Classics Club Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I had many suitors. In the 1980’s we called admirers something else, but I forget what. Many a suitor wrote me letters. An Irish poet from Limerick with liquid, sensitive blue eyes I met one night on my travels sent letters across the Atlantic for months. I liked his poetry, but he wanted love and his eager, sweet missives hinted at it until he realized the friendship was only friendship.

I almost married another man from Ireland who lived briefly in Hoboken, New Jersey. He thought I was a feminist at first (he assumed all American women were) and dismissed my overtures at first. Somehow we started a correspondence when he moved back to embark on the life of an intellectual farmer. His letters started optimistic enough, but grew sad and bitter as he fought what he imagined to be the many gossips and naysayers of the tiny town he lived in. His father was a dead but well-known drunk who beat him mercilessly as a child. Though 6’ 4” this sad farmer was haunted by the shadow of a dead man. By the time I came to visit him, his depression was so profound that it scared me and I left him never to know what happened in the end.

My sisters and friends wrote to me when I went away to be a camp counselor and my father wrote to me before he died. This letter I kept hidden so it avoided destruction. When I read it even now I linger on the handwriting that somehow brings back my father’s voice, his hands as he wrote checks and his love for me.

I married a jealous man. Our ill-fated romance seemed like destiny at the time. I felt certain that my destiny was unchangeable. One night before our wedding my future husband finally convinced me that my precious box of letters was standing in the way of our happiness. He badgered me night after night about the letters.

I’d never met a person so relentless. I hardly defended myself against it. I shredded the letters.

The letters from the boy in my high school who died of cancer on the same day as my college graduation. We used to ride our bikes to the reservoir and dream of our lives as writers. He was a poet who had already traveled to Alaska and Egypt by senior year. We had sat next to each other in kindergarten.

The letters from an extremely handsome boy related to the famous Tiffany family who dreamt of being a journalist one day. I’d met him at a frat party in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was sure I’d marry him until he said something ridiculous at a gathering that summer and it embarrassed me.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s book Cranford got me thinking about these letters. A sweet, old spinster living on little means decides one night to burn her family letters.

“I never knew what sad work the reading of old letters was before that evening, though I could hardly tell why. The letters were as happy as the letters could be—at least those early letters were. There was in them a vivid and intense sense of the present time, which seemed so strong and full, as if it could never pass away, and as if the warm, living hearts that so expressed themselves could never die, and be as nothing to the sunny earth. I should have felt less melancholy had the letters been more so.”

Written as a series of vignettes about a group of older women living, for the most part, without men, I found the book lacking in that very thing. Despite my checkered history with men, I miss them when they’re not around. I wondered as I read about these decent old women if literature (and life) needed the conflict and thrust of men to keep my interest.

Feminists would probably not like me to admit that the letters I miss most are the ones with the scribbled marks of masculine hands and hearts. Cranford women often concerned themselves with the romances of their servant girls. They feared the farm boys who lived on the outskirts of town marrying away their help. Like some feminists who despise women who want children and husbands, the Cranford ladies prefer women to be kept as they see fit.

Miss Matty is briefly reunited (if only by lingering glances) with a male suitor from her youth. He dies soon after. The deaths and absence of men define these women. When one finally escapes through a late and poor marriage to the town doctor who makes her very happy the comfortable circle of lonely women is upset. Slightly.

Regrets, lust and even the shredding of letters from better men will never convince me that men are expendable. Uncomfortable to be around sometimes, yes. But Cranford offers up a world without them and I think I’ll pass.

What about you? have you read Cranford? Do you have a favorite classic book? Please share. I’d love to hear from you!

MY CLASSICS CLUB BOOK LIST

9 Signs You May Have Mistakenly Joined a Dystopian/Utopian Community

“I had staked no valuable amount of hope or fear; it had enabled me to pass the summer in a novel and agreeable way, [and] afforded me some grotesque specimens of artificial simplicity.” Nathaniel Hawthorne from The Blithedale Romance

MY CLASSICS CLUB Response to The Blithedale Romance

Having sent one of my main characters, BUCK CRENSHAW, to a 19th century perfectionist community based on THE ONEIDA COLONY and having lived on a modern-day farm with utopian pretensions, and having worked on yet another farm with similar pretensions, I was excited to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance—to compare his opinions with my own.

