Category Archives: Gaskell, Elizabeth

2021: It’s a Wrap

Book-wise, this was a great year, and here are the highlights.

Best of 2021:

A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin

One of the most enthralling, creepiest crime books I’ve read, this is the story of Bud, a psychopath who returns from WWII a hero, but finds that the normal route to success (hard work, starter jobs, college) is not for him. A stint as a gigolo for an older, wealthy widow is just the ticket, but it comes with an expiration date. Bud calculates that the next move is a wealthy, young bride, so he enrolls in a college known as “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.” The plan works well until the girl gets pregnant….

Nightmare Alley: William Gresham.

This gritty noir story follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a carnie worker who moves up in his trade from mind reader, to medium to reverend. Along the way, he manipulates, steals, defrauds and murders. His weakness is sex and women. He uses women, but eventually stumbles into the life of a woman who’s nastier than he is. There’s a film version of this just released.

The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

A well-to-do older married couple allow their lives to be invaded by a manipulative, resentful would-be writer, Reginald Parker. The couple, a professor and his independently wealthy wife, have warning signals about Reginald, but they are ‘nice’ people, burdened with their own sense of privilege and constantly under siege, financially, from their 3 awful children.

The Paper Lovers: Gerard Woodward

Arnold Proctor, a professor and poet, is happily married, or at least thinks he is, when he finds that he’s attracted to one of his wife’s friends, Vera. Arnold becomes fascinated with Vera–yes there’s a strong sexual attraction, but she’s religious and somehow, Arnold can’t align Vera with her strong religious beliefs. A sexual advance leads to almost instant coupling. Again Arnold can’t align Vera’s actions with her beliefs. This is adultery, right? Doesn’t she feel guilty? Arnold finds out the hard way (not that we feel sorry for him) that transgressions for the religious have a certain trajectory.

Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell

A wonderful novel which traces the life of Molly Gibson whose father, a country doctor, marries a silly, selfish, vain widow. Dr. Gibson has no idea what he’s dealing with when he marries the snobby, ridiculous shallow widow, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but Molly doesn’t know what she’s dealing with when her capricious step-sister, Cynthia, arrives.

Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

This is the story of a man in crisis who calls upon his ex-wife to cushion him from life. Lucy Barton and William have been divorced for some time when the story begins, but she still cares about William. By the time I finished this, I wanted to shake Lucy Barton and ask her why William’s needs were sooo important–even to the exclusion of her own. The tale is told by Lucy who divorced William for his (as it turns out) numerous affairs. Lucy may have left the marriage behind but not apparently the need to ‘care’ about William. When William’s much younger wife dumps William (shock!) Lucy becomes re-involved with William. Their relationship is an example of Amy Witting’s ‘the diners and the dinners,’ and we all know who the diner is here.

The Bachelors: Muriel Spark.

This very funny story strings together several London bachelors who become involved, in various ways, with the sticky tendrils of a forgery and fraud case which involves a male medium who has murderous designs on his pregnant girlfriend.

The Barsetshire Series: Anthony Trollope.

Six novels. The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, The Last Chronicle of Barset. The series follows the lives and tribulations of various characters who live in Barsetshire. With countless subplots, Trollope delves into the squabbles between clergymen, ecclesiastical hierarchy, love affairs, the vagaries of marriage, the power of the press, snobbery, debt. Barchester Towers has long been a great favourite, but The Last Chronicle of Barset comes a close second. Throughout the series, Trollope reveals petty behaviour, but towards the end of the series, petty behaviour yields to much more serious transgressions. But Trollope oversees all with his customary good humour and generosity.

Hoke Moseley series: Charles Willeford

This is a 4-book, hardboiled crime series: Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, The Way We Die Now, Miami homicide detective, Hoke Moseley isn’t anyone’s idea of a hero. When the series opens, he’s divorced, living in a flop house hotel, wearing leisure suits, beginning to go bald, has no teeth and is struggling to make ends meet. By the end of the series, his career is looking up and he has both of his teenage daughters after his Ex took off to California. Now he has a few stray hairs on his head, still wears those outdated leisure suits, and still has no teeth. Actually Hoke’s false teeth play a role in the books. Hoke’s career moves through the influx of Cuban refugees, Affirmative Action, gentrification and, horror of horrors, laws concerning public smoking. Hoke’s laconic attitude belies his natural born-killer instinct and his peculiar way of looking at the world lightens the darkness.

Leisureville: Andrew Blechman

Not the best book I read in 2021, but definitely the most interesting non-fiction book of the year. The book is written by Andrew Blechman who goes to the world’s largest retirement community, The Villages in Florida after a neighbour moves there. While the author didn’t approve of the ethics (if that’s the right word) of the place, I was fascinated. Why would people choose to move to a community with age restrictions? What’s it like? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?

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Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters, examines the roles of women in society, the complex nature of parenting and exactly why highly moral people should avoid superficial spouses (relations and friends). Yet why does it seem that superficial shallow people always seem to latch on, limpet-like, to those who have scrupulous morality?

