Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cranford and the strong female character

Every now and again I come across someone praising a book or movie because it features a "strong female character." I've never quite seen the inherent virtue in the notion. Many of my favorite novels feature nothing but weak characters, male or female. Weak, soft, foolish, pathetic, thin-skinned, vain, ludicrous, misguided, lunatic, stupid, and many other wonderful features. Wonderful because they're interesting.

Cranford begins with a strong female character, an inflexible tyrant, Deborah (pronounced, she insists, DehBORah), Jenkyns, ruler of the Cranford spinsters. That story is, in a way, about finding some softness behind her strength. After Chapter Two, Deborah passes away, leaving behind her helpless, simple, younger sister Matty. Matty, a  type specimen of the weak female character, subclass Victorian, turns out to be the unlikely heroine of the novel. I'm still a bit amazed with how much Gaskell does with her.

Near the end of the book, Matty loses her income, almost all from investments in a mismanaged bank. "'I shall lose one hundred and forty-nine pounds thirteen shillings and fourpence a year; I shall only have thirteen pounds a year left'" (Ch. XIII). All her life Matty has been dependent on the guidance of men, and her domineering sister; at this moment they have failed her, completely.

Matty, a rector's daughter, has been educated to do nothing. The narrator, who, as I have mentioned can be a bit sharp, runs down Matty's deficiencies for us: she cannot play piano, draw, sew anything fancy, or use globes, all useful for a governess. I should point out that the narrator forgives Matty for the globe business, since she doesn't understand them herself. Matty has trouble reading long words, spells terribly, and is confused by the act of making change. She is fifty-eight years old.

But it turns out that Matty can do one thing: suffer, endure, retrench, turn inward. She becomes to everyone's surprise a fine Stoic, based fundamentally on her kindness to others. And others respond with kindness. This is where Cranford turns out to be, however different the tone, a close relative of the Gaskell short stories I read in June. Acts of kindness, particularly between women, seem to be fundamental to Gaskell's world.

Like Villette, one of the challenges of Cranford is figuring out which subjects are open for mockery and which are not. In Cranford, poverty, true love, religious feeling - our clever narrator does not joke about those. Nor about Matty's endurance. Matty was protected from the world, and for what? There's a genuine tragedy at the heart of Cranford.


  1. "Weak, soft, foolish, pathetic, thin-skinned, vain, ludicrous, misguided, lunatic, stupid, and many other wonderful features."

    Qualities I look for both within books and out!

  2. I seem to find these qualities whether I look for them or not. Some I even carry around with me, everywhere I go.

  3. Personally, when I complain about a lack of strong female characters, I'm usually talking about the way certain authors pay a lot of attention to the subjectivity and rich inner lives of their male characters, yet are content to leave their female characters as sketches or stereotypes. I want characters who are strongly depicted, but not necessarily strong in their actions. So, for example, I think Wharton's Lily Bart is a strong female character, despite her many frustrating weaknesses, because her subjectivity is so developed, whereas Dickens's Estella is a pretty weak character, even though she's "sassy" or whatever, since she's only seen through Pip's eyes and never gets to express her own subjective perceptions in any depth.

    Um, anyway, I'm enjoying exploring your blog. Sorry that my first comment is sort of argumentative! I've seen a couple of people reading Cranford lately, and their reviews have all been intriguing. I'll have to check it out!

  4. Not argumentative - very informative. The posibility had escaped me that "strong" was related to "developed." That's a fair thing to look for!

    Dickens is a good example for your point. The fact is that, with a few exceptions (and Esther Summerson, something more than an exception), his young women are not interesting characters. Sketches, stereotypes, exactly.

    So, to me, this is an artistic failure, maybe the greatest failure of Dickens.

    Dickens also provides a counter-argument, though. His books are full of strongly depicted characters who are barely two-dimensional but absolutely alive. They're as developed as they should be, and serve as arguments against the importance of subjectivity.

  5. Dickens also provides a counter-argument, though. His books are full of strongly depicted characters who are barely two-dimensional but absolutely alive. They're as developed as they should be, and serve as arguments against the importance of subjectivity.

