Instead of spending the last days of this overwhelming election cycle listening to obsessive speculation about the unknowable last curlicues and mysteries, I think I will indulge in a five-hour marathon about Cranford, the little mid-19th century town in England that Mrs. Gaskell explored in many stories. Mrs. Gaskell, having been the daughter of a Unitarian minister and the wife of another, knew many stories. She does not betray confidences, but uses her knowledge of human contretemps to present invented ones. Her stories are gentler than the authors to whom she is often compared: Bronte (Charlotte was a friend.), Austen (a bit more aristocratic), and Dickens (more fond of melodrama) but she gives us the same sense of life going on through the tales of family, town, and a shifting economy.
On this continent she is quite close to Montgomery’s Avonlea stories (Montgomery was married to a Presbyterian minister) or even the stories by Ivan Doig loosely based where I live now: Valier/Dupuyer/Choteau -- what Doig calls the “Two” country, in reference to the Two Medicine River. These Doig linked stories center on the McCaskill family, which like the Doig family immigrated from Scotland to the East Slope of the Rockies. This country has “two” stories: those of the white immigrants and those of the native inhabitants, but Doig only takes on one. This left space for my own “Twelve Blackfeet Stories,” linked stories over twelve generations.
“Cranford” has been scanned and can be read online through Google. I just read the author’s preface which is very charming and informative, an entry point. Then I went to Ivan Doig’s website (www.ivandoig.com), which hasn’t been updated for a while, and was startled to see his “note to my readers” begin, “No one is likely to confuse my writing style with that of Charlotte Bronte, but when that impassioned parson’s daughter lifted her pen from “Jane Eyre” and bequeathed us the most intriguing of plot summaries -- ‘Reader, I married him’...”
In the preface to Mrs. Gaskell’s “Cranford,” she says that every century comes down to some single issue and that a story of generations that succeeds will be focused on this crucial issue. She suggests that the 16th century, a time when people were burned at the stake and driven into the American wilderness, the issue is “will.” How much willpower can a human being have, and what are the consequences of either too much or too little? In the 18th century she suggests the issue is ideas and intelligence, the energy needed to create a new society, particularly in the Americas. And in the 19th century, she says, the worry is over sentiment, that is, what can be done to right moral wrongs that cause suffering to the innocent? This is the era of reform: slavery, animal abuse, women’s suffrage, child labor, and other evils brought on by factories, urbanization and gin.
Maybe we’re still in the 19th century: we still haven’t really resolved those issues, except that gin has been replaced by cocaine. But the 20th century was dominated by the quite real possibility of total planetary annihilation and consciousness of world issues like environmental catastrophe. Cranford could at least still take for granted the idea of the family and still remember the forms of status and courtesy that kept small town people in their places, but never excluded.
So much in these stories is a matter of antique charm and nostalgia -- the period language and furnishings -- but consider the little dog that wears a dress just like that of her mistress -- at least that woman doesn’t keep the dog in her purse. When it comes to the practical nuttiness of the cow that got into a lime pit where all her fur was burned off, to be replaced by a gray flannel set of long-johns with a convenient flap for milking, we’re definitely in Green Gables territory. What challenges to a costumer!
Serious issues lurk beneath. What about Miss Mattie’s brother who had to leave when he put on his sister’s dress and, quite insane, dressed a pillow in infant’s clothes and comforted it in plain sight of the scandalized village. (I loved the suit of clothes he wore as a man returned from India!) The determined Miss Pole, who protected her cow, is played by Imelda Staunton, well-known as the lead character in “Vera Drake,” about a real-life convicted abortionist. These very fine actors (including the female ones) are so familiar to BBC fans that each carries an aura. The one that puzzled me the longest was the senior doctor, who was indelible as the arguably worst “Prime Suspect” that Helen Mirren ever faced, because he is totally benign in this role.
Like Austen novels, the preoccupation is how to keep up standards with never enough resources and the dilemmas of economic strategies like marriage, inheritance, shop-keeping, going into service. In England these are still lively issues, esp. to the degree that class hangs on, but can anything be more timely than Miss Mattie -- so sweet and harmless -- discovering that her bank has gone broke? In those days the workhouse was the only charity outside of one’s friends and family, and a grim alternative it was. There is reference to the Highland Clearances that did to some Scots what the Americans did to Indians.
Matters of changing economics -- the coming of the railroad, the immigration of the roving and unsavory Irish (instead of our illegal Hispanic immigrants), entitlement to education, the deep gulf between the richest and the poorest -- play off amusingly against the concerns a clutch of aging women considering their alternatives. Miss Mattie agrees to sell tea because it is “not sticky” and “persons of all classes” must buy it, but she considers green tea to be “scouring of the viscera” and has to be argued into stocking it. She adds peppermint candies for amelioration.
Mrs. Gaskell’s use of “Mrs.” puts some people off of her novels (I highly recommend "North and South") because they believe she will enforce propriety and obedience. Indeed, there is generally a character opposed to change and upholding of the status quo as some expense to herself. But there is always another character -- in this case a second sister -- who sees human beings in distress and wishes them comfort and safety.
Then there is the stand-in for the author herself who, in this instance, is named Mary and requires spectacles. Ah, yes. This is clearly a set of five one-hour episodes I should watch and ponder some more, even though the mirror tells me I don’t have the youth or smooth oval countenance of Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary. Perhaps there are more stories in the Two Country.