We are all of us better when she is near us

I recently read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and both adored it and was bemused by it. I don’t quite know what I think Gaskell was doing with this book–or, even, what kind of book it is, in terms of basic genre distinctions. I’m pretty sure it’s fantasy of some sort though.

Cranford is a series of vignettes that together form a loose novel (maybe?) about life in small-town England. The first reason I’m not sure whether or not this is a novel is that there is no protagonist per se. The first-person narrator is keenly observant, interested in, and present for all the goings-on described in the book, but she’s also a cipher– she’s never really involved in any of the various storylines except as an observer (with one exception: she writes a letter that solves one particular problem; more about which anon). She is somehow both an insider as well as a visitor–she is included in everything of importance that happens in Cranford, but she also has enough distance to be able to comment, judge, interpret. We know almost nothing about her: her name is used only once or twice and it is so plain and common as to be without any helpful signification whatsoever–her name is Mary Smith.

This is, I suppose, a “woman’s book”–whatever that means. The story, if that’s what we can call what we have here, opens by letting us know that Cranford is run by a coven of proper middle class ladies firmly in possession of their independence:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.  If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad.  In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.  What could they do if they were there?  The surgeon has his round of thirty miles, and sleeps at Cranford; but every man cannot be a surgeon.  For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture in to the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody’s affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. (p. 1)

At this point, it’s not yet clear that the narrator is, sort of, one of the ladies she’s gently mocking, or that she loves these ladies (one in particular: the kind and gentle Miss Matty Jenkyns) dearly. Even not knowing what Mary Smith is to the women she describes, it’s already clear that this book isn’t only satirical. The implacable social control enjoyed by the Cranford “Amazons” is very real, even if it’s not as firmly entrenched in kindness or thoughtfulness as one would like. There’s also a subtle undertone of elegy here, in spite of the present tense.

How to read this book is surprisingly complicated, as Charlotte Mitchell notes in her introduction to the OWC Cranford; it “has variously been read as an exercise in cloying nostalgia, a satire on frustrated spinsterhood, and a celebration of female separatism defying the patriarchy” (p. vii).

I can see how all these options for understanding the book have merit; indeed, this first paragraph and much of Cranford seems to bear them all out in some degree. Yet, the more I think about these options, the more limited they seem–but any reductive impulse, in either proto- or anti-feminist directions, seem particularly insufficient. Mary’s commentary certainly allows for both points of view with regards to gender; but the story of Miss Matty Jenkyns complicates both.

Matty is the drooping younger sister of the domineering and self-assured Miss (Deborah) Jenkyns; she is quiet, gentle, and so interested in keeping others happy that she appears to be without any interests or desires of her own. She is just one of many dim satellites revolving around the more powerful Amazonian personalities in her social sphere. Yet, after her elder sister dies, Matty becomes–not the protagonist, for she’s too passive, too accommodating, too retiring for that–but something like the main subject of Cranford. Mary Smith spends an increasing amount of time both in Matty’s presence and describing her life–and it’s a sad life indeed, neither heroically anti-patriarchal, nor laughably representative of pinched spinsterhood. Matty’s life is a tragedy of obedient self-denial.

Mary learns fairly early into Cranford that Matty was once on the verge of marrying a man her family disapproved of only because of minute social differences. Matty really wanted to marry Mr. Holbrook but submitted to her family’s wishes, as a proper young lady should. In early old age, she runs into him again and so Mary learns of her story through another acquaintance:

[S]he never spoke of any former and more intimate acquaintance with Mr. Holbrook.  She had probably met with so little sympathy in her early love, that she had shut it up close in her heart; and it was only by a sort of watching…that I saw how faithful her poor heart had been in its sorrow and its silence. (p. 36)

There’s real pathos here, pathos that makes running Matty’s life through any sort of interpretive lens, either literary or political, seem shabby and self-serving. What do such agendas have to do with such pain? Nothing noble, certainly.

As Mary and Matty are thrown increasingly together, more is revealed–and the intensity of Matty’s loss becomes almost unbearable. Unbearable to me, anyhow, and perhaps to Mary; poor Matty has borne this unlived life a long time, and is better able to handle it than we are:

“[D]o you know, I dream sometimes that I have a little child—always the same—a little girl of about two years old; she never grows older, though I have dreamt about her for many years.  I don’t think I ever dream of any words or sound she makes; she is very noiseless and still, but she comes to me when she is very sorry or very glad, and I have wakened with the clasp of her dear little arms round my neck.  Only last night…my little darling came in my dream, and put up her mouth to be kissed, just as I have seen real babies do to real mothers before going to bed.” (p. 107-8)

The lives we turn away from or are torn away from haunt us like ghosts. Gentle ghosts, perhaps, but persistent ones nonetheless.

