Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Indiscretion was my bugbear fault - Cranford's all-seeing narrator - Oh, gentility!

Cranford is the story of a group of spinsters and widows in a small town near Manchester. The men in the town - at least those "above a certain rent" - have all disappeared, off to Manchester or India or Heaven. The women are not exactly elderly, but are certainly not young. Except for one key character, the novel's narrator, Mary Smith.

Mary is a natural anthropologist. She is not actually of Cranford, but is an outsider, a family friend of the Jenkyns sisters. She visits for various lengths of time, lending a hand, going to the teas and card parties, where she stores away every ridiculous detail, which she then writes up and sends to a magazine published by Charles Dickens. One of the many arbitrary rules of Cranford society is that Dickens is too modern and vulgar to read, or at least to tell anyone you've read, so Mary Smith can betray every secret in safety, apparently. And as she says in Chapter XII, "Indiscretion was my bugbear fault. Everybody has a bugbear fault..."

The humor of the book is Mary's. Her insight is keen and her wit wicked, even mean sometimes. Key to her character is that she is barely in the book. She is present, she observes; she laughs, but silently. She sees the ludicrous side of almost everything. About the ladies' snobbery, their contempt for trade, their arbitrary rules about what is acceptable, and their hypocrisies, she is brutal. I don't think she means to be. She can't help herself. It's how she sees the world.

Late in the book, a character arrives who is a natural and gifted teller of tall tales and baloney. He tells a credulous lady that while hunting in the Himalayas, he was so high up that he shot a cherubim. She wonders if that might be sacrilege; he thinks she might be right. Mary knows him for what he is, immediately. And he knows that she knows. And she knows that he knows etc. etc. They're spiritual kin, even if her stories are all "true."

"Visiting," Chapter VII, is ur-Cranford, perfect. No men, no action, no story. Miss Betty Barker, who used to makes caps, and is thus a bit low on the social scale, has invited the ladies over for tea. Miss Barker does not quite know the rules, so she serves too much food, although it somehow all disappears. "However, Mrs. Jamieson was kindly indulgent to Miss Barker's want of knowledge of high life; and, to spare her feelings, ate three large pieces of seed-cake, with a placid, ruminating expression of countenance, not unlike a cow's."

Then, after cards, there's more food. "Another tray! 'Oh, gentility!' thought I, 'can you endure this last shock?'" Yet the oysters, jellies, and cherry-brandy all disappear as well.

And somehow, all a-scatter, I omitted the bit where Miss Matty accidentally wears two hats, and the whole discussion of Mr. ffoulkes, who "always looked down on capital letters, and said they belonged to lately invented families," but finds happiness when he meets Mrs. ffarington, "and it was all owing to her two little ffs."

I said that Mary see almost everything as ludicrous. Almost - I'll try to write about that tomorrow. Cranford is actually a pretty serious book.

I forgot to mention that at Age 30+... A Lifetime of Books, it's Cranford Read-a-Long month! The host plans to read one chapter a day, if she can restrain herself, which somehow will take twenty-seven days (perhaps she has the BBC-related Cranford Chronicles volume).


  1. I loved this book when I first read it some 25 years ago. I think I'm ready for another go.

  2. Frankly, I'm not doing justice to how good it is.