Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
"In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.
I love the first line of this book. The reader knows from the beginning that this is going to be a fun book. Elizabeth Gaskell doesn't disappoint. There are some men in the story, but they remain on the sidelines. They are not essential to the story. In fact, that's quite the premise of the book -- men aren't necessary. Considering that Gaskell wrote this book in the early 1850s, this is quite shocking. During her day, women were expected to be dependent upon men for everything. So, Gaskell does something quite out of character within the Victorian period by fleshing out these eccentric women who are quite independent. The book was first written and published in installments in Charles Dickens' Household Words beginning in December 1851. The book is written as a series of vignettes as we follow the women throughout their lives. There really is not much of a plot, but rather brief glimpses into the lives of these women.
The women all abide by a very strict code of propriety. For example, visiting hours are strictly kept to after twelve noon. It would be unheard of to come to a neighbor's home before this time. The women also practice what is called "elegant economy." They feel it vulgar to discuss money, and everyone pretends that they have more than they do. For instance, they pretend that they walk instead of getting a buggy because it's a beautiful night -- not because it's expensive. They want to keep at bay any appearance of impropriety, which also extends to their household help. The maids are forbidden to have "followers" or boyfriends. One exception to this is later in the book when Miss Matty is older and her sister has died. She allows her maid Martha to have a follower, although it still bothers her. It's as if these women are holding out against the changing times. But, eventually they begin to see that change comes to all of us no matter how hard we try to hold it at bay. This is a delightful little book. The women are eccentric, kind, funny, strong and yet vulnerable. I highly recommend this one.