“I remember the glow of his tender delight in that simple tale.” This is how Jessie Chambers describes D. H. Lawrence’s reaction to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. When I read this in 2010, I had never heard of Cranford. Cranford isn’t part of The Canon, it’s on the edge of The Canon; one might say it’s not part of the “core canon,” it’s part of the “extended canon.”
Early in Gaskell’s career, she received a letter from Dickens, who wanted her to write for his new magazine, Household Words. Gaskell had recently published her first novel, Mary Barton, and it had been an “enormous success.”1 Mary Barton dealt with the poor whom Gaskell had known in Manchester, where her husband was a minister.
Dickens said that the purpose of his new magazine was “the raising up of those that are down, and the general improvement of our social condition.”2 With her literary talent and urban experience, Gaskell seemed to be the perfect writer for Household Words. Cranford and many of Gaskell’s other writings were initially published in Household Words. Hoping to reach a wide audience, Dickens set the price of his magazine at just two pence. Household Words was published every week for nine years.
Gaskell’s writings were popular in her day; her ghost stories, such as “The Old Nurse’s Story,” were especially popular; she was acquainted with prominent writers like Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, and Ruskin. Three of her novels — Cranford, North and South, and Wives and Daughters — have been turned into TV dramas by the BBC.
Cranford is short, readable, humorous, touching. It depicts small-town life in England around 1840 — the world that Gaskell knew first-hand. Of all her books, Gaskell seemed most fond of Cranford. She wrote to Ruskin in 1865, “It is the only one of my own books that I can read again.”3 What I most enjoyed about Cranford was Patricia Wolfe’s essay on the novel.4 She seemed to understand the novel far better than I did, I must be the world’s worst novel-reader.
In the last issue, I discussed the moral aspect of literature — how literature can inspire us, change us, form us. Wolfe’s essay deals with the moral aspect of Cranford.
[Spoiler Warning: If you’re thinking of reading Cranford, you may want to skip the rest of this section.]
Cranford begins with a female Declaration of Independence:
|Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.... The ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. “A man,” as one of them observed to me once, “is so in the way in the house!”|
This attitude reaches an extreme when the women of Cranford become terrified of male robbers. They don’t want to go to bed at night without peeking under the bed, to see if an invader is lurking there. After this fear of men reaches an extreme, the pendulum swings back, and the women become more receptive to male influence. By the end of the novel, several of the women have married, and the main character, Matilda (“Matty”) Jenkyns, is living happily with her brother, Peter.
When Patricia Wolfe discusses the “robbery panic,” she speaks of “the irrational fear of masculinity which characterizes the psychological condition of Miss Matty and the other Cranford ladies.” Gaskell was married, and had numerous children. Is Cranford warning against a female Declaration of Independence? Does Cranford describe the positive aspects of male influence? If so, does it clash with the taste of our time? Is it politically-incorrect?5
Early in the novel, the reader is introduced to Deborah Jenkyns, Matty’s older sister. Deborah has a rigid concept of social propriety. She admires the formal prose of Samuel Johnson, and scorns the lighter style of Dickens. Deborah has adopted the attitudes of her late father, a minister who was fond of Johnson’s writings. Wolfe says that Deborah has an “immoderate attachment to the father-figure.... Even after his death her whole course of life is dominated by his personality.... Deborah existed simply as a shadow of the man she had most respected in her early life.”
If Deborah has a “father complex,” Matty has a mother complex.
|Mrs. Gaskell leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind as to which sister is the stronger. Shy Miss Matty has earned the role of Cranford’s heroine. Significantly, in these critical chapters she is constantly associated with her mother. She only cries, for instance, when she thinks “how my mother would grieve if she could know” ....The point is unmistakable. Mrs. Gaskell has identified Deborah with the father-figure and Matilda with the image of motherhood. Deborah and her father shaped Cranford’s social code; Matty and her mother, its moral and ethical standards.|
Matty has a “distaste for the single life,” and admits that “she is not a spinster by desire.” She dreams about having a baby. And she’s not alone: “Mrs. Brown demonstrated the same desire for feminine fulfillment when she struggled to leave India in order to save her one surviving child from an early death.”
Deborah and her father prevent Matty from marrying Thomas Holbrook; they don’t think Holbrook’s social status is high enough. Holbrook is described as a man of genuine culture, with little regard for social convention. “He despised every refinement which had not its root deep down in humanity.”6
Though he often quotes English poetry, Holbrook doesn’t know Johnson’s poetry well. In this respect, as in other respects, Holbrook contrasts with Deborah. Matty is inclined to blame Deborah for preventing her marriage to Holbrook. But Matty feels guilty for blaming Deborah, so she starts singing Deborah’s praises, “she kept telling me how good and how clever Deborah was in her youth.”
