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REVIEW: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

REVIEW: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

My route to reading this slim 19th-century novel was somewhat circuitous. Years ago, on romance message boards, I repeatedly read about the greatness of a certain historical romance miniseries called North and South. This was not the rather campy American Civil War miniseries starring Kirstie Alley and Patrick Swayze, but rather a British production, based on the novel of the same name by an author I’d never heard of, Elizabeth Gaskell. Gaskell was a friend and contemporary to Charlotte Bronte (she wrote a biography of Bronte after her death), as well as being a fairly prolific novelist in her own right.

Finally, after hearing about the virtues of North and South many times, I ordered the DVD from Netflix. I loved it. At heart the tale of love between a gruff self-made man and a gentlewoman in somewhat reduced circumstances, set in England at the dawn of the industrial age, North and South was both devastatingly romantic and meaty, examining issues of class and gender in Victorian society. It’s really a great miniseries and I’d recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.

It was only because I’d seen and loved North and South that I DVRed Cranford when it appeared on Masterpiece Theater. Cranford was quite different from North and South; smaller in scope and much more humorous (though not necessarily light; Gaskell had a penchant for examining social issues in all of her books, and she didn’t shy away from depicting tragedy). I loved it just as much as North and South.

But I still didn’t consider reading the book. This was due in large part to my Jane Austen phobia; I’d decided that I could handle twittery 19th-century English folk on the screen a lot better than I could on the page. It was only fairly recently that I got over the phobia and the attendant and rather silly prejudice I’d held. The recent Masterpiece production Return to Cranford reminded me of how much I loved the story and the characters, and so I ordered this book.

Cranford is narrated in the first person by Mary Smith, a frequent visitor to the town who is close to two spinster sisters, Misses Deborah and Matty Jenkyns. Deborah and Matty are as different as night and day; Deborah, the elder, is formidable and emphatic in her beliefs, many of which have to do with her strict notions of propriety. Miss Matty (played to perfection in the PBS productions by Dame Judi Dench) is timid and lacking in confidence about her intellect, a lack that seems not entirely unreasonable in the book. It’s not that Matty is stupid, but she is far from worldly and tends towards extreme naivete. The sisters are both very decent at heart, though, even if Deborah’s rules sometimes stifle them. (The book contains a scene that I remember well from the first miniseries: due to Deborah’s insistence that an orange cannot be publicly eaten in any way that is not vulgar, there’s a scene of Mary, Matty and Deborah each relishing their respective oranges in solitude – it’s really sort of poignant.)

The book feels a bit more episodic than the miniseries, though honestly that may be simply due to different modes of storytelling – both are fairly episodic, in truth (and the first miniseries contains storylines that don’t appear in the book – I’m not sure if they are woven in from another work of Gaskell’s or created out of whole cloth).

Readers expecting a lot of action or emotional melodrama may want to look elsewhere. The characters in Cranford do live – they fall in love, have their hearts broken, marry, die – but they do it all with the restraint one might expect from the Victorian era. Sometimes it’s what is occurring beneath the surface that holds the most interest – the changing of social mores that allows a widow with a title to marry a country doctor (though not without creating a minor scandal), the trepidation one character feels about opening a shop to sell tea, a move necessitated by a financial reversal when a bank fails. The problems and dilemmas that the women of Cranford face are real and relatable. I did some reading in relation to this review and found that some scholars dismiss Cranford as too frothy and silly, and thus not worthy of the consideration given to some of Gaskell’s more serious books. The book is even seen by some as anti-feminist, given the pettiness of the characters and their concerns. But the very first page sums up what makes Cranford, the town and the book, special:

Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.

That the women of Cranford are not visibly suffering, as many of the mill workers do in North and South, and that they spend their time playing cards and fretting over matters of etiquette, may make them seem worthy of dismissal in the eyes of some. But their concerns are real and deeply felt; their losses are all the more poignant for the fortitude and quiet dignity with which they face them. My grade for Cranford is a B+. I’ve already ordered North and South, the book, and am looking forward to reading it.

