Wednesday, June 9, 2010

23. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I've been MIA for a month now, but mostly with a good reason. After my study abroad program in Spain ended, my boyfriend and I met in Madrid for a three-week trip traveling in Spain, France, and Germany. Expect posts soon about our travels in Madrid, Toledo, Marseilles, Lyon, Paris, Munich, Fussen, Koln, and Berlin, as soon as he relinquishes the pictures!

I first heard of Cranford from Wuthering Expectations, and it piqued my interest immediately. I bought it and took it with me to Spain, but kept it in reserve for when my library access would cease. As it turned out, I didn't have time for reading while traveling, so it was the first book I read on my arrival home.

I enjoyed this slim novel for many reasons. First, it possesses many of the characteristics I most value in fiction; a clear, witty narrative, focus on unique characters, and above all, truth in portraying the interactions and behaviors of people. Elizabeth Gaskell's writing reminded me strongly of Jane Austen. She uses funny observations and sardonic remarks to convey the circumstances of the world and society that she lived in. Of course, the two authors did not write far apart, Gaskell was only half a century after Austen and they would have had many of the same cultural and historical influences. However, in my opinion, Gaskell's material is braver and more groundbreaking than Austen's. I still prefer Austen's writing style, but I have to really admire Gaskell in her choice of subject matter.

She writes almost exclusively about women and she dares to tackle economic issues and make them more central to her book, and more tragic than even Austen does. Austen solves her heroine's money woes by providing them with wealthy suitors, Gaskell does at last provide a destitute heroine with a comfortably situated brother, but only after quite serious reviews of economic woes. Gaskell also addresses death early and often, which Austen usually shunts to the side, as happening either before or after the meat of her story. Her characters are not young and not even very smart. She lets the reader laugh at their foibles, but also shows how such women can be sweet and inspiring after all.

Cranford, the story of an anachronistic, occasionally deluded, and altogether naive town, of older genteel ladies, is both hilarious and historically relevant, as it rose from the pen of an author who deviated more than others from women's literature in the Victorian era, and her lack of focus on a romantic plotline is rather extraordinary, even today.

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