are innocents, preyed upon by evil influences, or they are cunning, wily participants in their own destruction. Perhaps it is all the above. The interpretation may say as much about the reader and the reader’s expectations as about the novella itself.

James structures his story with a framing introduction, set decades after the main events, and which functions to introduce the governess’s written manuscript which follows.  The man who has this narrative in his possession, Douglas, raises his audience’s expectations greatly, doling out tiny pieces of information, claiming to never have shared it before, that nothing touches it—for “dreadfulness!” It is a bold claim to make, and a risky one to raise expectations so high. But revisiting the frame after finishing the novella, I find it met, regardless of the interpretation of the story, especially in looking at the children: They are corrupted or they are haunted or they are exposed to madness in one who should protect them—maybe all of the above. They may or may not be innocent, but they are certainly vulnerable. The idea of their corruption, in whatever manner, is indeed, “dreadful.” 

For all the uncertainty surrounding the plot and the reliability of the narrator (and in spite of James’s at time obtuse prose), I found it a suspenseful page-turner, one that doesn’t shy away from the concept of evil. Even if there are no literal ghosts, what remains behind is the presence of evil—the ghost, as it were, of past misdeeds. Even if neither child has ever seen a ghost, they have either previously, currently (to the narrative), or in both instances, been exposed to a darkness from outside themselves. This is the horror of the story.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

The Man in the Brown Suit
Agatha Christie
England, 1924

What a wonderful romp! Christie’s fifth outing (and fourth novel) takes us on a multi-continent adventure in search of the eponymous “Man in the Brown Suit” and the answer to the mystery of the death of an unidentified woman in a home owned by the absent Sir Eustace Pedler. After a scene setting prologue, introducing us third-hand to the character of the anonymous “Colonel,” a master criminal who has managed to never get his hands dirty, we start ordinarily enough in post-Great War England, with  young heroine Anne Beddingfield, recently orphaned, rather poor, and in search of a great adventure.  With nothing to lose, she takes the first opportunity to move to London, sure that it is a city where adventure awaits. Anne is not wrong. Soon she finds herself embroiled in a complex web of intrigue stretching from England to South Africa and Rhodesia, as she endeavors not only to track down the brown-suited man, but also to unravel the mystery of the murdered woman, and discover the hidden secrets of her fellow travelers.

Anne is a delight as a character, with her youthful enthusiasm and intelligence. And the remaining cast of characters are fascinating as well: Mrs. Blair, a wealthy but bored socialite; the silent, stern Colonel Race, who may or may not be British Intelligence; Sir Eustice Pedler, a wealthy MP who loves nothing more than comfort; the sinister-looking Guy Pagett, secretary to Sir Eustice; Harry Rayborn, a mysterious man also in the employ of Sir Eustace; and Reverend Edward Chichester, who may not quite be what he seems.

Much as with The Secret Adversary, The Man in the Brown Suit is more thriller than mystery, despite the murder in the early chapters. Rather, it is the murder that triggers subsequent events, and the reader is carried along with our young heroine, against a background of diamond thieves, revolution, and dynamic scenery. As far as I can discover, it has only had one film adaptation, a made-for-TV movie that doesn’t appear to have been well-reviewed, but with the fast-pace and variety of scenery, I can imagine it as an excellent big-screen entertainment. As much as I enjoy the mysteries of Hercule Poirot, The Man in the Brown Suit is so far my favorite of the Christies in my chronological set of reads.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Appointment in Samara
John O’Hara
1934, U.S.

I finished reading Appointment in Samarra this morning, as part of a readalong hosted by Meredith (Dolce Bellezza) and Tom (Wuthering Expectations), and find I am still working my way through my own thoughts about it. I feel at a disadvantage in approaching the text as I have read very little from the time period, save a dozen or so Agatha Christies, are those are really not of the same vein as O’Hara’s novel. Even the era is largely unknown to me (outside of the music), set in December 1930 towards the start of what today’s reader knows will be a long Great Depression (but when the novel’s characters still hope that ‘next year’ will be better), and the literature written in the time is even less familiar. By and large, I have not (yet) read O’Hara’s contemporaries.

And yet, there’s a familiarity there, a familiarity that comes from O’Hara’s inclusion of small details of everyday life, the vivid characters that populate the novel, and even from the Pennsylvania coal country setting (which is not so far removed from my midwestern town just outside the edges of Appalachia). It is set in a time and place removed from my own, but by using small, but specific details, O’Hara grounds it in a way that makes me feel I know the place, the characters.

On the face of it, the story is simple enough: it centers around the lives of Julian and Caroline English, their social set, and those nearby who observe or intersect with the Englishs’ everyday lives. The inciting event: Julian throws his drink in the face of Harry Reilly at a holiday party, breaking social taboos and apparently triggering a cascade of ever more self-destructive behavior. And yet it is more than just that. Although set tightly primarily over a period of four days, with glances backwards, and in the final chapter, a look forwards, the ends are not all neatly tied. Real life is messy, and this story is messy: the plot, the characters, the resolutions. This is part of what makes the story so engaging, I think.