Best regards,

Jennie

First Impressions 4: Honey and Clover, and Swan

First Impressions 4: Honey and Clover, and Swan

Dear Readers,

Here are two more first volumes, these two from popular series that I found I didn’t like as much as their popularity suggested I should.

Honey and Clover by Chica Umino. Viz. Retail $9.99. Rated T+ for older teen. 10 volumes (still ongoing in Japan; 1 released here).

Honey and Clover centers around a group of poor eclectic students at an art college that live in the same tiny, rundown apartment building. There’s a large cast of characters but these are the main ones: Morita is a weirdo genius slob who’s been in college for many years, and who leaves for weeks at a time and comes back exhausted and loaded with money. Mayama is a fairly normal architecture student about to graduate, but with hints of a mysterious past. And the last is a very average guy, the hero, Takemoto, who doesn’t have any real aim in life except he’s studying architecture as well.

One day they meet a tiny relative of a professor who enters the school as a Freshman. She’s Hanamoto Hagumi and both Takemoto and Morita instantly fall in love with her cuteness. They fall for her but she’s never anything but a doll, even in the drawings. It’s a bit disturbing. She’s not much interested in them though; she’s a genius as sculpture and lives for that. And shiny pink mules. And meat. She isn’t your typical heroine. But then, this isn’t exactly a romance.

The story goes on, with little slices of life, some more interesting than others. Takemoto tries to find common ground with Hagumi and ends up trying to design a rococco warddrobe for her caveman-inspired doll clothes. A tenant returns from the country with meat and vegetables, and they feel better for eating until he leaves again.

You know, what this manga reminds me of is Seinfeld. It’s really not about anything. It’s just episodes about their lives, revealing their characters and friendships, but not really taking you any place. It’s kind of interesting. It’s kind of funny. It’s good at revealing who the guys are. I’m assuming the love story goes somewhere, maybe. But all in all, it seems something to relax with when you don’t want to think about anything yourself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. B.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Swan by Ariyoshi Kyoko. CMX. Retail $9.99. Rated E for Everyone. 21 volumes (complete in Japan; 12 released here)

This is one of the toughest reviews I’ve had to write. I’m just not sure what to make of this rather famous shoujo series.

On the one hand, it’s a serious story about ballet, and the rise of a ballerina from being someone who has a lot to learn, to the top of her form. The art used to tell the story is gorgeous, albeit a little dated since it’s from the 70s. The heroine isn’t a genius who rockets to the top, but someone at the bottom of her class who keeps screwing up. Because of that, both she and the reader learn a lot about what it takes to be a successful ballet dancer. This is a story about the sweat and the work and the sacrifices and the pain of being a great dancer.

But on the other hand, it’s so freaking melodramatic, tears and wailing and gushing over everything. I’ve never seen so many exclamation points. This her revelation over ballet after she’s lost a big contest and had her bubble burst, when she sees the winning performance by the people she met. Her thoughts surround her jumping through the clouds, tears overflowing:

“I get it now!

I can feel it exploding in my heart… Like I’m going to burst! Because of them, in just that short time!

Everything they told me… Everything they did…It was all about the discipline of ballet!

Now I want the harsh world of ballet! I want it more than ever!

I want a teacher who will mold me into something beautiful! I want it now, more than ever!

I want to dance!

I want to be with the others, those brilliant, beautiful dancers.

I want to take this passion and pour my heart and soul into training!”

Good thoughts really, but the way they’re expressed… I want to read it, and yet don’t.

I will recommend this with caveats. If you are an aspiring ballet dancer, or even if you just love ballet this might well be a great series for you to buy. And those with youngsters should note that this is the first series I’ve reviewed here with a general rating, acceptable for everyone, so those with children 8-12 who are thinking about ballet could buy it for them. It would be the perfect introduction to the real world of dance, I think. But I recommend buying the first volume or reading it in the library so you or they get a feel for what it’s like.

Many people have loved this series through the years. I do not love this first book, but I don’t want to discourage others from trying it if they’re interested in the subject and think they can get past the melodrama. B-.

Sincerely,

ジェーン

(Jān)

These can be purchased or pre-ordered at most bookstores, or they can be found at a discount at one of my favorites places to buy manga: Honey and Clover; Swan