Cranford

Cranford cover

Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell

Project Gutenberg Ebook transcribed from the 1907 J.M. Dent edition by David Price.  Extra proofing by Margaret Price.

The novel first appeared as a series of stories in 1851 published in Charles Dickens’ journal:  Household Words.  Gaskell had met Dickens a few years earlier and despite some personal differences, they shared a passionate interest in the plight of the poor as well as razor-sharp eyes for social satire.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  State of the Nation titles

Cranford and  North and South are great examples of why I love this Guardian 1,000 challenge.  I had no Elizabeth Gaskell consciousness before this and would have never read these books.  They were fantastic!  There’s about two more Gaskells on the Guardian list so I will be looking forward to those.

Cranford is a bunch of short stories unified by the characters of an eccentric little town especially its two main characters:  the spinster sisters, Miss Matty and Miss Deborah.  I was a little put off at first by the jumping around and shift in various stories; now I understand how it must have appeared in Dickens’ magazine where stringing a bunch of humorous little stories together makes sense.  At some point after the first chapter this abrupt scene-shifting settles down and I was firmly rooted in the narrative of this little community.  I wonder if Gaskell actually wrote Cranford for Household Words — or cut apart an already-fully formed novel.  The University of Buckingham, U.K. has created a wonderful digital repository of Dickens’ journals:  Dickens Journals Online so you could actually see Cranford as it was first published.  Definitely worth a look-see when I have time later.

Miss Matty and Peter from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miss_Matty_and_Peter.jpg

Cranford is based on a real town in Cheshire where Gaskill grew up and the stories have a warm patina that I imagine reflected her own memories of a beloved childhood home.  Quite a lot of the stories revolve around the absurdities of social snobbery:  the main characters wondering if it is all right to “receive” a former friend who has come down in the world by … shock!…marrying a local doctor.  A down-and-out military officer isn’t quite considered “nice” because of his non-conformist views but he demonstrates great personal bravery and selflessness in a moment of crisis.  And Cranford has many moments of real pathos:  an orphaned girl denies her own chance at happiness in order to care for her dying sister; a beloved brother runs away from home after his lively and creative impulses are quashed severely by his conformist parents.  One of the stories I loved the most was how a loyal and plucky maid servant schemes to financially support her genteel mistress who has lost her money – without the lady actually understanding what is going on and suffering the social stigma of depending on some working folk.  All the stories are narrated by a mysterious “Miss Mary” ; you don’t know that much about her except she comes back to visit Cranford frequently and from time to time helps resolve various crises.  I think this must be Gaskell, herself — for she is responsible for many wry and on-target observations about the various absurdities and follies of the “genteel ladies” of Cranford.

I loved this book!   And I’m loving this challenge for opening up so many new literary adventures.  I’m ashamed to say how little Dickens I have read so it will be interesting to compare his contemporary, Gaskell,  when I start on the list of Dickens.

But first….some E.M Forster and probably one or two little detours!

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell

Free download available from Project Gutenberg:  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4276

Other books I’ve read by Gaskell:  none, yet.  I’ve spotted at least three others on the Guardian list:   RuthMary Barton and Cranford.  Gaskell wrote North and South in 1855.  She was friends with Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte (whose biography she also wrote), Florence Nightingale and a whole lot of other famous Victorians.  She was the wife of a Unitarian minister and had a strong interest in the poor and disenfranchised.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  State of the Nation titles

Some quick thoughts about this book:

  • It is not about the American Civil War
  • It is modern and sexy.
  • It’s all about power to the people!
  • There’s some weird slang in this book — I guess the lingo of 1850 Manchester, England.  I could figure out most but in case you get hung up, “to clem” means to starve.

If you are put off by the idea of plunging into a Victorian Novel with a capital N:  envision sexy Richard Armitage or Brendan Coyle in the lovely 2004 BBC miniseries based on the novel, hold your nose and plunge in!  Or even— watch that first, or read this book as you watch.  Either way, you won’t regret it.  This book was written 160+ years ago and its ideas, dialogue and characters are as fresh and vibrant as any novel today.  There are no long sermons, Gothic passages in the moonlight or incomprehensible political references, I promise!

