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“Really it is very wholesome exercise, this trying to make one’s words represent one’s thoughts, instead of merely looking to their effect on others.”
E. Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Welcome to the 13th stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell 200th Anniversary Blog Tour! I chose to dive into Mrs. Gaskell’s novellas, so after some online search and a lot of indecision I decided to review three of them (a bit ambitious, I know, but I just couldn’t choose): Mr. Harrison’s Confessions (1851) and Lady Ludlow (1959), both part of the Cranford Chronicles, and Cousin Phillis (1964), which according to the Literary Encyclopedia, “has been called the most perfect story in English”. They can all be read online for free. Please also note that there will be some spoilers in the reviews.

You’ll be happy to know that one lucky commenter will win a copy of an unabridged edition of North and South by Naxos AudioBooks read by Clare Willie. Deadline to leave your 2-cents is midnight US Pacific-time on 7 October. The winner will be drawn from names from all the posts in the Tour on 8 October (CD shipments to US and Canada, download for all other countries). Good luck to all of The Sleepless Reader’s commenters, I’m rooting for you!

You’ll find the next blog on the Tour after the review. Enjoy and Happy Gaskell anniversary :)

Cousin Phillis (1864)

For an unknown reason, Paul Manning wants to tell us about his Cousin Phillis. His first-person narration starts when he is seventeen years old and has just left home for the first time to become a clerk at a railway company. They are building a new branch line from Eltham to Hornby, and his mother insists he visits some distant relations living nearby in Heathbridge. It is here that he meets Minister Ebenezer Holman, a farmer-clergyman, his wife and his beautiful daughter Phillis.

(Just a small parenthesis to say that I liked Paul right from the first pages because I also found that the best thing about moving out of my parents’ house was to be able to eat what I wanted when I wanted.)

Phillis’ world is small, simple and regular, the predictably of the seasons so vital to the farm also apply to her day-to-day. However, there is a side to her that goes beyond this fenced world: she reads in Virgil in Latin, she’s trying to read Dante in Italian and she’s her father’s best scholar. The unexpected intellectual vastness in such a Victorian heroine as Phillis (all freshness and innocence) is one of the first glimpses we have into how, with Cousin Phillis, Gaskell astutely crafted a gentle tragedy that does not follow a conventional Victorian pattern.

We are tricked into expecting a love-story between Phillis and Paul, but almost from the start Paul realizes he cannot think of Phillis in any way other than as a sister: she’s smarter and more educated than he is and (unforgivable!) she’s taller. However, Paul will be responsible for introducing to the family their future nemesis in the form of his manager, the widely travelled and worldly Mr. Holdsworth.

Inevitably, Phillips and Holdsworth fall in love, but before they openly admit it to each other, Holdsworth is invited to work for 2 years in Canada. It’s an opportunity he can’t refuse and before he leaves he confesses to Paul his plans to come back and marry Phillis. Like the good Victorian heroine, Phillis health starts to decline and to comfort her, Paul tells her his secret – as expected, Phillis blooms once more. Tragedy however, looms in the horizon: Holdsworth is a man of the world and before long he is engaged to another. The shock of this news and knowing that for the first time her father knows what is wrong with her, leads Phillis into a “brain fever” so serious it threatens her life.

But our Dante-reading heroine has the nerve not to die. Instead, in comes Gaskell’s delightful sense of humour, and the servant Betty shakes Phillis out of her illness with her no-nonsense attitude:

‘Now Phillis!’ said she, coming up to the sofa, ‘we ha’ done a’ we can for you, and th’ doctors has done a’ they can for you, and I think the Lord has done a’ he can for you, and more than you deserve, too, if you don’t do something for yourself.’

Like other Gaskell’s stories, Cousin Phillis revolves around the themes that seemed to have worried Elizabeth Gaskell: the not-so-smooth transition into the Industrial Revolution and the different worlds in which men and women live. Paul and Holdsworth are the new world of mechanicals and railways, meeting and changing the traditional English rural way of life. Phillis’ gentle tragedy is a micro-example of what was happening in a larger scale to villages like Heathbridge all over England.

But will Phillis and her family go back to ‘the peace of the old days’? We know they can’t. From what I’ve read online, Gaskell wanted to write two more instalments of the story showing an unmarried Phillis doing good works in her little community. I have to admit that I’m glad she didn’t. This way we can still imagine a happy future for Phillis. The maiden who loved once and can never love again was one Victorian cliché that unfortunately Gaskell could not overcome here.

