Tuesday, June 30, 2009

And this was Alice Wilson's second wooing - more comedy from Elizabeth Gaskell

"'Well, Mrs Frank,' he said, 'what answer? Don't make it too long; for I have lots of office work to get through tonight.'

'I hardly know what you meant, sir,' said truthful Alice."

Mr. Openshaw, a "capital accountant," a man of habit, had, earlier in the day, proposed to his landlady. This is all in Elizabeth Gaskell's short story The Manchester Marriage (1858).

"'Well! I should have thought you might have guessed. You're not new at this sort of work, and I am. However, I'll make it plain this time. Will you have me to be thy wedded husband, and serve me, and love me, and honour me, and all that sort of thing? Because, if you will, I will do as much by you, and be a father to your child--and that's more than is put in the prayer-book. Now, I'm a man of my word; and what I say, I feel; and what I promise, I'll do. Now, for your answer!'

Alice was silent. He began to make the tea, as if her reply was a matter of perfect indifference to him; but, as soon as that was done, he became impatient."

Alice has been married before, to a sailor who disappeared at sea, and has a child he never met. That's how she's "not new at this sort of work." Now, I don't think it is absolutely necessary, when including a shipwrecked sailor in your story, for that sailor to return after many years. But I'd read three other Gaskell stories before I read this one that were not - how to say it - afraid of melodrama. So I knew we'd see that sailor again. I've wandered away from the proposal scene.

''Well?' said he.

'How long, sir, may I have to think over it?'

'Three minutes!' (looking at his watch). 'You've had two already--that makes five. Be a sensible woman, say Yes, and sit down to tea with me, and we'll talk it over together; for, after tea, I shall be busy; say No' (he hesitated a moment to try and keep his voice in the same tone), 'and I shan't say another word about it, but pay up a year's rent for my rooms tomorrow, and be off. Time's up! Yes or no?'"

It's like The Producers. Mr. Openshaw is a wonderful character - narrow, rule-bound, weird. Not successful in spite of his weirdness, but because of it. I work with people like him. In her other stories, Lizzie Leigh, for example, Gaskell's women don't have to work too hard to be kind. Their kindness seems to be innate, or previously inculcated, at least. Odd Mr. Openshaw has to learn to open his heart. His ludicrous proposal is just a first step.

"'If you please, sir--you have been so good to little Ailsie--'

'There, sit down comfortably by me on the sofa, and let's have our tea together. I am glad to find you are as good and sensible as I took you for.'

And this was Alice Wilson's second wooing."

There are a lot of nice touches in this scene, perhaps best read without my interruptions, I suppose. Of course the male reader, four feminist stories behind him, would put most of his attention on the best male character, wouldn't he? But Gaskell allows herself to make him funny and foolish, which, with her women, she does not.

Not in these stories, I mean. Why haven't I read Cranford yet? The butter, the butter.


  1. Oh what fun! I've been collecting both print and e-texts of Gaskell as I find them and one day mean to read them all. I must say you are making me think that one day should be sooner rather than later.

  2. These will certainly be worth your time - 20 to 25 pages each. I don't want to overdo it - they're not masterpieces - but every one of them has moments of characterization and detail that let you know you're in the hands of a real writer.