Tuesday, November 11, 2014
"Cranford": A Dull Glimpse into Victorian Feminism Utopia
I did something I never thought I would do. I registered on MeetUp.com and joined a MeetUp Book Club called The Crystal Lake Bookworms. When I discovered that the book for their November meeting was "Cranford" by Elizabeth Gaskell, I almost decided not to go through with the first meeting. Victorian literature? For the past 15 years, I've always had a book club, and we've never touched Victorian era literature. Why? Because . . . well, because it can be a bit British and a bit boring and a bit like Brit Lit in high school. Don't get me wrong, I love Jane Austen, and "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte was one of my favorite books in college. I even taught Brit Lit for a few years, but book clubs were created to read anything but Victorian era literature, right?
I reluctantly picked up my copy of "Cranford" from the library. When my daughter saw the cover she said, "Mommy, what are you reading? That looks so boring!" I then had to explain that Dame Judi Dench is pretty amazing, and that "Cranford" has been adapted into series on PBS. I referred to my love of Downton Abbey mostly because I wanted to give the book and the MeetUp Book Club a fighting chance. Serendipitously, my husband was on a business trip to London while I read "Cranford," so while he was reminding me about the British vernacular that I loved so much when I lived there and talking about afternoon mandatory tea breaks, I was plodding my way through Gaskell's book.
Many people believe that this vignette style book which gives a glimpse into what a utopian female centered Victorian society would be like and supposedly does this tongue in cheek, is charming and heart warming. I found it dull, and slow, BUT I also see the charm in it and that it must have been revolutionary when Gaskell wrote it in 1851. It follows the lives of two sisters, Miss Deborah Jenkyns and Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns who live in . . . you guessed it, Cranford. Mary Smith, who visits them regularly, narrates their tales and gives a glimpse into what daily life was in the community of Cranford where all the women are in control of their lives and their meager fortunes. This is not the Downton Abbey class of people. The Cranford women are more of the proud, non-working townsfolk who take pride in what they have and their station in life. They don't flaunt money (because they don't have much), but they have savings and tea times, and enjoy the simple pleasures in life and revel in fineries as well.
It's a simple book with some mishaps (all the men have a terrible habit of either dying or disappearing). There is almost a love story, but that fizzles when the man who could have been Miss Matty's love interest dies shortly after a visit to Paris.
The most memorable aspect of the book for me is the fact that the women control the fictional town of Cranford, a small town in Northern England. The first line of the book sums it up, "In the first place, Cranford is in the possession of the Amazons." Cool, right? I wish the rest of the book could have lived up to the excitement alluded to from this first line, but the stories of life in the Amazonian controlled Cranford are more simple - how Captain Brown came to be respected (because he died saving a child's life), why Peter Jenkyns ran away and how he returned, how Miss Matty lost her money and how the Cranford women rallied to help her, how Betty Barker reacted to her beloved cow falling into a lime pit and losing all of its hair, how the women enjoyed the new spring fashions, how the town reacts to Lady Glenmire marrying a lowly doctor. None of it was riveting, but I read the whole thing and wasn't taxed too much by doing so.
When I finished the book, I wanted a cup of tea (which to me is a good sign that the book at least put me in the mood for a British custom). I got out the East India Tea Company set my husband brought back from his business trip to London, and steeped a hearty cup of English breakfast tea after I closed the book. I did a silent cheers to Dame Judi Dench, smiled warmly, and vowed not to read Victorian literature for quite some time.