The book is a strange one; seeming to first be about the utopian society and then about the mysterious history of two female characters. Many of the people I’ve met in my utopian circles, who often disdained “conventional society,”  tended to be running from some real or imagined life of mystery and horror.

Unlike my character Buck who arrives at my fictional “Middlemay Farm” as a somewhat prudish and naïve babe in the woods, Hawthorne’s narrator, Miles Coverdale is a poet who manages to keep just enough of his individualism to begin to question the motives of the charismatic leader of the Blithedale community. This leads to the first thing one can expect when joining a society of people who think they know just how to fix the world, and by world I mean other people.

A reform movement usually has a charismatic leader who, while possessing a dynamic sexual energy (felt by one and all), is actually kind of gross, mean-spirited and selfish in his desire to change the world as he sees fit. This man may be, as at Blithedale, a man who is obsessed with prison reform. Miles Coverdale is shunned when he expresses honest concerns about Hollingsworth’s grand schemes of reform:

“They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience … They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.”

 

At Middlemay, Richard Rhinedale is obsessed with sexual reform. Buck becomes a useful pawn until he is no longer useful. The socialist farmer I worked for was obsessed with Cuba, wind energy and shocking Hasidic Jews (who paid for farm tours) with his hatred of their religion. He did this in the name of women’s rights but it seemed to me that he was bitter at losing his own faith while attending Yale Divinity School. I was also shunned for questioning a socialist idea.

These strangely charismatic men often attract women who are willing to fund the leaders’ pipe-dream endeavors while also accepting the men’s only slightly veiled contempt for said women. Miles Coverdale is shocked by the mad infatuation and devotion the two lead female characters have for the brooding, self-absorbed Hollingsworth.

Utopian women often subject themselves to “free love” once they are convinced that it will improve their relations in the long run. At Blithedale, the woman perceived to have money is thrown aside when it becomes clear that she has nothing.

In MY NOVEL, Richard’s wife is given the job of training young men to control themselves sexually. This is Richard’s inside joke since he finds his wife so repulsive and assumes the young trainees will control themselves with little coaching. As I mentioned in a post long ago, a friend raised in a Utopian society bitterly remembers his mother’s neglect due to her devotion to “the cause” of socialism in the 1960’s.

Many (if not most) people who dive into this lifestyle really don’t like people they consider “common.” For instance, I’ve heard many an erudite farmer blame regular farmers’ stupidity for the loss of their family farms. The fact that many of these perfectionists often rely on unpaid labor in the form of eco-apprentices or converts to their cause and often aren’t more successful than the regular guys who don’t read Mother Earth and Foreign Affairs, their disdain seems pretty hypocritical.

One farmer I knew insisted on only using horse-power-unless he was in a hurry. His contempt of modern machinery was thrown aside when he butchered a lame old goat with a dull knife in front of a family of Hassidic Jews in the rain and unceremoniously shoveled up the animal with his tractor. Hawthorne brilliantly captures the uncouth but far more able true farmer who trains the city folk at country life.

Manual labor is often “spiritualized,” says Hawthorne, with the actual sweat on someone else’s brow at these colonies. There is something quite lovely about raising your own food, living by the seasons and going to sleep tired, but the work is mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. From a distance golden hay bales look beautiful at sunset, but hay up close means work, sweat and worry.  It doesn’t take long for those of us with big ideas to realize that picking and hauling potatoes isn’t the glamorous thing it looked like in the old peasant paintings. Hawthorne quips,

 “I seldom saw the new enthusiasm that did not grow flimsy and flaccid as the proselyte’s moistened shirt-collar, with a quarter-of-an-hour’s active labor, under a July sun.”

Usually when living in utopia people start dressing funny. Many of these reformers think they are quite unconventional yet in most cases they only trade one uniform for another.  Whether it be at the Oneida Colony where dress reform was explored or on your basic farm as at Blithedale. When city folk come for a visit you’re usually pretty shocked at how far off the path you’ve gone in terms of fashion. Zenobia, the beauty at Blithedale, wears a hothouse flower in her hair. In the city it’s a flower of jewels. I suppose it’s true that in real life we buy more fake things. Certain high-end farm gear is always in style on the “better” farms these days (on others the badge of honor is wearing 100% thrift store items—I do both ;)).

Utopians hate the present. Some romanticize the past. Some, at the very beginning of their endeavors, worship the future. In the present, many feel misunderstood, angry at humanity and depressed. I’ve seen this myself far too many times. It’s sad because if these reformers actually stepped out of their dream/nightmare they might possibly see some of the pleasant things in life that make humanity and the world worth saving.