Matty’s sorrows are not confined to the past, unfortunately. She also ends up financially ruined in her twilight years, the result of her now deceased–and infinitely more resourceful–elder sister having sunk all their savings into one bank that ends up folding. Matty has no skills, no prospect of marriage (Mr. Holbrook having sickened and died after a spontaneous trip to France), no family. The ladies of Cranford show the power of their “real tender good offices to each other” by pooling their resources to keep Matty afloat while she is set up by others more creative and decisive than she is in the business of selling tea. She is beginning to comfortably get by (in straitened circumstances that would have appalled her sister, parents, and younger self) when Mary miraculously tracks down and then brings home Matty’s brother, Peter, long presumed dead after having left for India 30+ years before.

“Aga” Peter Jenkyns returns to Cranford a wealthy man–or, at least, wealthy enough to support himself and his sister sufficiently that neither of them need earn their bread. If anyone deserves the respite of financial security and familial comfort in old age, it’s Matty. What’s tricky and fascinating is how Peter’s return also signals the undermining of Amazonian rule in the town. Not only does he restore Matty to the dependent position she’s held most of her life, he also resolves all the social ills and arguments the ladies have been engaged in and unable to deal with themselves–and he solves these long-standing feuds quickly and just, you know, “somehow or another” (p. 160).

I can only imagine what George Gissing would have said about this book! Cranford was completed in 1853; Gissing published The Odd Women, a novel that addresses women just like Matty–educated just enough to be unsuited to independent survival–40 years later. He would, I think, identify Cranford‘s comfortable conclusion for what it is–pure fantasy. But my question now is, considering how much Gaskell herself complicates the issues through which she initially invites us to look at her portrait of ladies in the country, is the fantasy of helpless women being rescued by kind men the fantasy she was most interested in? For, while Peter does solve all the social problems afflicting Cranford upon his arrival, it’s not with him that Mary and Gaskell conclude the book; we are brought back to Matty:

Ever since that day there has been the old friendly sociability in Cranford society; which I am thankful for, because of my dear Miss Matty’s love of peace and kindliness.  We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us. (p. 160)

I think Matty herself is the fantasy. Her grief that doesn’t curdle and turn even one little bit into bitterness; her ability to change just enough to make enough money to survive; her gentleness and timidity bringing out the best in others instead of the worst. Or, the fantasy resides in the notion that a person can exist beyond issues of gender politics or class or anything you like and just be good.

I am playing devil’s advocate here, at least somewhat; I don’t think Gaskell was being so cagey or clever or cranky. Nonetheless, the conclusion of Cranford is hazy with the unlikelihood of its own soothing mix of relief and quiet joy.

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12 thoughts on “We are all of us better when she is near us

  1. Well, this is the next book for my Wednesday Morning book group and after reading your review I have to say that I’m looking forward to it more than I was. I certainly think we’re going to have plenty to talk about. It’s a shame you can’t be there.

    • There’s so much to talk about! Much more than I’ve even gestured towards here; I think I’m not smart enough for Gaskell–but see Tom’s and Rohan’s comments below for the good stuff. 🙂

  2. Lovely post. I agree that none of those reductive descriptions seems altogether adequate. One reason may be that the novel itself isn’t really a novel, as you note: it’s vignettes or sketches and though there are the plot lines that gradually tie the pieces together, it doesn’t really have unity except of character — and perhaps of tone. The ladies are never as exclusive as the opening suggests, either, and their rules are much professed but not nearly so rigidly practised. I love Captain Brown, for instance, who arouses such shock for his indelicacy about money (not to mention his love of Dickens!) but who rapidly becomes part of the fabric of the town, as does Signor Brunoni and his family.

