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…

Everybody needs a Television sometime……????!!!!!!

So I have this mammoth confession to make – It’s like one of those closet secret that nobody talks about and everybody knows and they give you the “look” when you walk into the room. You know what kind I am talking about ….right? Anyhow, I have to make a similar confession and I thought I might as well make it now than later …….here goes!

I DO NOT OWN A TELEVISION!

I mean I do not have a television in my apartment. Have not watched the telly for last 10 years when I moved to college and since then have never felt the need. My crazy flatmate also feels the same way, though there are times when in fit of sheer indulgence, she wants to buy a Plasma Flat screen, but sense prevails and we spend that money on books and yum food.  In the last decade, I have been blessed with the joy of not coming back from work and throwing my bag and flopping in front of “the box” and flipping mindlessly through all that madness. I do not want to change that….I do not want a telly. There I have said it……

I have lost count of the number of times, people (friends and foes alike) have looked at me as if I was sprouting carrots out of my head when I have shared this fact with them. I get loads of “What? Do you know the kind of great cool entertainment you are missing out on?” “Do you know there are some great travel and living shows?”  “They make some awesome series out of the books you read, you might as well watch them if you read em?” (I still have to figure out why I need to view something that I have read as a mandate. Watching Harry Porter on screen will convince anyone that after reading a book, one should never indulge in any visual form of the literary work unless, one ones to tear apart one’s hair and go for the “bald  look”!) But the best is “How can you live without a television? It’s all that reading that’s fried your brain!”

Well I must own I have existed peacefully on this earth for the last 10 years without a television and I honestly feel I have not missed out on real heart stooping world moments! Yes, it’s true that I do infinitely prefer reading, but that does not mean I exclude all other forms of entertainment – I love theatre and live concerts and some movies! But I absolutely refused to be chained to something which has reality show which depict anything but reality and news that discusses the merits of Beyoncé’s daughter’s name versus Tom Cruise’s daughter’s name. I do not care if I am deemed anti-social for not being up to date on such “current affairs”.  The sitcoms are hardly funny now that Friends and Seinfeld have gone off the air and let me not get started on Soaps! The television is the strongest reason to take up reading – I mean the plot lines are way better; there is only a limit to which the author will exaggerate the events and you can make the protagonist look howsoever you want in your mind’s eye without feeling bemused at the fact the so called not good looking character is more good looking than an average individual out on the street (Have you not seen all the mush stuff?) Like Groucho Marx said “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. “

Besides, there is a brilliant thing called Internet that actually keeps me updated on stuff that I really want to enjoy – movies, songs and yes even some series! The great part is I watch it whenever I want and not when HBO/PBS/NBC/BBC etc wants and I can skip parts I like and replay the parts I want. (Yes I am sure we can that with a DVD player, but I am just enumerating the reasons of my not having a television.)Besides my books, my laptop is most precious possession – I write, watch, and hear whatever and whenever, thanks to this most perfect of God’s creation.

I am truly and I do mean truly at peace with you if you love your tellys and spend hours in front of them. Different strokes for different folks and you might enjoy something which I do not and vice versa. What I refuse is to be treated like a social outcast or a weirdo, just because I do not like or feel tempted to buy a television to watch Downton Abbey (Though I do like the series and watch it online on the Net).

Thus, I will continue to thrive and exist without a television as God is my witness, so there!!!!!