A very odd thing I’ve noted and Hawthorne mentions is that there’s usually a utopian who insists on being called by a name that isn’t their own. I’m still not sure what to make of a young lady I once met who called herself “Fiddlin.” She didn’t play an instrument as far as I know. Zenobia at Blithedale sported a fake name as well (for mysterious reasons).

Utopians are bound by their hatreds:

“Our bond, it seems to me, was not affirmative, but negative. We had individually found one thing or another to quarrel with, in our past life, and were pretty well agreed as to the inexpediency of lumbering along with the old system any farther. As to what should be substituted, there was much less unanimity.”

Hawthorne, like many other people who end up deserting these attempts to change the world one elevated summer at a time, sees the characters he once called friends as tragic and deluded.

Related: UTOPIA & SEX

***Peasant Girl by Jules Breton

Classics Club Review: War and Peace

The day after taking doxicyclene for Lyme disease and anaplasmosis this is the text conversation between my daughter and me:

Me: I was feverish with a bizarre and pounding headache. Not normal. Felt really weird. Sweating profusely. And UNABLE TO STOP GOING OVER SCENES FROM WAR AND PEACE in my head.

Daughter: Okay. That’s terrible but the War and Peace thing you obviously know is hilarious. “unable to stop” 🙂 🙂

Me: Even as I was almost dying I was like: this is ridiculous.

Daughter: LOLOL. It’s so you though. Are you okay now?

Me: Called the doctor. My reaction was rare but serious so she prescribed a new drug.

Daughter: Oh, God. Did you tell her about the War and Peace hallucinations? Is that part a common reaction?

 

For most of August my daughter received texts like this:

Me: Prince Andrei may forgive Natasha but I never will. NEVER.

I’m in such a state of despair. Prince Andrei is finally dead. So terrible I’m sobbing.

Daughter: Oh my God, but didn’t we know it was coming?

Me: Yes but when it finally came it was terrible. There’s little reason to live now. My life is a desert.

Daughter: I wish we lived closer 😦

Me: Tolstoy has ruined my life. Okay. I need to calm down.

Daughter: Yes. You do. But it’s cute. . . . Mom…

Me: Yes?

Daughter: Ugh. Life has been cruel (here’s where my daughter talks about her real-life break up with a cad. I’ll keep it private).

 

But what is real life? Great fiction certainly blurs the lines (it doesn’t help that my nervous system has been under attack from the dreaded Lyme disease). For some there is the summer of rage, for others the summer of love, but for me this was the summer of War and Peace. My heightened sense of awareness as I feverishly followed the lives of Pierre, Natasha, Marya and Andrei made each new revelation more glorious and painful (or the book is just that glorious and painful?).

I’ll start at the end because new life begins at the end of something and that end in this case is the slow, heartbreaking death of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Andrei, in fact, dies many deaths before the final one which I’ll get to, but here at the end we glimpse Andrei’s son, with the same nervous and thoughtful temperament as his father, living a rather neglected life with his aunt and uncle. He is the echo of Andrei. In his brief appearance as he sits listening in rapt awe to Pierre (Andrei’s best friend), we get a picture of Andrei. Tolstoy doesn’t say much about Andrei’s absent mother but we see the lonely, shy eagerness in his son’s eyes in the presence of the only real connection he has to his deceased father. Poor Nikolenka unexpressed neediness comes out in his accidental destruction of a pen set. We hope that Pierre and Natasha will see past themselves to give the orphan boy what Prince Andrei only allowed himself to experience briefly—love.

At the start of the story we meet Andrei in a loveless, dull marriage to an annoyingly good, decidedly silly girl. Andrei’s father suffers his pregnant daughter-in-law’s silliness with barely hidden contempt. Andrei himself has trouble hiding his own contempt and confesses to Pierre on the eve of going off to war that he considers marriage a mistake.

Andrei’s father, the count, hides his great love for his children behind a self-protective wall of hostility. Andrei’s sister Marya takes the brunt of her father’s abuse but is armed with her great devotion to God. Marya begs Andrei to take a religious icon to war. Andrei is dismissive at first but we see his heart for his sister when he accepts her gift even as he doubts her faith.

“Andre, I am going to bless you with an icon, and you promise me never to take it off . . . Do you promise?”