Young Molly Gibson is the only daughter of the widower Dr. Gibson. She’s on a visit to Cumnor Towers, the home of Lord and Lady Cumnor for the once-a-year festival for the peasants to oohh and ahhh while the nobility condescend to share space. Molly is stranded and taken to rest in a bedroom. She’s left to the care of Mrs. Clare Kirkpatrick, a former governess who married and left the family’s employment. But things didn’t go well for Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Her husband died, and left with a small child, Mrs. Kirkpatrick now runs a school and lives for chance invitations to the grand house of her former employer. Her child, Cynthia, is somewhat in the way, and so she’s shipped off to school in France. While Lord and Lady Cumnor give Mrs. Kirkpatrick the occasional charity invitation, she also has her uses, and so she’s put in charge of Molly. This early scene gives us a glimpse of Mrs. Kirkpatrick when she gobbles up the supper sent for Molly and then promptly forgets that the ill little girl is left in her charge. Little did Molly know that Mrs. Kirkpatrick was shortly to become her stepmother. …

This wonderful novel follows the life of Molly Gibson. She’s the only child of the hard-working Dr. Gibson who decides to remarry in order to provide Molly with a mother. Of course there’s a secondary issue of Dr. Gibson’s servants being completely out-of-control, and so a new wife will come in handy when it comes to running the household. Clare is a ‘type’ and if Dr. Gibson had taken more time to consider the matter, he would have run for the hills, but Clare knows how to charm men:

Her voice was so soft, her accent so pleasant, that it struck him as particularly agreeable after the broad country accents he was perpetually hearing. Then the harmonious colours of her dress, and her slow and graceful movements, had something of the same soothing effect on his nerves that a cat’s purring has upon some people’s.

Once Dr. Gibson’s proposal is made, Clare, who now reverts to the name Hyacinth, begins to show her true colours. Not that she is a bad woman. No, she’s vain, superficial, foolish, snobbish, selfish. Given that Clare/Hyacinth is treated so insensitively by Lady Cumnor, perhaps we could have some sympathy for the poor former governess, but Clare is always banging on about how sensitive she is–which is just an excuse for her behaviour and her perpetual demands for attention. She’s about as as sensitive as a concrete wall. The nail in the coffin of Clare’s character: marriage to Gibson has rescued Clare from all of her financial worries, but once she becomes Mrs. Gibson she starts acting as though she’s gone down in the world.

The Gibson household, having made the shift to the new mistress (several old servants depart) then adjusts to the arrival of the beautiful Cynthia, Clare’s daughter. While Molly is the heroine, and a great one at that, Cynthia is far more fascinating. And all the young men who visit the house seem to think so too. Two brothers come to visit, Osborne, the eldest and Roger Hamley, the sons of Squire Hamley. Molly has a deep rooted relationship with the family and was much loved by the Squire’s late wife. Osborne is the favourite son, or he was the favourite, and now he’s a disappointment to his father.

Wives and Daughters has a more gossipy feel than Trollope. The author recreates the world of Hollingford–a small town where everyone knows all the comings and goings of their neighbours and scandal provides great entertainment. While villagers gossip amongst themselves, the Miss Brownings act as a bridge between the villagers and the Doctor’s house when it comes to the plot twists regarding the land agent Mr. Preston and Cynthia.

Both Dr. Gibson and Molly keep confidences, and the fallout of these confidences highlights these characters’ moral integrity. Contrast this to the behaviour of the new Mrs. Gibson, who uses information gathered during eavesdropping to further Cynthia’s future. With a mother like Clare, it’s easy to see how and why Cynthia suffered and fell into trouble. While Molly is an open book, if one cares to pry open the pages, Cynthia is entirely different. She’s matured early and without a responsible parent. Both the Doctor and Molly cannot understand Cynthia, and the Doctor, who had a relatively peaceful life before he remarried, finds out the hard way that his wife is a disappointment. Cynthia, however, is a mystery:

She is a girl who will always have some love-affair on hand, and will always be apt to slip through a man’s fingers if he does not look sharp.

Molly is a gem, and yet we have probably all had experiences of seeing the quiet ‘gem’ overlooked by the more glittery, worthless types who have incredible plasticity when it comes to beguiling men. Like her father, Molly has never had the experience of dealing with someone as complex as Cynthia, and Molly is far more troubled by Cynthia’s problems than Cynthia is. Cynthia’s “real self was shrouded in mystery,” and while Molly befriends Cynthia and truly loves her, the friendship can only go so far before Molly finds that she faces “a dead wall beyond which she could not pass.” Cynthia acknowledges that she lacks “the gift for loving” (probably inherited) and that becomes painfully true when Molly sees the man she loves fall under Cynthia’s spell.

Cynthia was one of those natural coquettes, who instinctively bring out all their prettiest airs and graces in order to stand well with any man, young or old, who may happen to be present.

This was a fantastic read. There were times Molly was too angelic, and I sometimes wondered why Dr Gibson didn’t strangle his wife. No wonder he starts enjoying his time away from home. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Gibson moves from annoying to dreadful, and her petulance regarding her husband’s need to treat dying patients shows her true nature and her “superficial and flimsy character.”

But if this Mr Smith is dying, as you say, what’s the use of your father’s going off to him in such a hurry? Does he expect a legacy, or anything of that kind?’

The woman just doesn’t get any notions of moral responsibility. She doesn’t act badly from malice, but simply from petulance, selfishness, immaturity and a wildly overblown sense of her own moral standing. Everyone exists to make her life easier–to please her. The sharp delineations of society are very well drawn through the characters’ interactions, and several incidents illustrate how the upper classes feel as though they have ‘the right’ to arrange the lives of the lower classes. But Gaskell also shows us what the lower classes expect from the toffs and in one scene depicts the townspeople as terribly disappointed when the nobility don’t wear any jewels to the local ball. They were cheated of an expected display.

It was one of those still and lovely autumn days when the red and yellow leaves are hanging -pegs to dewy, brilliant gossamer-webs; when the hedges are full of trailing brambles, loaded with ripe blackberries; when the air is full of the farewell whistles and pipes of birds, clear and short– not the long full-throated warbles of spring; when the whirr of the partridge’s wings is heard in the stubble-fields, as the sharp hoof-blows fall on the paved lanes; when here and there a leaf floats and flutters down to the ground, although there is not a single breath of wind.

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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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