Friday, September 4, 2009

What colour are ash-buds in March?

"Now, what colour are ash-buds in March?"

Is the man going mad? thought I. He is very like Don Quixote.

"What colour are they, I say?" repeated he vehemently.

"I am sure I don't know, sir," said I, with the meekness of ignorance.

"I knew you didn't. No more did I--an old fool that I am!--till this young man comes and tells me. Black as ash-buds in March. And I've lived all my life in the country; more shame for me not to know. Black: they are jet-black, madam." And he went off again, swinging along to the music of some rhyme he had got hold of.

We're in Chapter IV of Cranford, "A Visit to an Old Bachelor." The "young man" who comes along is actually Alfred Tennyson; the line about the ash-buds is from a long, dullish poem called "The Gardener's Daughter; or, The Pictures."

Gaskell is delineating her method here. The art of the novel, or this novel, is in the accumulation of tiny details. But Gaskell is not Tennyson. All of her descriptive writing is about people, and not about how they look, but about their behavior, and their things - their food and furniture, and clothes, always their clothes. Nature is for the poets.

The poetry enthusiast wants to read a poem to the ladies, "and Miss Pole encouraged him in his proposal, I thought, because she wished me to hear his beautiful reading, of which she had boasted; but she afterwards said it was because she had got to a difficult part of her crochet, and wanted to count her stitches without having to talk." Pretty sharply observed.

Entire passages are devoted to hats, and the vulgarity of the name of the local doctor (Mr. Hoggins, "but, as Miss Jenkyns said, if he changed it to Piggins it would not be much better"), and the difficulty of using a particularly small set of sugar-tongs, evidence of miserliness: "Very delicate was the china, and very old the plate, very thin the bread and butter, and very small the lumps of sugar" (Ch. VIII).

Isn't "very" one of those empty words that a good writer is supposed to suppress? I guess a great writer is allowed to use it.

I didn't know the colour of the ash-buds myself. I'm not as good a poetry reader as that farmer, and probably would not have noticed that detail in Tennyson. But I'll remember it now, along with a hundred other marvels from Cranford.


  1. Lovely post.

    BTW, I like how Gaskell used the word "very" in the lines you quoted--mood and rhythm, I think.

  2. It is decidedly interesting that she isn't describing nature in Cranford. The Moorland Cottage is full of nuanced descriptions. I wonder if that is something she abandoned in her later work. Would be interesting how she did handle it in Mary Barton. On the Gaskell Blog is also a post dedicted to all the flowers that are mentioned in The Moorland Cottage. They are numerous.
    The tone of the quotes are so different from the one used in The Moorland Cottage.

  3. Caroline - Mary Barton is basically entirely urban. Gloomy industrial squalor, that sort of thing. But North and South has a bit of nature appreciation.

    Cranford appears to be unlike anything else in Gaskell's works. I wish it were otherwise!

    She was clearly skillful at adapting her method to the story at hand.