“Of course, if it doesn’t weigh a hundred pounds and pull my neck down . . .To give you pleasure . . .” said Prince Andrei, but that same second, noticing the distressed look that came to his sister’s face at this joke, he instantly repented. “I’m very glad, truly, very glad, my friend,” he added.

“Against your will He will save you and have mercy on you and turn you to Him, because in Him alone there is truth and peace,” she said in a voice trembling with emotion, with a solemn gesture holding up in both hands before her brother an old oval icon of the Savior with a blackened face, in a silver setting, on a finely wrought silver chain.

She crossed herself, kissed the icon, and gave it to Andrei.

“Please, Andre, for me . . .”

From her big eyes shone rays of a kindly and timid light. These eyes lit up her whole, thin, sickly face and made it beautiful. Her brother wanted to take the icon, but she stopped him. Andrei understood, made the sign of the cross, and kissed the icon. His face was at the same time tender (he was touched) and mocking.

Marya’s words are prophetic. God does save Andrei but not in the way we mortals like. Andrei, without a mother and only a father unable to show love, seeks glory (not love which he doesn’t understand) as the highest good. He thinks to himself as the Russian army retreats that for glory he would give up family, friends and life. As the throng of frightened men all around race to the rear Andrei takes up the standard and moves forward.

Andrei falls and is captured but not before noting the expanse of sky above him—the emotionless, unperturbed sky which is neither impressed nor ashamed of the tiny glory a young man seeks. Andrei meets his hero Napoleon briefly at the hospital but no longer worships him and sees him for the small, mean man he is. He sees glory as small and mean as well.

What is the epitome of manhood? Andrei’s best friend, Pierre, a hulking, fumbling decent sort of fellow and bastard son to a man with a large fortune lives a life of debauchery. While Andrei is tightly wound and spiritually deep, Pierre is led by his feelings and appetite which he has trouble controlling.  Andrei sees Pierre’s integrity hidden deep within his hefty frame and frivolous living. Pierre sees Andrei’s soft and pained heart beneath his creeping cynicism, hostility and irritation so similar to his father’s.

Both men search for goodness but as Christ said no one is good but God and here lies the tragedy and hope. Even in this friendship they fail each other. Pierre visits his recovered friend just returned from the war eager to tell him all about the truths he’s discovered about social justice. Andrei covers his love with contempt, belittling Pierre’s naïve ideas even as he himself is at the forefront of the movement to improve the lives of his serfs. He refuses to let Pierre have his victories. He refuses to show his weakness in agreeing with anything his friend says. How sad. How distancing. How lonely.

Yet God has other plans. Andrei travels through a forest of dead trees that mirror his mood. He meets a girl in the bloom of life and falls in love. He tries to do right to please his father and this young girl, Natasha Rostov fails the test he gives her when he asks her to wait for him as he travels to warmer climates to recuperate from his still unhealed war wounds.

Natasha and her mother fear something in Andrei. Is it the integrity and depth they are so unaccustomed to in the Rostov men? The Rostovs are foolish spendthrifts and emotionally volatile. Always at the brink of ruin, they are saved in the end by Andrei and Marya Bolkonsky.

War and Peace is large and sweeping but it’s the little moments that are so poignant and true. Andrei, with broken heart after Natasha’s affair with an awful man, goes back to war ready to die until the moment he’s injured by shrapnel.  He sees the man who tricked Natasha into loving him at the hospital suffering an amputation and forgives him–forgives humanity and feels the depths of his ability to love—a love bigger than self and a love only possible as a gift from God.

Andrei dies a slow death but not before reuniting with Natasha. Yet again, humans fall so short. After Andrei dies Natasha remembers with great regret a conversation between herself and Prince Andrei. A conversation that exposes his true soul, his search and need for unconditional love:

“One thing is terrible,” he had said, “it is to bind yourself to a suffering man. That is eternal torment.” And he had looked at her—Natasha could see it now—with a searching gaze. Natasha, as always, had answered then before she had time to think of what answer she would give: “It cannot go on like this, it won’t be, you’ll get well—completely.”

She now saw him anew and lived through all she had felt then. She remembered his prolonged, sad, stern gaze at those words, and understood the meaning of the reproach and despair in that prolonged gaze.

