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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June 25, 2010

Elegant Economy

I just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, and if I didn't have a stack of library books waiting for me, I would probably start re-reading it immediately. Fortunately, the edition I bought has two author novellas, Mr. Harrison's Confessions and My Lady Ludlow, so I don't have to put it away, sighing, just yet.

This book emerged from the unread stack at the absolutely perfect time, when I was craving 'comfort reading.' It's a gentle, cozy story, but it's also gently satirical  about class, and village life, , and it's very funny. It has the same quality as Jane Austen's novels do -- the ability to still be humorous, and have contemporary resonances, centuries after it was written.

Cranford is a small English village inhabited by women of a certain ilk:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. What could they do if they were here? ... For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys, who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture into the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reason or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody's affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor; and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. 

If you watched the Masterpiece Classic adaptations (I've watched the first one, I'm hoarding the second one), characters and the story aren't exactly the same, though the mood and the premise are.)  Some of the plotlines are here, although others (the arrival of the young doctor, for instance) were taken from the other novellas.

It's a small thing, and not at all important to the plot or the message, but I thought it was interesting that the book has a first-person narrator, but we learn almost nothing about her; we don't know her exact relationship to the Jenkyns sisters, or even her first name, till close to the end. We get a sense that she's a younger woman because she has a father who is still active in trade. She is a more sensible and level-headed than Miss Matty and the other women of Cranford, and she shares some of their crotchets and concerns.  Maybe she's a stand-in for us, or for the view we should have, as outsiders looking in - bemused, tolerant, sensible, more able to see reality, but deeply fond of the women of Cranford and ready to return there whenever we can.

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