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A laughing tiny brook from 1830s

It was nearly closing time at the Library and as usual I was bewildered on what to pick and what not to. The Librarians were politely, but firmly telling the patrons that they need to make their choice in the next 10 odd minutes and I was still unsure about the last book I wanted to borrow in my allowed membership quota of 5 books for 3 weeks. With very little time to spare, I randomly picked up a book lying on top of a pile of the latest returns. It was only while I was getting the issuing formalities completed, I realised that I had picked up Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford.  I was not very happy, but by then it was too late to change the selection. So I was stuck! I had read Gaskell’s North and South and I was really not in the mood for another Bleak House meets Industrial Revolution.

There is an old old adage – Never judge a book by its cover. In case of Cranford, I realised this was applicable literally.

Before I discuss the book, let me give you a short overview of its author. Elizabeth Gaskell was born in 1810 to a Unitarian Minister turned Keeper of Treasury Records and was brought up by her aunt, at Knutsford, after her mother’s death, barely 13 months after her birth.  She had an elder brother who joined the East India Company fleet but went missing during an expedition in 1827. In 1832, she married William Gaskell and settled in Manchester, where her husband was a Minister at the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel. She had four surviving children – Marianne, Margaret Emily, Elizabeth Florence and Julia.  She began her literary career initially by co-authoring a book of poems with her husband which was published in 1837. In 1848, she published her first novel Mary Barton. Following the publication of this novel, Mrs Gaskell and her family moved to Plymouth, where she would write her remaining works, while her husband managed many welfare committees. Their house soon became a centre for gathering of intellectuals, religious dissenters, and political reformers and their friends included, William and Mary Howitt, Charles Dickens and John Ruskin. She became a contributor to Charles Dickens’ Household Words. Her most famous works includes, North and South, Wives and Daughters and Cranford. She dies of a sudden heart attack in 1865.

Mrs Gaskell wrote from her real life experiences and was influenced by what she saw and observed around her. North and South is a testimony of her life and observations in the industrialized Manchester. Written from a perspective of a young woman Margaret Hale, who settles in a fictionalized industrial town of Milton, where she witnesses the harsh and unhealthy conditions of the factory workers and is forced into confrontation with John Thornton, a cotton mill owner. The story is a vivid and sometimes depressing, but true portrayal of poverty and oppression of the mill workers. It does not make for a light reading and in the light of such memories, it was but natural that I was not looking forward to Cranford.

Cover of "Cranford (Nonsuch Classics)"

Cover of Cranford (Nonsuch Classics)

But this is where I really underestimated the flexibility and the capacity of creative ingenuity that Elizabeth Gaskell possessed. Based on her years in Knutsford, Cranford is slow, leisurely walk down the Victorian society and her social mores, bringing out the generosity of people who has very little to give and documenting the irony and humor of everyday lives.  The book is really a series of events and happenings centered on Cranford and Ms Matty Jenkyns and other characters of Cranford including Miss Pole, the first lady of Cranford Mrs Jaimeson, Thomas Holbrook, Captain Brown and Lady Glenmire. The small town of Cranford is ruled by the ladies and everyday revolves on appearances of gentility (which is really a covert attempt to mask Poverty, because to discuss poverty is so vulgar!), card games, tea and friendship. It revolves around incidents like the collapse of a bank, a titled lady who stoops to marry a common surgeon,  and cows in flannel pajamas (I told you this book is funny!) and finally the return of someone from the past.

The book is dipped in humor and filled with laugh out loud scenes. It has a gentle narrative structure (do not read it if you want something that is fast paced and packed with action!) that puts you as reader at peace with the world, making you wish that the book never comes to an end. Written in clear, crisp style, without superfluous language or plot, the book is an easy read that gives you a warm fuzzy feeling. Read it on Saturday, when you are lazy and contended and the day stretches in front of you – it’s a worthy treat. To end, I am shamelessly borrowing my flatmate’s review of the book, which she updated on her FB status after reading the book (after I had gone on and on about it for like 114th time!) – Just finished reading ‘Cranford’ by dear Gaskell. It was such a pleasure reading her soft, restive prose overflowing with that typical, delightful all-pervading humour…like a laughing, tiny brook…

Oops I or (did he) do it again!!!

