My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell

“Like a piece of sea-wreck, I have drifted away from those days: quiet, happy, eventless days.”

As a Jane Austen fan, I read and loved the coziness of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. This led me to the 2007 BBC film version of the novel, and this was, as I later found out, based on three Gaskell novels–Cranford, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, and My Lady Ludlow. Since the melancholy Lady Ludlow (played with elegant coolness by Francesca Annis) was one of my favourite characters in the film version of Cranford, I picked up a copy of the book with the intention of reading more about the life of this fascinating character.

My Lady Ludlow is a delight. The story is told by the now elderly Margaret Dawson, who, as a young woman was sent to live with Lady Ludlow, a distant relative. Margaret is one of several young women who live at Hanbury Court, Lady Ludlow’s estate. These young women occupy their days with needlework and the occasional carriage ride out into the countryside accompanying Lady Ludlow on various visits. Over time, Margaret, who becomes crippled in her youth, becomes privy to certain incidents in the life of Lady Ludlow. Margaret loves Lady Ludlow and is loyal to her in spite of the fact that she realizes that Lady Ludlow is not always correct in her opinions.

Lady Ludlow is an extraordinary woman of contrasts. She’s the highest-ranking woman in the neighbourhood, and so she holds a position of immense respect–in other words her word is law. She gave birth to 9 children and when the novel begins, all but one are dead. Her life has brought her great sorrow, but she always conducts herself with decorum, subdued feeling, and a sense of her position of responsibility. Unfortunately, as a firm believer in the absolute superiority of the upper classes, Lady Ludlow has very strong opinions on the matter of education of the masses, and sees any sort of educational improvement as a threat to society. She insists on employing only illiterate servants, and there are several scenes when she makes her position perfectly clear with anger. Indeed, she blames the French Revolution on the fact that the peasants were educated, and predicts the same fate for England if the ‘lower’ classes are educated:

“I believe–nay, the experience of a pretty long life has convinced me–that education is a bad thing, if given indiscriminately. It unfits the lower orders for their duties.”

To Lady Ludlow, without the necessary accoutrements of “hereditary principles and honourable training” the education of the poor leads to disaster, and over this issue, she clashes with the local clergyman, the tenacious, principled Mr. Gray.

In the film version, Lady Ludlow, while graceful and elegant, also possesses an almost other worldly quality. Not quite ethereal, nonetheless her emotions may not be controlled as much as just drained from a life spent largely mourning and missing those she so loved. She is a good person, with no flaw of selfishness, but her character trips on her horror of education for the ‘lower’ classes and her belief in her own aristocracy and hence her absolute authority. These flaws trip her several times in the novel, as she surges ahead with the strength of her own opinion and power. Yet these opinions, at several junctures clash with that social change. Over the course of the novel, not only is she forced to confront and revise her opinion on education, but she also wrestles with her conscience on the matter of socializing with the merchant class and entertaining an illegitimate young woman.

All these issues seem silly these days, but to Lady Ludlow, these events signaled the decline of societal values. The book begins with Lady Ludlow dividing the world into boldly black and white categories of morality, but by the end of the novel, she has accepted that everything is not that simple. My Lady Ludlow is set at the dawn of the 19th century, and so Lady Ludlow in many ways represents the ‘old values.’ Although firmly against “new-fangled notions” a number of people and events cause her to undergo a sea change, and just how the armour of her firm opinions is pierced is the substance of the novel.

My Lady Ludlow includes a very long, painful episode involving the French Revolution and some French émigrés sheltered by Lady Ludlow. This section represents a substantial portion of the book, but was entirely absent in the film version of Cranford. This episode in Lady Ludlow’s life explains her personal experiences with the horror of the French Revolution, and catalogues even more grief.

After finishing My Lady Ludlow, I found myself wondering just why Gaskell novels are so very reassuring. After all, there’s a substantial amount of illness, tragedy and dying in these pages. I decided that perhaps one of the reasons Gaskell novels appeal is the idea of continuity of human existence. Margaret Dawson, for example begins the novel with a lament of how the world has changed (basically going downhill) with a litany of rueful acknowledgments about the shift in society. No doubt this comment would reflect exactly how Lady Ludlow felt about things had she ever felt like confiding her innermost thoughts. Anyone who lives a long life can certainly mark the changes (and declines) in society. Lady Ludlow did so, and many years later, Margaret Dawson finds herself doing the exact same thing in the book’s opening paragraph:

“I am an old woman now, and things are very different to what they were in my youth. Then we, who traveled, traveled in coaches, carrying six inside, and making a two day’s journey out of what people now go over in a couple of hours with a whiz and a flash, and a screaming whistle, enough to deafen one. The letters came in but three times a week: indeed in some places in Scotland where I stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month;–but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken. Well, well! They may all be improvements, –I dare say they are; but you will never meet with a Lady Ludlow in these days.”

Parts of this paragraph could well be written today–a lament regarding the cryptic nature of e-mails for example. How many of us receive e-mails that are so terse, so brief, we have NO IDEA what the author is referring to?

Another reassuring aspect of Gaskell’s novels is the scope for forgiveness and personal growth. Gaskell’s characters are flawed, but they all muck along in this life, in their little village worlds–unlike Dickens’s characters who are often at each other’s throats. The parson Mr. Gray, for example, could well have taken to the pulpit to deliver a tirade against Lady Ludlow and her stubborn refusal to allow the village children to be educated, but instead Gray determinedly and doggedly persists wrestling with lady Ludlow’s conscience until she melts and consents to the establishment of a village school. Gaskell’s characters have relationships with one another–sometimes turbulent–but the relationships are there, and problems are worked through by discourse.
And finally, I want to add how moving Gaskell can be–yes, she’s quaint at times, and yes, she’s unarguably twee, but damn it, at times she hits passages that resonate with this reader, and here’s just one of these gems:

“I have often wondered which one misses most when they are dead and gone,–the bright creatures full of life, who are hither and thither and everywhere, so that no one can reckon upon their coming and going, with whom stillness and the long quiet of the grave, seems utterly irreconcilable, so full are they of vivid motion and passion,–or the slow, serious people, whose movements–nay, whose very words, seem to go by clockwork; who never appear much to affect the course of our life while they are with us, but whose methodical ways show themselves, when they are gone, to have been intertwined with our very roots of existence. I think I miss these last the most, although I may have loved the former best.”

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