    Considered as a novel, it certainly defies notions of form and significance — when I was teaching it, I trotted out a passage from A Room of One’s Own that I kept thinking of in relation to Cranford:

    “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. The whole structure, therefore, of the early nineteenth-century novel was raised, if one was a woman, by a mind which was slightly pulled from the straight, and made to alter its clear vision in deference to external authority.:

    It’s easy to see Cranford as gently deriding this division of the world into what matters and what doesn’t. But it’s hardly didactic or strenuous (and, perhaps, not consistent) in holding out an alternative. Anyway, like you I think it’s Miss Matty who is its moral center, but there are lots of little moments that I keep finding give me more to think about than you’d expect from such small things.

    • You’re right, the Amazons don’t rule nearly as uncompromisingly as they imagine themselves doing–almost everyone turns out to be a little bit better than Mary initially suggests they are. Which means, I suppose, that my classification of her as a cipher is not quite right. The closer she gets to Cranford’s ladies, the better she seems to like them–is this just Matty’s good influence? Now that I think of it, the tone of gentle mockery that begins the book doesn’t disappear exactly, but it definitely gets toned down and becomes more and more turned inward–I’m thinking of Mary’s concerns about Peter re-marrying after his return, etc. Mary changes, Matty does not–so perhaps even though she seems like a cipher, Mary is, in fact, a real protagonist and what this novelish thing is about is how very much our environments change us as much as we’d like to believe we observe and judge our environments? I don’t know where I’m going with this. I wish George Eliot had written something about Cranford.

  3. Excuse me, not (Deborah) but (DehBORah).

    Cranford-as-novel has a precedent. It is like The Pickwick Papers, non-novel that becomes a novel as the author moves along. Gaskell’s is particularly ingenious in the way she uses later chapters to shape earlier chapters. Dickens just ignores a lot of the earlier stuff. Miss Matty may not have been created as a heroine, but she becomes one.

    This may perhaps be more obvious to readers of 20th century novels of – I’ll use a bad word – experimental bent, where unity of character or tone are more than sufficient to define a novel. In what else lies the unity of Swann’s Way?

    • Is there unity in Swann’s Way? If there is, I don’t what it consists in. It read to me like a waking dream–vivid but not entirely rooted in things that can be understood in everyday terms, along commonly understood principles. But as time passes, I’m increasingly unsure if I actually liked Swann’s Way, as much as I admired it–so perhaps I’m biased.

      As for Gaskell, yes, experimental seems a good word for Cranford. But The Pickwick Papers–that book gets mentioned constantly in this book.This makes me think of Rohan’s comment above about Gaskell’s gentle questioning of what constitutes subject matter important enough for a novel. The act of reading and its implications both personal and social seem to be part of Cranford’s subject matter–yet, both of the most serious readers here die! Captain Brown and DeBORah so quickly become ghosts in this tale–given Cranford’s increasing focus on Matty and the real business of surviving, reading increasingly loses its narrative importance–another way Gaskell lightly questions the value and meaning we insist books hold? If so, cagey and ironic. And complicated….Aga Jenkyns and Signor Brunoni are almost meta-fictional unto themselves!

  4. “non-novel that becomes a novel” – yes, that captures it, doesn’t it: you can feel it growing into itself. Yet I don’t feel it would be somehow “better” if it had been revised to reflect its later unities more strongly from the beginning. Books like ‘Olive Kitteridge’ today do something of the same thing, allowing the sense of a whole to arise from the parts.

  5. Cranford could provide an interesting model for a patient novelist.

    Gaskell’s book could also be called a domestic picaresque – Bing says I did not invent this term, but close. The women have adventures by moving around, but only to each other’s houses.

    • I like this–the domestic picaresque. Are there other examples of it that come to mind? I’m meant to begin Don Quixote shortly so this is a useful term to be considering…

  6. Hey, look: “Is the man going mad? thought I. He is very like Don Quixote.” Domestic picaresque! That is Mr. Holbrook, driven mad by his love of books, Tennyson, and Paris. And eventually killed by the same. So sad, so sad.

    Other examples of the domestic picaresque – I don’t know. What is The Country of the Pointed Firs like? I should read it.

    The Dickens references are in part a meta-fictional joke, since the constituent parts of Cranford were published in Household Words, ed. C. Dickens.

    • Ha, I can’t believe I’d forgotten about Mr. Holbrook’s books; the issue of the forks stuck in my memory more somehow.

      I haven’t read Jewett, thanks for the tip…

      You know, I stopped taking notes when I was reading Cranford; there was just too much. It turns out I wasn’t only being lazy.

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