I know I have been away and I would like to believe that in the infinite logic of time and space, the “away’ becomes an insignificant, atom of nothingness. No I was not away at some abstract Physics or Metaphysical conference and no I have not been hit on my head….I am merely trying to look at the macro level picture as I am being advised by all and sundry and really …..IT DOES NOT HELP. Me is micro and “me” is what is important, at least at this point of time, rather than whole wide world.

I am rambling….so let me get down to the specifics –

I hope there are some young parents who will read this and take some valuable lessons, namely, never ever read out fairy tales to your daughter so that she grows up thinking that there is truly a “Prince Charming’ out there and then spend her whole life un-thinking this thought! My parents were not that considerate- they had a beautiful and romantic 8 years courtship at the end of which they tied a knot. Naturally, from their point of view Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty was a good place to start for their daughter, both in terms of literature and belief system! Things did not improve as I grew older and graduated to young adult literature – There was always a Tom to Anna  of Green Gables, a Ned Nickerson to Nancy Drew and unlike any other girl of my age….I thought Frank Hardy was so much desirable over Joe Hardy.  And then came Ms Austen to completely morph and change the way I thought about men –

  • Mr Fritzwilliam Darcy will I believe always remain the best and the most popular among women as the most desirable partner of all times – whether it’s his “handsome mien”  or his honourable conduct (remember the Lydia Affair) or when we get down to the bass tactics his “Pemberley” or his unchanging love for a spirited and and intelligent Lizzy.
  • Captain Fredrick Wentworth was the man who made it big on his own in the conservative Regency society and loved and eventually persuaded and was perused to marry the intelligent and accomplished Anne Eilliot, daughter of the impoverished Sir Walter Elliot, Bt., despite the more pleasant though vacuous attention of the Musgrove sisters.
  • George Knightly is of course all that is noble, kind hearted and generous with all the trappings of noblesse oblige, whether he is considerate to the Bates or in his dealings with his tenants, even going to the extent of advising them on matrimony (the Robert Martin piece) and his quiet and deep love for a feckless Emma that sears into ones heart’s.

My ideas were therefore set at a very young age and they would be further refined and developed, thanks to the following –

  • M M Kaye’s The Far Pavilion – Anyone who has read this book will know what I am talking about – Ashton Pelham Akbar Martyn is the stuff dreams are made off (Yes! Ms Kaye did not consider that she was setting all of us for a fall…) his love for India, his adopted country, his sense of justice and fairness, his courage, his loyalty and his unwavering love for the ill-fated Anjuli Bai
  • M M Kaye‘s The Shadow of the Moon – How can one not absolutely love Alex Randall? In the lines of Ashton Martyn, he too possesses unbridled courage, passion, a sense of righteousness, a sense of justice and honour and his searing love for Winter De Ballesteros and thus representing everything a hero ought to be!
  • Leon Uris’s Exodus – Ari Ben Cannon’s character was not written by women, so he does not overtly possess what a Darcy or a Randall seems to carry off with an ease. But scratch the surface and you will find honour, courage, passion and righteousness of all that should matter to any individual and is deeply rooted in his vision of an independent state of Israel.

Now back to the main plot……after years of being fed on such literary diet, I am not sure if any of you have run in such emotional maelstrom that I have, vis-à-vis relationships. While I epitomise all the honourable, honest and courageous traits of my fictional heroes, I seem to be doomed in finding only those characters who have no sense of responsibility, will never take accountability of their actions and will lie through their teeth, even when there is absolutely no reason to do so, because they presume, you will not like the truth!!!! You ask why would one go for such a man? Well …that’s the whole point…one does not!! He just keeps forcing his attention on one and the fact that he is extremely bright and absolutely ha ha funny, kind of complicates the issue…..But finally when you do sit up and take notice, well he has other things to do, places to visit, people to meet and can you please manage while I gallivant across the world and finally you are wondering…”Duh!! What was I imagining?” And the inevitable, “Oh! Not again!”

Then recently thinking hard about the whole thing, I realise that my expectations are incorrect and it’s all Ms Austen/Ms Kaye/Mr Uris’s fault. Had they not set up larger than life characters, I would have had no expectations, if I had no expectations, I would not expect him to be any better, if I did not expect him to be any better, I would be at peace with all his irresponsibility, if I was at peace with all his irresponsibility, I would not give him hell, If I did not give him hell and became a Musgrove sister, then I would be in a long, albeit potentially silly relationship. But now thanks to my immense literary baggage, I have to be sane and rational and more importantly expect him to be all that as well and that….that is never good!!!

Ergo….do not let your daughters/nieces read the kind of books I read!

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