Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Come, come, let the cow alone - it's as if I just read these books for the funny parts

Elizabeth Gaskell surprised me, just a bit, with her occasional resort to humor. I'm now well used to how funny George Eliot can be. Silas Marner (1861) is not, in general, what you would call a big barrel of laughs, but it does include an amazing couple of pages in Chapter VI, an argument, over drinks, between a butcher and a farrier.

The two men argue over the breed and former owner of a cow just purchased by the butcher. The butcher maintains that the cow is a red Durham with a white star on her brow, purchased from Mr. Lammeter. The farrier, by contrast, insists that the cow is, in fact, a red Durham, with a star on her brow, originally owned by Mr. Lammeter, "contradick me who will."

The argument grows heated, causing the landlord of the inn, "a man of neutral disposition," to step in:

"'Come, come,' said the landlord; 'let the cow alone. The truth lies atween you: you're both right and both wrong, as I allays say.'"

I loved this scene. It was far superior to an argument over nothing. The combatants are wrestling over facts with which they both completely agree, just for the pure pleasure of arguing. The landlord's great pleasure is to split the difference, even though there is no difference.

I noticed last summer that Eliot, in Adam Bede, kept a clear division between the characters who are allowed to be funny and those who are not. Supporting characters: funny. Main characters: not funny. The Mill on the Floss is not so strict, but Silas Marner maintains the distinction. Silas Marner doesn't seem to have been much fun before his successive traumas; Godfrey and Nancy aren't much different. They're Very Serious People.

In Silas Marner, humor is something that's out in the community, in the normal world, the social world. The loiterers in the tavern can be clowns, and the town doctor can joke about his wife punishing his loose tongue by over-peppering her pies, and Nancy's old maid sister Priscilla is allowed to say anything she wants. She's kind of a scream, actually. Narrator Eliot gets in a few good ones, too.

The novel is about the Serious People cutting themselves off from the social world in one way or another, and then finding their way back. So maybe there are some laughs for Silas and Godfrey after the book ends.

I now sort of wish that George Eliot had written a full-fledged comedy, like Cranford or Emma. She had the chops for it. But I suppose she knew what she was doing.


  1. I just remembered the name of the Elizabeth Gaskell novel I once read--Wives and Duaghters. It's taken me since Monday. : ) This still leaves me without a clue of my own to add to her moral and humor capibilities, and now I'm stumped to remember Silas Marner as well...?!

    Thanks for refreshing my flagging memory

  2. Well, it's not memorable title, is it? Presumably most of Gaskell's novels feature wives and\or daughters. So it doesn't really distinguish.

  3. Very cool to be focusing on humor in these authors, whom I don't really think of as humorous -- well, Cranford had some light humor in it, if I remember correctly. The truth is, humor isn't something I'm very attune to. That sounds like such a sad thing, doesn't it? But I don't mind too much.

  4. Presumably most of Gaskell's novels feature wives and\or daughters.

    Actually, her other 'major' novels, Mary Barton and North & South, are more father/daughter stories. I can't remember Sylvia's Lover's or Ruth well enough to say how they fit in! Wives and Daughters is lovely, sort of a cross between the social comedy of Jane Austen and the more analytical (and scientific) approach of George Eliot.

  5. Another question is whether all of the titles that are just someone's name are actually good titles. They're memorable to a person who has read the novel, meaningless to someone who hasn't.

    We all have our blind spots. My trouble is with Big Ideas. But I do mind! Wuthering Expectations is in part an attempt to deal with the problem, to push myself.

    Cranford just has light humor? But the butter, the string - that seems like profiund humor. I must read Cranford. Good to here that other Gaskell novels are humorous, too, that's it not all dying children.