Briefly, the story goes like this:  lovely but somewhat naive Margaret Hale, who has been brought up in London as a lady-companion to her rich cousin, returns to her parents’ home in the South of England.   Margaret’s dad, a very idealistic and cool minister (he reminds me of an early hippy)  has decided that he must leave the church because he can’t go along with some of its precepts.  He moves Margaret, her mom, and their cranky maid, Dixon, to Milton — which is actually the real-life Manchester, in the North of England.  (Get it, North vs. South….).  They arrive smack in the middle of the Industrial Revolution.  Envision:  dust, dirt, smoke, lots of grubby scrounging peeps, tubercular factory workers, etc.  This move is a big come-down for the Hales — Mr. Hale cheerfully goes to work as a private tutor-professor — but this smoky nasty town is a major paradigm shift for the gentle Mrs. Hale (who has some sort of aristo connections), spunky Margaret, and the ever-whiny Dixon.   The other two families that feature in the book are the Thorntons — nouveaux riche factory owners and the Higgins — struggling factory workers.  Margaret develops a love-hate sexual tension thing with John Thornton, the young, ambitious factory owner and a touching friendship with Bessie Higgins, who is dying from some lung problem picked up working in the factories.  Bessy’s dad, Nicholas is a leader in the nascent Union movement.  The cool thing about this book is that it portrays all the classes of English society of the times:  the old, languid aristocracy (Mrs. Hale and her relations), the intelligentsia (Mr. Hale and his Oxford buddies), the industrialists (the Thortons) and the workers (Higgins and crew) and treats them all with intelligence and sympathy.   Gaskell is very in tune to the plight of the workers but she balances that with the struggles of the Thorntons realistically and fairly.  Margaret and John’s relationship is symbolic of the misunderstandings between the older way of life (pastoral, agricultural) and the new way (industrial, mechanical).  Their love story is sweet and simmery.  In turn, Gaskell also demonstrates that workers and bosses have a lot in common and can work together productively.  There’s a lot about labor and management in this book — but it doesn’t come off preachy or sodden thanks to Gaskell’s deft handling of plot and character

I really loved this book.  I loved its modernity and big message.  This was a great addition to my Guardian 1,000 challenge reads.  On to Cranford!

Richard Armitage as John Thornton in North and South. He said in an interview that North and South was a favorite read. Me, too!

The book behind the blockbuster: C.S. Forester’s The African Queen

African Queen cover

The African Queen

C. S. Forester

Back Bay Books.   1984.  256 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by C.S. Forester:  None!!  But, there are more on the Guardian 1000 list so I will be reading them soon and reporting back.  If they are good as this one, what a treat that will be.  Forester was a famous and prolific author, noted for the Horatio Hornblower series and for his many screenplays.

Guardian 1000 Challenge:  War and Travel titles.

First of all, if you read this book (you should!) you must try as hard as you can to erase the images of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart from your mind.   Of course in all book-movie comparisons the typical complaint is that the movie misses so much of the internal dialogues and insights into the characters.  This is certainly true in comparing Forester’s masterpiece and the equally masterful and wonderful movie version made about 20 years later.  They are equally great, but in such different ways.

The book centers on the characters of Rose and Charlie — how they came to find themselves in 1914 Congo and how fate throws them together when the Germans wreck Rose’s missionary brother’s mission, and round up all the native parishioners.  Rose’s brother falls ill from fever and dies.  Charlie, a skilled mechanic and operator of the African Queen — a mail and supply flat boat operated by a Belgian mine company — helps Rose bury her brother and takes her on board the African Queen.  Rose, consumed with hatred for the Germans and determined to do her “bit for England” hatches a plan that involves taking the African Queen down river to a large lake which is patrolled by a German gunboat.   Charlie humors her for a bit, without any notion of following along:  the river is unnavigable due to rapids and confronting a German gunboat with the African Queen is insane.  The story of how Rose persuades Charlie to go along with her plan, its actual implementation and their growing relationship comprise what I would consider “Adventure” with a capital A.  Two unlikely heroes, daunting odds, physical danger and a readily identifiable enemy  — these are the classic elements of adventure.

So, I mentioned the differences between the book and the movie.  First of all, Forester’s Charlie and Rose are not Bogart and Hepburn.  They are not glamorous stars.  These are really ordinary people — Charlie is a lowly, unambitious mechanic who drinks a bit and speaks with an unintelligible Cockney accent.  Rose is an uptight, repressed woman who is well into the old maid stage of life.  Yet together they become so much more.  Through Rose’s encouragement, Charlie blossoms into a brave adventurer and a heck of a good engineer.   In the light of Charlie’s admiration and attention, Rose becomes a completely different woman.