“I agreed,” Natasha now said to herself, “that it would be terrible if he was left suffering always. I said it then only because it would be terrible for him, but he understood it differently. He thought it would be terrible for me. He still wanted to live then—he was afraid of death. And I said it to him so crudely, so stupidly then. I didn’t think that. I thought quite differently. If I had said what I thought, I would have said: let him be dying, dying all the time before my eyes, I would still be happy compared to what I am now. Now . . .There’s nothing, nobody. Did he know that? No. he didn’t know, and he’ll never know. And now it will never, never be possible to put it right.”

And again he was saying the same words to her, but now, in her imagination, Natasha answered differently. She stopped him and said: “Terrible for you, but not for me. You know that for me there is nothing in life without you, and to suffer with you is the best happiness for me.” . . . and in her imagination she said other tender, loving things to him, which she might have said then, and which she was saying now: “I love you, I love . . .”

 

And this love is all there really is. It’s all we seek. Tolstoy’s view of history leaves little room for free will (especially in leadership). Events happen. Deaths happen with no escape for any of us. The war is within each of us. The battle moves forward to its final conclusion, and we are carried along with great throngs of fearful masses. The sky, God, is not devoid of feeling as Prince Andrei once thought.

I quote the apostle Paul: I pray that he would give you, according to his glorious riches, strength in your inner being and power through his Spirit, and that the Messiah would make his home in your hearts through faith. Then, having been rooted and grounded in love, you will be able to understand, along with all the saints, what is wide, long, high, and deep—that is, you will know the love of the Messiah — which transcends knowledge, and will be filled with all the fullness of God.

Our world today is full of people hiding behind irritability, anxiety and fear. Every last person feels the pain of separation from others—and from God. But love is right here. We do it badly but it is here.

Tolstoy does not tell us what becomes of Andrei’s son but I hope Pierre and Natasha recognize the need he has—that echo of his father’s need. Let them love him.

***As one might imagine in a book so rich there are many themes and ideas I couldn’t possibly cover such as:

The nature of beauty

Sibling love

Military strategy and military life

Fate and free will (in general)

The nature of God

Love and forgiveness

The slavery of great men thought of as leaders to their fate

I’ve included links but have not read them since my desire with this endeavor is to come at these works using my own heart and brain. 🙂

WAR AND PEACE:THE 10 THINGS TO KNOW IF YOU HAVEN’T ACTUALLY READ IT

THE DEATH OF PRINCE ANDREI

 

50 Books Before I Die (or in the next 5 years)

classic book club

I’ve gone against type and joined a club! The Classic Book Club!

I’m so excited to begin my FIVE YEAR JOURNEY reading through and blogging about 50 classic books! My goal is to read and post about a book each month.

The list below is in no particular order (though while compiling the list I’ve nearly finished War and Peace and can’t wait to write my first response post).

I’ve set my starting date as August 1, 2017 and my end date as September 1, 2022 (I think I actually have 51 books on the list and may want to sneak in a few extras).

Any last minute suggestions? I’d love to hear them!

Classics Club Book List

War and Peace Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy

Tom Jones Henry Fielding

Clarissa Samuel Richardson

The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas

Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë

Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray

The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame

A Passage to India EM Forster

A Light in August (or The Hamlet) William Faulkner

The Pursuit of Love Nancy Mitford

The Woman in White Wilkie Collins

Three Men in a Boat Jerome Jerome

Candide Voltaire

Cecilia Fanny Burney

The Life and Opinions Tristam Shandy, Laurence Sterne

The Vicar of Wakefield Oliver Goldsmith

The Nun Diderot

The Prairie James Fennimore cooper

Blithedale Romance Nathaniel Hawthorne

Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy

Black Beauty Anna Sewall

The Perpetual Curate Margaret Oliphant

Lilith George Macdonald

Washington Square Henry James

Silas Marner George Eliot

The Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Ambrose Beirce

Love Stendhal

The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Moll Flanders Daniel Defoe

Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro

The Prince Niccolo Machiavelli

The Sailor who fell from Grace with the Sea  Yukio Mishima

 The Misanthrope Moliere

 Writings on Nature John Muir

Animal Farm George Orwell

Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak

The Story of an African Farm Olive Schreiner

The Red and the Black Stendhal

The General CS Forester

The Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri

Lord of the Flies William Golding

Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon

Kim Rudyard Kipling

Flowers of Evil Charles Baudelaire

Night Elie Wiesel

Moonstone Wilkie Collins

Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty John W. De Forest

elizabeth
My reading companion Elizabeth

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