Another great image by the Queen of domestic descriptions:

The tranquil monotony of that hour made me feel as if I had lived for ever, and should live for ever droning out paragraphs in that warm sunny room, with m two quiet hearers, and the curled-up pussy cat sleeping on the heart-rug, and the clock on the house-stairs perpetually clicking out the passage of the moments.

*****   *****   *****

Follow this link to the next blog on the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicenterary Blog Tour by Janeite Deb at Jane Austen in Vermont, who will make available a Gaskell Library, full of MP3′s, ebooks, audio books, other downloads and reading resources.

The other stops on the Tour:

Biography

Novels/Biography

Novellas – me!

Resources

  • 14.) Your Gaskell Library – Links to MP3′s, ebooks, audio books, other downloads and reading resources available online: Janeite Deb – Jane Austen in Vermont
  • 15.) Plymouth Grove – A Visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s home in Manchester: Tony Grant – London Calling
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“Really it is very wholesome exercise, this trying to make one’s words represent one’s thoughts, instead of merely looking to their effect on others.”
E. Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Welcome to the 12th stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell 200th Anniversary Blog Tour! I chose to dive into Mrs. Gaskell’s novellas, so after some online search and a lot of indecision I decided to review three of them (a bit ambitious, I know, but I just couldn’t choose): Mr. Harrison’s Confessions (1851) and Lady Ludlow (1959), both part of the Cranford Chronicles, and Cousin Phillis (1964), which according to the Literary Encyclopedia, “has been called the most perfect story in English”. They can all be read online for free. Please also note that there will be some spoilers in the reviews.

You’ll be happy to know that one lucky commenter will win a copy of an unabridged edition of North and South by Naxos AudioBooks read by Clare Willie. Deadline to leave your 2-cents is midnight US Pacific-time on 7 October. The winner will be drawn from names from all the posts in the Tour on 8 October (CD shipments to US and Canada, download for all other countries). Good luck to all of The Sleepless Reader’s commenters, I’m rooting for you!

Enjoy and Happy Gaskell anniversary :)

My Lady Ludlow (1959)

I am an old woman now, and things are very different to what they were in my youth. Then we, who travelled, travelled in coaches, carrying six inside, and making a two days’ journey out of what people now go over in a couple of hours with a whizz and a flash, and a screaming whistle, enough to deafen one.

Isn’t it scary how this type of reminiscence can still be heard nowadays? Only now it’s about what kids learn at school or how no one knows where peas come from.

Just like Austen is still so popular today because the mechanics of relationships don’t change, Gaskell’s stories about the inevitability of progress and how we adapt is the hot-topic of the digital revolution. Of the three novellas, Lady Ludlow is the one that more directly deals with a rapidly changing world and how the old elite deal faces it.

The story it told by Margaret Dawson, is one of the nine young ladies and children living with and being cared for by the widowed Lady Ludlow and her companion Miss Galindo. The plot is also related to Lady Ludlow’s estate manager, Mr Horner, who is providing for the education of Harry Gregson, a poacher’s son.

Through Margaret’s eyes, herself from an impoverished background, we get a look into the life of this aristocrat, how she resists change with all her might, but also how through the people around her she learns to accept the inevitable.

Lady Ludlow’s views of Harry Gregson’s education are set in stone: she simply cannot understand why the lower classes should be educated. Actually, she believes it was this education nonsense that caused all the tragic, innocent aristocratic deaths during the French Revolution. We don’t want the same thing to happen in England, do we? Lady Ludlow’s reminiscence of the suffering of her French friends takes about 70 pages of the book and at this point my interest waned a bit.

Luckily, it was also after this memoir that things really start to get interesting. Lady Ludlow arranges for Miss Galindo to help Mr Horner with his accounts in an attempt to calm his revolutionary ways.  This is a definite glimpse of her capacity to accept (and even actively bring about) change, after all, this decision implies a Lady doing menial work, and a manly work to top.

There is a good amount of social commentary in My Lady Ludlow and although I was prepared to look down upon her fears and snobbish ways, I also realized that at the pace things are going I’ll probably become a Lady Ludlow myself – the Lady Ludlow of paper books, the last person on Earth to have a physical bookshelf 🙂

And before moving on to Cousin Phillis, take a look at this pearl of witticism that Gaskell directed at her fellow writers.