Second, there is an appealing quality of earthy reality in the book that the movie just can’t replicate.  Rose and Charlie’s love affair is rather explicit for a book written in 1935.  You can actually smell the stink of the river mud and hear the ubiquitous whine of insects.  Both Charlie and Rose get malaria.  The rapids — which in the movie seem over fairly quickly — go on for days in the book and they are scary!!!  These people could die at any minute.  If I had any complaint with Forester is that I just wonder how realistic it was that Rose navigated the rapids…..but I don’t want to give anything more away.  The book’s ending is so much more ambiguous and satisfying than the movie, which in contrast wraps up the strings on the story neatly.

This was a great book.  Enjoy it, enjoy the movie — just keep them separate.

I love him, too. But he’s not really Charlie! Picture source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_African_Queen,_Bogart.jpg

“Jeeves, I believe you’ve hit it.”

P.G. Wodehouse at age 23.

My Man Jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse

1919

Free digital copy at:  www.gutenberg.org/files/8164/8164-h/8164-h.htm

Information from:  http://www.gutenberg.org:  Produced by Suzanne L. Shell, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

I’ve been wanting to make the acquaintance of these chappies for quite some time, don’t you know!  I’ve just come out of a particular rummy spot with a lot of awful rotten work that had strained the old bean past endurance — and I felt it was time for a real spree.

This collection of eight short stores by P.G. Wodehouse did just the trick.  Four of the stories center on Bertie Wooster, a fellow with more money and breeding than brains, and his unflappable and brilliant butler, Jeeves.  The other four feature Reggie Pepper, a prototype character for Bertie Wooster.  All of the stories depict a lovely, lost (if it ever existed) world where it is perpetually before 1914, main characters are rich and silly, impersonations and confusions abound, champagne flows, and rich young men fall in and out of love — or are pursued and threatened by older, female relatives who have the power to dry up the funds or generally put a stop to the hilarity.  Shimmering through the froth, appearing majestically and magically is Bertie Wooster’s butler, Jeeves, who finds the solution to each and every problem that Wooster and his scatter-brained companions find themselves tangled in.  Jeeves’ solutions are not always neat — and some have unpredictable consequences of their own — but they serve to advance the plot into even more hilarious realms.  For example, in:  “Leave it to Jeeves”, Bertie complains about a complicated Jeevesian solution taking an unexpected turn:

“All right. Please yourself. But you’re going to get a shock. You remember my friend, Mr. Corcoran?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And the girl who was to slide gracefully into his uncle’s esteem by writing the book on birds?”

“Perfectly, sir.”

“Well, she’s slid. She’s married the uncle.”

He took it without blinking. You can’t rattle Jeeves.

“That was always a development to be feared, sir.”

“You don’t mean to tell me that you were expecting it?”

“It crossed my mind as a possibility.”

“Did it, by Jove! Well, I think, you might have warned us!”

“I hardly liked to take the liberty, sir.”

The point being, our lives are not our own are they?  Even at this light level — if we give our problems over to others, we can’t really get too bent out of shape when we come face to face with some sort of consequence we didn’t imagine.  However, in a Wodehouse world, these consequences are never too dire.  The Great War, the Spanish Influenza, the upheavals of the early 20th Century never intrude, and why should we want them to?

Another delightful aspect of the stories is the dialogue itself.  Why can’t we all walk around talking like Wodehouse characters?  How much fun would that be!!  I read this compilation on my Kindle and after a while starting highlighting particularly enjoyable bits.  Here are a few, all from, “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest.”

“What’s wrong with this tie?  I’ve seen you give it a nasty look before.  Speak out like a man!  What’s the matter with it?”

“Too ornate, sir.”

“Nonsense!  A cheerful pink.  Nothing more.”

“Unsuitable, sir.”

And:

“She was one of those women who kind of numb a fellow’s faculties.”

And:

“How are you this morning?” I asked.

“Topping!” replied Motty, blithely and with abandon.  “I say, you know, that fellow of yours — Jeeves, you know, is a corker.  I had a most frightful headache when I woke up, and he brought me a sort of rummy dark drink, and it put me right again at once.  Said it was his own invention.  I must see more of that lad.  He seems to me distinctly one of the ones!”

I’m sorry that it is has taken me this long to get to know these delightful stories and characters and I share young Motty’s wish.  I’ll be seeing much more of Jeeves, Bertie and the rest of the gang very soon.