The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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May 3, 2011

At once humdrum and exceedingly strange

It is particularly tempting to look to the fiction because Elizabeth so rarely wrote of her childhood directly...Is this silence significant, a ban on the tongue, a withholding of the mind? Or is it simply an accident of what survives? ...
      We may never know. But her silence did not stem from indifference. Her novels and stories show how much she remembered and how deeply she felt. On the simplest level, she draws on memories of her childhood and youth in Knutsford, of its characters, buildings, stories and scandals, and uses them, especially in Cranford, to create a world at once humdrum and exceedingly strange, real and surreal.  Her eye for the bizarre was as sharp as it was for the mundane, and many of Cranford's most peculiar stories are true. An old woman told Henry Green (Unitarian minister in Knutsford from 1827 and a close personal friend of Elizabeth in later life) that she immediately recognized the cow which fell into a lime-pit and was given a flannel waistcoat and drawers...
      Some of the oddest stories were left out, like the carriage full of dogs, who were driven out in style, each dressed in the male or female fashion of the day, each 'with a pair of house-shoes, for which his carriage boots were changed on his return.' As Gaskell explained to John Ruskin when he wrote to say how much his mother enjoyed the book, fact was really sometimes too ridiculous to make good fiction. For example, she told him, two old ladies had a niece who made a grand marriage (by Knutsford standards), so when the couple came to visit, they bought a new dining-room carpet in their honour. The visitors' first meal was a little disconcerting: 
'All dinner time they had noticed that the neat maid servant had performed a sort of 'pas-de-basque', hopping & sliding with more grace than security to the dishes she held. When she had left the room, one lady said to the other:  "Sister! I think she'll do!" "Yes," said the other, she managed very nicely!"'
The explanation, given as if the most natural thing in the world, was that the servant was new and the carpet was new, 'with white spots or spaces on it, and they had been teaching this girl to vault or jump gracefully over these white places, lest her feet might dirty them!'
-- from Elizabeth Gaskell:  A Habit of Stories, by Jenny Uglow

It's nice to be reminded why I love to read biographies. :)

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