Monday, August 31, 2009

I often feel tipsy myself from eating damson tart - Cranford, what a book

Enough complaining. I just finished a book I just loved, beginning to end, top to bottom. It's Cranford (1852-3). I was surprised to find, earlier this year, a certain amount of humor in some of Gaskell's short stories, carefully rationed. I now see that she was saving all of the funny bits to put in Cranford.

There's the butter, obviously. The butter passage is preceded by the string and rubber band section, and followed by the candle section. "As we lived in constant preparation for a friend who might come in any evening (but who never did), it required some contrivance to keep our two candles of the same length, ready to be lighted, and to look as if we burnt two always."

And how about the contest between Dickens and Dr. Johnson - Dickens turns out to be fatal. Paris, too, visiting Paris is deadly. Miss Betty Barker serves the ladies of Cranford "the beverage they call cherry-brandy," which is "not exactly unpalatable, though so hot and so strong that we thought ourselves bound to give evidence that we were not accustomed to such things, by coughing terribly." (Ch. 7) That verges on the mean-spirited, "thought ourselves bound":

"'It's very strong,' said Miss Pole, as she put down her empty glass; 'I do believe there's spirit in it.'

'Only a little drop--just necessary to make it keep," said Miss Barker. 'You know we put brandy-paper over our preserves to make them keep. I often feel tipsy myself from eating damson tart.'"

To make it keep! Damson tart!

I would have finished this book a lot sooner if it were not for passages like this, which I had to immediately re-read. I did not have to read them all to meine Frau, though, because after one or two she snatched the book from me and read it all herself. Which, come to think of it, slowed me down even more.

How about the episode of the lace, and the cat, and the proper kind of story to tell a lady of quality. You would never guess where that lace has been.

Isn't Elizabeth Gaskell a crusading social reformer, her novels weapons in the arsenal of the poor and beaten down? I haven't read any of those books, so I can't be sure, although I think the answer is yes. At the same time Gaskell was writing Cranford, she was also working on Ruth (1853). Let's take a look at the entry for Ruth in the Oxford Companion to English Literature. Let's see: "orphan," "rescued from suicide," "seduced and deserted," "cholera epidemic." Mm hmm. So Gaskell was writing, at the exact same time, one of the funniest novels of the century, and one of the grimmest.

This week, it's all Cranford at Wuthering Expectations, always funny, never grim. Also, it turns out, not, in the end, so far from Gaskell the crusader.

By the way, I've learned a thing or two about Gaskell from JaneGS at Reading, Writing, etc., a great champion of Gaskell.


  1. I read this very recently and loved it dearly also! This is a book that I believe will remain dear to me for a long, long time.


  2. It's a book that should be better known, isn't it? Meaning, lots of people would really enojy it. Strongly recommended to all Jane Austen fans, certainly.

  3. I've only gotten to chapter 3 (for the read-a-long) but I'm really enjoying it so far. The humor is great!

  4. Heather, it's just as good throughout - it changes, but it's just as good.

    Since Cranford began life as a bunch of separate stories, there could have been more and less inspired episodes. But Gaskell was in control of her material.