Thursday, July 22, 2010

As if only one person wrote in that flourishing, meandering style! - Gaskell's style

Some Mary Barton first sentences:

Another year passed on. (Ch. 6)

One Sunday afternoon, about three weeks after that mournful night, Jem Wilson set out with the ostensible purpose of calling on John Barton. (Ch. 8)

The next evening it was a warm, pattering, incessant rain - just the rain to waken up the flowers. (Ch. 9)

The events recorded in the last chapter took place on a Tuesday. (Ch. 17)

I must go back a little to explain the motives which caused Esther to seek an interview with her niece. (Ch. 21)

A couple of things to say.  First, Gaskell is not exactly Flaubert here, is she?  Le mot ordinaire is more common than le mot juste.  But I beg the reader to remember Cranford’s butter-and-string passage, the greatest butter-and-string passage in world literature.

Second, not every chapter begins with an exact placement in time.  Maybe no more than one in four.  Enough, though, that a device that at first seems clumsy becomes an element of Gaskell’s style.  This is how, consistently, this story is going to be told.  One perverse effect is that it slowed my reading – if another year is about to pass, that chapter can wait until tomorrow, can’t it?

My title line is just a joke, from Chapter 21, where it refers to handwriting.  I’ll confess I don’t know what a flourishing style would look like, in penmanship or prose.  Nothing wrong with meandering, in its place. For example, from Chapter 21:

Towards the middle of the day she could no longer evade the body's craving want of rest and refreshment; but the rest was taken in a spirit vault, and the refreshment was a glass of gin.

There’s the specific time again – well, I have no trouble calling this good writing.  The euphonious cliché (“rest and refreshment”) that ends the first phrase is expertly dismantled in the second.  Eighteenth-century critics like Samuel Johnson often talk about “well-balanced periods,” and I seldom know just what they mean, but I believe they mean sentences like this one of Gaskell’s.

Or maybe this one, my favorite sentence in the novel:

It struck two; deep, mirk night. (Ch. 22)

That’s also an entire paragraph.  I read it with a strong accent on each syllable, with a pause for the weak beat.  Hey, it's another time-setting sentence.  I just noticed that, I swear.

There are worse-written books than Mary Barton.  But Gaskell sure gets better.


  1. I love Gaskell's style in Cranford and, especially, in her last unfinished Wives and Daughters. We may say she improved a lot while doing...writing, I mean!
    But I can't say I don't appreciate her other novels, Mary Barton, North and South and Ruth. I find them "brave" - respect to Dickens' or C. Bronte's conventionalities -
    in dealing with the social context.
    But as for style, yes, maybe you are right! Thanks for this interesting post. MG.

  2. yes, reading Wives and Daughters (Which is much different and better written then this one, I think) I still thought Gaskell had some awkwardly written sentences. But Mary Barton just seemed quite amateur in comparison. Thanks for sharing some of these sentences. They are rather amusing out of context...and probably were so in context too.

  3. I hope I don't seem to be mocking - "It struck two; deep, mirk night" is unimprovable.

    Maria, I'm glad you put "brave" in quotes. It's not a designation I'm comfortable assigning to artists. Gaskell has her own conventionality, some of it very much in evidence in Mary Barton.