(Once upon a time Miss Galindo wanted to write and she explains to Lady Ludlow…)

“Well! I got paper and half-a-hundred pens, a bottle of ink, all ready –”

“And then –”

“O, it ended in my having nothing to say, when I sat down to write.  But sometimes, when I get hold of a book, I wonder why I let such a poor reason stop me.  It does not others.”

Touché, Mrs Gaskell!

*****   *****   *****

Follow this link to the next review on the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicenterary Blog Tour, my  thoughts on Cousin Phillis.

Biography

Novels/Biography

Novellas – me!

Resources

  • 14.) Your Gaskell Library – Links to MP3′s, ebooks, audio books, other downloads and reading resources available online: Janeite Deb – Jane Austen in Vermont
  • 15.) Plymouth Grove – A Visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s home in Manchester: Tony Grant – London Calling

“Really it is very wholesome exercise, this trying to make one’s words represent one’s thoughts, instead of merely looking to their effect on others.”
E. Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Welcome to the 11th stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell 200th Anniversary Blog Tour! I chose to dive into Mrs. Gaskell’s novellas, so after some online search and a lot of indecision I decided to review three of them (a bit ambitious, I know, but I just couldn’t choose): Mr. Harrison’s Confessions (1851) and Lady Ludlow (1959), both part of the Cranford Chronicles, and Cousin Phillis (1964), which according to the Literary Encyclopedia, “has been called the most perfect story in English”. They can all be read online for free. Please also note that there will be some spoilers in the reviews.

You’ll be happy to know that one lucky commenter will win a copy of an unabridged edition of North and South by Naxos AudioBooks read by Clare Willie. Deadline to leave your 2-cents is midnight US Pacific-time on 7 October. The winner will be drawn from names from all the posts in the Tour on 8 October (CD shipments to US and Canada, download for all other countries). Good luck to all of The Sleepless Reader’s commenters, I’m rooting for you!

Enjoy and Happy Gaskell anniversary 🙂

Mr Harrison’s Confessions (1851)

I think Gaskell had fun writing this one. You can just imagine her stopping for a minute to chuckle contentedly and even sharing the joke with her husband, who raising his head from the newspaper asks “what’s so funny?” or better, “pray my dear, what amuses you so?”

In the opening scene, Mr. Harrison is enjoying the quiet comforts of his home with a visiting friend. When Mrs Harrison leaves for bed, his friend asks him the secret to “wooing and winning” such a wife and Mr. Harrison readily agrees to tell his story.

After his studies, Mr. Harrison accepts a proposal of partnership from a country doctor who has been supporting his career, so he moves to the small village of Duncombe. The long-term objective is for Mr. Harrison to take over the practice completely once Mr. Morgan is ready to retire. In Duncombe our hero plays the part of the proverbial inexperienced and single gentleman trapped in a village ruled by middle-aged women. These ladies’ enthusiasm and skills at matchmaking rival those of Emma Woodhouse, so what follows is a delightful comedy of errors. It is wickedly funny to see poor Mr. Harrison innocently trying to conquer the woman he truly loves while a web is being weaved around him. At some point and for reasons beyond his control he finds himself engaged to three different women in the village, while shunned by the lovely Sophy.

Gaskell develops her story in a way that allows us to clearly see what is about to befall the young hero and so creates an atmosphere of amused complicity between author and reader.

Mr. Harrison’s Confessions is a quick, charming read, but as with Cranford, don’t expect a lot of plot. What you can expect are some fine examples of what Gaskell does better than anyone: images of domestic scenes. Here is Mr. Harrison description of Sophy’s home:

There were books and work about, and tokens of employment; there was a child’s plaything on the floor, and against the sea green walls there hung a likeness or two, done in water colours (…). The chairs an sofa were covered with chintz, the same as the curtains – a little pretty red rose on white ground. I don’t know where the crimson came from, I’m sure there was crimson somewhere; perhaps in the carpet. There was a glass door besides the window, and you went up a step to get into the garden.

I want to be there, in that room, or at least I want my own home to have the same feeling of coziness.

*****   *****   *****

Follow this link to the next review on the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicenterary Blog Tour, my  thoughts on My Lady Ludlow.

The other stops on the Tour:

Biography

Novels/Biography

Novellas – me!

Resources

  • 14.) Your Gaskell Library – Links to MP3′s, ebooks, audio books, other downloads and reading resources available online: Janeite Deb – Jane Austen in Vermont
  • 15.) Plymouth Grove – A Visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s home in Manchester: Tony Grant – London Calling

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