Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cranford read-along: chapters 1-8

I am a few days late with my contribution to the Cranford read-along (hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey, due to having a surgery last week and complications therefrom. Well, here I am. But before I give my impressions, I give a little warning: I first read Cranford in graduate school. While I remember thinking the book sort of charming at the time, I also remember thinking it insignificant. My re-reading of the book this month is cranky and frustrated and dismissive. Cranford is just a batch of delightful sketches of a time-gone-by. Maybe it's the medication I'm on, which leaves me with little patience for anything other than a marathon of Weeds re-runs, but right now I feel pretty fiercely that Gaskell's other books are superior and far more engrossing in content.

One thing that frustrates me about Cranford is its relentless tone of irony. All descriptions of the feminine inhabitants of the town are colored by it, and this has the effect of gentle mockery. (If the source of the irony is the narrator—a member of the younger generation who is not just an outsider, but also a townsperson—then the effect is that of youth/the urbane patronizingly if affectionately mocking old age/the provincial.) In spite of the fact that Cranford's old ladies are likened to Amazons in the opening paragraph, or that it is the women who appear to hold all the power in the town, or that feminine community is upheld as an ideal, a reader would have to do a lot of fancy work to interpret the rambling stories as illustrations of the empowerment of women in the absence of men. No, the stories seem to insist that men are more rational, less ridiculous. Examples include the loveable Captain Brown with his "excellent masculine common sense" or the sensible, unpretentious Mr. Thomas Holbrook, yeoman.

The chapter I like best, of 1-8, is chapter 5, "Old Letters," a poignant description of Miss Matty re-reading old letters before burning them. The narrator describes the letters' content and the writers' varying styles, but the most compelling part of the chapter for me is the physical description of the letters themselves:

The Rector's letters, and those of his wife and mother-in-law, had all been tolerably short and pithy, written in a straight hand, with the lines very close together. Sometimes the whole letter was contained on a mere scrap of paper. The paper was very yellow, and the ink very brown; some of the sheets were (as Miss Matty made me observe) the old original post, with the stamp [a watermark] in the corner, representing a post-boy riding for life and twanging his horn. The letters of Mrs. Jenkyns and her mother were fastened with a great round red wafer … The rector sealed his epistles with an immense coat of arms, and showed by the care with which he had performed this ceremony, that he expected they should be cut open, not broken by any thoughtless or impatient hand.
The passages continues, describing Miss Jenkyns’s letters as crossed, a common, economic epistolary practice with the effect of saving paper (and thus postage).

Fragile and ephemeral, letters have a short life-span, like mayflies and all the members of the Ephemeridae family. Ephemera has become a popular focus for Victorian scholars over the past couple decades, and I imagine that Gaskell’s works are a treasure-trove of descriptive data to Victorian Material Culture scholars, some of whom have recently focused their attention to salvaging, collecting, and theorizing about printed ephemera—transitory objects like letters, periodicals, posters, maps, pamphlets, and even cheap yellow-back novels. Letters are not meant to last forever, of course, but something in me cringes when Miss Matty throws her parents’ love letters into the fire.
'We must burn them, I think,' said Miss Matty, looking doubtfully at me. 'No one will care for them when I am gone.' And one by one she dropped them into the middle of the fire; watching each blaze up, die out, and rise away, in faint, white, ghostly semblance, up the chimney, before she gave another to the same fate.
This description shows nostalgia being conquered, however painfully. The act of burning the letters might be destructive, but it is also progressive. Old letters provide an intimate record of pasts that are both private (anachronistically) and public (when read by living successors of the original senders and recipients). Letters are cultural artifacts, evidence of "olden times," its politics, economics, religious and domestic ways. Gaskell captures the ghostly nature of ephemera, how it both symbolizes the past and heralds modernity.