Indeed, I find the whole story very real. Sure, to say that throwing a drink in someone’s face will lead to spiral of self-destruction, may sound over-dramatic (especially in an era when all social conventions seem to have been thrown out the window), but I think the truth is, the drink incident–the party–is really entering Julian’s story in medias res. It is not that there is necessarily some specific preceding incident that explains this social crime, but the build-up of Julian’s character to the place where he loses all self-control (if he ever had any) seems to have been an ongoing circumstance. As the novel progresses and we learn more of his character, his past decisions, and his lack of consideration for others (I believe in 21st century terms we would say he has low “emotional intelligence”), it seems apparent that while there may not be an easy explanation for Julian’s actions, the pieces were all there for his self-destruction, and this is just the form it happened to take.

On the other hand, while the story centers around Julian, there are so many other characters there, and his self-destruction spirals out to encompass–or at least impact–many of them. Caroline, is fleshed out as much as Julian and drawn with real sympathy. Lute Fliegler is Julian’s employee, and I am still not sure what to make of the fact that his point of view bookends the novel. Does the destruction of Julian open a way for Lute? Helene Holman and Al Greco both have encounters with Julian that appear to completely change their life trajectories–and yet, we don’t know precisely where. It is yet another nod to reality: any given person’s story only ends with their death; while they live what’s next may always be unknown.

I decided to read Appointment in Samarra almost on a whim: only the day before I read about the readalong, my dad had asked if I were familiar with “Samarra,” and then recited the W. Somerset Maugham retelling that is the epigraph for O’Hara’s novel. He had read it somewhere recently (not in O’Hara), and thought I might know it. When I saw the readalong announced, it seemed inevitable that I must join in, and I am happy I did. It is a novel I feel I could come back to, and perhaps explore other of O’Hara’s writing as well.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition. Slightly unwieldy to read, but so pretty and with some useful notes.

Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen
England, 1811

For the spoiler-averse, this is probably not the post for you as it glides over plot points.

It’s been many years since I last read Sense and Sensibility, and it’s interesting to me to observe how much my recollections of the story are actually colored by the 1995 Emma Thompson film version. (Which means, of course, that I didn’t remember the novel accurately. But that’s why we reread—among other reasons.)

Films necessarily differ from their novel source material, of course, as the formats have different limitations and possibilities. But one thread that holds true throughout the adaptations of Austen, is that much emphasis is placed on the romances that unify the stories. This is no criticism of the films, but when I return to the source material, at least here in Sense and Sensibility, I see so much more.

There is no denying that marriage is a central theme to Austen. For a middle-class woman without sufficient means to leave independently, there were few other respectable options for survival, as Austen makes clear across her novels. But marriage as a subject is different than romance, and while we can rely on an Austen novel to contain both, neither is necessarily what a given novel is about.

Sense and Sensibility is the story of the Miss Dashwoods, and while superficially it details the romantic trials and triumphs of the sisters, I find on returning to the original source material, that it is so much more. On reread, it appears that any romance is merely the wire skeleton on which hangs the real meat of the story: the relationships (between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood as well as between the sisters and their friends and neighbors) and the character studies.

Indeed, one thing that surprised me was to realize how little ‘screen time,’ as it were, the ultimate ‘heroes’ of the story, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, actually share with their eventual spouses. It is not until the Dashwoods have moved from Norland to Barton Cottage that we observe a direct interaction between Elinor and Edward. (The annotations in my edition point to this as a weakness in the story, that we are asked to consider Edward as worthy of Elinor’s love merely because she loves him, rather than for any direct observation the reader can make.) And I can’t recall a single instance of a direct conversation between Colonel Brandon and Marianne. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) This in contrast to the ample page time of the ‘villain’ of the story, Mr. Willoughby, who we see on multiple occasions, giving him ample opportunity to charm the reader as well as the Dashwoods.

On the other hand, we spend much time with the Dashwoods, their neighbors Sir John and Lady Middleton, Lady Middleton’s mother Mrs. Jennings, and Mrs. Jennings’s cousins the Miss Steeles. Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars thus become talked about more than they are seen (and in some sense, the same may be true of Mr. Willoughby).

All this conversation and this variety of characters allows for both ample opportunity of character study, and also the observation of the many contrasts present between these characters: Elinor’s repression vs. Marianne’s exuberance, Willoughby’s cowardice in the face of adversity vs. Edward’s constancy, Mrs. Jennings’s genuine kindness vs. Mrs. Ferrars’s cold-heartedness. As the very title hints, Sense and Sensibility is a study of contrasts. But while we may be meant to weigh some of these contrasts entirely in favor of one characteristic over the other, I do not believe the title contrast is meant to be viewed in so harsh a light. The depth of the characters, and their sufferings and triumphs show that neither sense nor sensibility, taken to the extreme is ultimately the better, but each may temper the other.

Although I find on reflection that Sense and Sensibility is currently my least preferred of Austen’s novels (a distinction without meaning), this reading reminds me how well it is worth revisiting all of Austen’s major novels, a project I am only too happy to continue!

I read this for Back to the Classics, “19th Century Classic” and my Realists and Romantics project. It is completely by chance that I read it before my summer read of The Mysteries of Udolpho, which reminded me so much of the later novel.