    Were you secretly reading my mind as I wrote this morning's post, specifically mentioning the vitality of Dickens's nonrounded characters? Weird!

  6. I also totally agree about Dickens's non-rounded yet vital characters...and yet, I still don't find Stella or Biddy to be particularly "strong" female characters, even from a Dickensian perspective. People like Wemmick and Pumblechook are fantastically fun to read, despite their lack of subjective development; by contrast I find Estella and Biddy to be totally uninteresting. There's no humor about them, no quirkiness, none of Havisham's glorious grotesqueness, and none of Esther Summerson's distinctive narrative voice, since they don't really have voices at all. (BTW, I agree about Esther - I was really surprised to find how impressed I was with her!)

    So I mean, it doesn't have to be subjectivity necessarily, but I guess I think of "strong" female characters as ones that are fully realized within the scope of whatever literary techniques are being used. And Havisham is "strong" to me because she's compelling and unique and fun to hate, not because she happens also to be a tyrant.

  7. Ah, Biddy, I forgot about Biddy - because she's completely forgettable. Dickens and his young women, they're such a problem. Dickens does have female characters as vivid as Wemmick (maybe not as vivid as Miss Havisham!) but they're never the heroines or possible love interests - again, excepting the one case where he switches to first person.

    Your clarification makes a lot of sense to me.

    Nicole, I read your post before I read your comment here, and was sort of wondering the same thing. But there's a logic, in your case - Smollett (and Fielding) are the ancestors of Dickens. In the Fielding\Richardson dichotomy, there is no question which one Dickens was.

  8. Hey Tom, hey Emily.

    I too have been frustrated near to madness with this strong female character business because, in my experience as both reader and professor, developed subjectivity is NOT what most people mean by that phrase. Indeed, Emily, you are the only person I've come across (and I'm thankful for it! It gives me hope) that doesn't mean, simply, tough, independent, and taking no guff from the menfolk when invoking this hackneyed term.

    The last time I taught, I taught a Shakespeare class and it took, literally, almost the whole year to have that class unlearn the strong female character ideal as a framework for making sense of female characters. And this was an extremely bright group of students capable of parsing the problematic mess of, for example, surveillance and morality, in Measure for Measure!!

    I was on the verge on reading Cranford, Tom, but am going to spend the next two months reading lesser known Trollope and Gissing novels as I've been blessed with the unexpected windfall of a short-term library card for a fantastic university library.

  9. "Hey Emily" - that is sad. Hi, Emily, hope you are well, wherever you are, whatever you are doing.

    Colleen, you reinforce my impression that the search for the "strong female character" has become, for many readers, just a reflex. A received idea, not a critical idea.

    I understand, when I read three novels in a row by sub-Hemingwayish authors who have trouble granting their female characters any sort of independent existence that I might get particular pleasure when I finally run into a tough, independent, take no guff gal. But of course that does not make the Strong Female Character good, but rather emphasizes how the sub-Hemingways are bad.

    Your last paragraph makes sense. Cranford you can find anywhere.

  10. Gah, I completely missed the fact when I wrote the above comment that these posts were from 2009! Rohan linked to them and I just dove right in, assuming they were recent. So, I apologize for being unobservant. And for all the typos I can see there now.

  11. That is just what I was thinking! Except my version is "Since Rohan linked these old posts, maybe I should fix some of the typos. Look at 'em all."

    Looking over the series, I now wish I has put in more quotes. I wish they were nothing but quotes. "[T]ipsy on dansom tart" - ha ha ha ha!

  12. That makes me want to be both tipsy on dansom tart (whatever that may be) as well as reading Cranford--although the less known Trollope I'm reading (The Golden Lion of Granpere) is pretty good too.

  13. Oops, I meant damson (typos, typos) - plums! I don't know about a vegan version, though. Ingredients include butter, eggs, and a lot more butter. Plus, of course, booze.

    I somehow feel that I am due to read another Trollope novel.