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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August 19, 2011

A goodbye to Elizabeth Gaskell, for now

‘But I’m a good deal nearer heaven today, I am.’

As you may have noticed {:)}, I’ve been on a reading project centering on Elizabeth Gaskell. I re-read, and fell in love with, Cranford last spring, about the time I started this blog, at a time when I needed comfort reading {and elegant economy} — I still do! — and other than Jane Austen or Angela Thirkell or a cozy mystery, it’s hard for me to imagine a book that could be more fitting for that. Then, last September, there was a buzz around her 200th birthday, and, finally, Katherine started her Gaskell Blog and hosted a Gaskell Reading Challenge earlier this year. I’m a little behind schedule, but I rose to it!

Not counting Cranford, which I had already read and re-read, my E.G. reading included:
Which did I enjoy most? After Cranford, unquestionably Wives and Daughters, among the fiction. {I would like to go back and read her Life of Charlotte Bronte someday; I was fascinated by the story behind it, as told in the biography.} I could see right away why so many people love and re-read this book. For such a long novel {634 pages in the edition I read} — and it was unfinished! — it never flagged for me. Especially when you realize that, although there are significant events, on and off-screen, that change the characters’ lives, in a sense nothing really happens until you’re two-thirds of the way through (and then everything happens at once}. That left time and room for deep {and, okay, sometimes repetitious} character drawing, with each character having his or her own well-defined personality, quirks and voice. I think it was also the gentle humor, and the large circle of sympathetic characters {even the unlikeable ones are likeable}, and the sense of optimism.

It’s worth noting (at least to myself) that I read Wives and Daughters on its own, without having another book in progress at the same time. {I don’t do that very often, and now I think I should.} After reading The Moorland Cottage (too melodramatic for me) and North and South (too preachy), I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy reading any more of the novels. They’re less important as literature, I think, but I’m definitely drawn to the more-Cranfordian ones.

But of all the reading, I think the biography will stand out most for me. I found myself glossing over the chapters which focused on a literary analysis of each book because I wanted to spend more time with Mrs. G. I loved her energy, her humor, her snarkiness, her devotion to her husband and her daughters, her trips to Paris to escape from the reviews of her books, her battles with her publishers, and her intellectual curiousity. What also struck me was how ‘modern’ {for lack of a better word} she was. It seemed as though you could just change some of the details and then transplant her into 2011.

This project brought me hours (weeks, months) of very enjoyable reading, and a very different sense of the author than I had when I started. There's a little more to come in the short term {the BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters, on reserve at the library, and 'The Cage at Cranford,' a later short story}. I might be procrastinating, because Nathaniel Hawthorne {yikes} is next on the author list I made up a few years ago. {Actually, he should have come before Mrs. G., as he’s a couple of years older, but can you blame me for postponing him? And the timing is better…he feels like school. :)}


Nancy/n.o.e said...

OK, my total count of books by Gaskell is zero, but I've put some on my list for either the library or Amazon. Thanks for sharing/reviewing!

Anonymous said...

Okay, absolute agreement with so many of your thoughts here. Like you, I usually have several books on the go at once but, when I read Wives and Daughters, I focus on it completely and am more than rewarded for such single-mindedness. And the biography is just wonderful, even though, like you, I could have done without the literary analysis chapters which didn't add much to my overall impression of Gaskell herself.

Do let us know what you think of the BBC Wives and Daughters miniseries once it comes it at the library! It's one of my favourite adaptations.

Vintage Reading said...

I've really enjoyed your Gaskell posts and I have plans for winter reading. I certainly want to read the biography and re-read Cranford.

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