Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cranford in 1853, a great year for the English novel

Cranford was one of three major English novels published in 1853,* along with Bleak House and Villette. Should I add Gaskell's own Ruth to the list? It's still read, at least, which is more than I can say for any other English novels from that year. Feel free to correct me.

First, then, 1853, was a banner year for the English novels. Four that are still read, that is extremely rare. Only a few years in the 19th century can make that claim (miraculous 1818 has five). The 19th century English novel is one of the great achievements of human civilization, but that doesn't mean that there were three good ones every year.

Especially, setting Ruth aside, since I ain't done read it, three as good as these, which happen to be my favorite Dickens, new favorite Charlotte Brontë, and favorite Elizabeth Gaskell. Also, almost my only Gaskell, but given the nature of her other books, I bet it will remain my favorite.

All three books share tricky, innovative first person narrators. Bleak House's Esther Summerson is perhaps not so tricky herself - a little tricky, though - but she shares the novel with an omniscient third person narrator, a structure that works like a charm and solves any number of Dickensian problems. Dickens never used it again; nor did anyone else that I can think of. I have no idea why not.

The narrator of Villette, being a Brontë character, is, of course, some kind of supernatural spirit, an imp or an elf or something. Brontë uses Lucy Snowe to push her novel in some strange Modernist directions that I found appealing. Whatever it is, there's no other Victorian novel like it, although Lucy does resemble Cranford's Mary Smith in a number of ways. They both stay in the background, or say they do, and both have delightful, slightly cruel senses of humor.

But where Villette is very much Lucy's story, the narrator's attempt to exercise control of her own life, Mary Smith's function really is to tell us the story of the Cranford ladies. She intrudes into the story but is never quite a complete character. The real story belongs to some of the other characters, so Mary remains a device, to some degree, a necessary and useful means of telling a certain story. This almost sounds like a complaint, but it's not. Cranford has just as much of its narrator as it needs.

All right, that's my little digression into literary history. Interest in literary history is my bugbear fault. One of them.

* Bleak House and Cranford had been appearing earlier as serials.


  1. 1847 has Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Vanity Fair. That's a pretty awesome trilogy too. And depending on how you handle serializations, you can put Great Expectations, The Mill on the Floss, and The Woman in White all in 1860...

    You've definitely made me want to re-read Cranford. When I read Ruth, many years ago, I found it pretty dreary. Wives and Daughters, on the other hand, is terrific, kind of a mid-way point between Austen and George Eliot.

  2. 1847, definitely - Dombey and Son was serialized all of that year as well. And The Tenant of Wildfell Hall came out the next year. That burst of Brontë creativity is a phenomenon in its own right.

    And 1860 also had Gryll Grange! Ha ha. Does anyone still read that? I haven't.

    Wives and Daughters is going on the to-read list now, thanks. Mary Barton and North and South were already there. As for Ruth, maybe, maybe not.

  3. I love Gaskell and Cranford, Dickens and Bleak House less so, and Charlotte Bronte more than Dickens. I haven't read Villete so can't speak from experience, but I wonder if it would be read today were it not by the author of Jane Eyre.

  4. Would Villette still be read? Yes and yes!

    It is by no means artistically inferior to Jane Eyre.

  5. I am reading Villette now-I think the chapter "Mrs Beck" where Lucy talks about the owner of the school where she works and the 2 or 3 chapters after that are totally marvelous-the scene where Lucy faces down her unruly girl pupils and throws the worse one in a closet were hilarious brilliant and other superlatives-true 99 percent of readers will read Jane Eyre 1st and most will stop there-they are really missing out by skipping Villette-

  6. Villette has grown on me. I have a little (not that little) Villette project I want to do.