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!