Matty’s virtues are most apparent when a local bank goes bust, the bank-notes lose their value, and Matty loses her savings. She hears the news while shopping for clothes. When a farmer tries to buy something for his wife, the shopkeeper won’t accept the farmer’s bank-note. Matty offers to give the farmer gold coins in exchange for his worthless bank-note. Matty’s kindness seems to inspire others to be kind, and it seems to rebound back to her. Matty’s neighbors donate to a fund to help her.
In the last issue, I discussed how emotions like kindness or depression can spread through a group:
|Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor, has argued that a network of people is a “super-organism.” Within a network, emotions spread, emotions are contagious. Christakis wrote a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks.|
Cranford ends with the words, “We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.” Kindness is contagious. Fear is also contagious, as the “robbery panic” shows. Does a novel about a small town inevitably deal with emotional contagion?
Christakis was initially interested in The Widow Effect — how people often die after their spouse dies. Gaskell seems to be interested in this phenomenon, too. After Peter disappears in India, his mother dies of sorrow. After Gaskell’s own brother disappeared in India, her father died.7
Gaskell can discuss universal truths in lively language, as when she describes Matty and the narrator looking over old 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 letters could be.... 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.|
Gaskell is a great writer with a deep interest in morality. In earlier issues, we’ve discussed numerous imaginative writers who are interested in morality. One might ask, are there any great imaginative writers who don’t have a deep interest in morality?
The local GreatBooks group recently discussed a 2-page excerpt from Tocqueville, “Why the Americans are so Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity.”8 I was much impressed, as I always am with Tocqueville’s writing. How could he see so deeply into the American character? His insights seem more relevant today than when he was writing, as if he not only grasped the American character, but also grasped where it was heading.
He begins by saying that, in Europe, you sometimes meet people who are poor, ignorant, and oppressed, but happy anyway. “Their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light.” In the U.S., on the other hand, people are less poor, less ignorant, less oppressed, but they aren’t happy. “It seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.” When I was in Ireland, a young farmer said to me, “It’s good to be alive, isn’t it?” I never heard that from an American.
Americans are restless, Tocqueville says; they’re always on the move, and always trying to better their condition. “In the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on... He settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere.” I thought of my own ancestors, who left Massachusetts for western Rhode Island, then moved to western New York, then Illinois, then Iowa, then back to the East.
Americans are restless, Tocqueville says, not because they’re pursuing some lofty goal but because they’re pursuing “physical gratifications... worldly welfare.” The American wants to enjoy worldly goods before his time runs out, before his life ends. He’s quick to abandon projects because persevering might prevent him from enjoying worldly goods; he wants his projects to offer a fast return, so he has time to enjoy the fruits of his projects. “Death is often less dreaded by them than perseverance in continuous efforts to one end.”
Perseverance is my middle name. The traits that Americans lack, according to Tocqueville, are often the very traits that I possess, as if I had somehow turned the American character upside-down.
Tocqueville says that Americans sometimes display a “strange melancholy,” a “disgust at life.” I thought of the people who go on shooting sprees, then shoot themselves. A strange melancholy indeed, far more intense than in Tocqueville’s time; a dark nihilism that Tocqueville never imagined. Perhaps this dark nihilism is one of the chief characteristics of our time, apparent in our art works as well as our shooting sprees.
Tocqueville says that Americans rarely commit suicide, despite their melancholy, because their religion forbids it, and Americans are generally religious, atheism/materialism is rare among Americans. In our time, however, atheism is far more common, and suicide is far more common. Melancholy has hardened into nihilism.
Americans are frustrated, Tocqueville says, because it seems that all professions are open to them, but then they discover that a crowd of people is pursuing each profession. “They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition.” When we begin to pursue a profession, we find that a “dense throng” is pursuing the same profession.
When I applied to be a writing teacher at Harvard, I found that hundreds were pursuing the same position, and I was frustrated in my attempt. When I applied to graduate school, again I found hundreds of competitors, again I was frustrated. When I tried to publish my writings, I found not hundreds but millions seeking the same goal; again I was frustrated. So I think Tocqueville is right when he speaks of a “dense throng” of competitors. But was he right in his day? Or was he somehow anticipating conditions in our time? When Oscar Handlin applied to graduate school in the 1930s, there was no “dense throng.”
|Handlin describes the informal process by which he was admitted to Harvard’s graduate school. He arrived in Harvard Square by train, knocked on the door of a history professor, and chatted with a dean: “We talked awhile about this and that, and then I was in. No forms to complete. No procedures to follow. Just come! ....I doubt that today I would get in.”|
When Whitman wanted to publish his poetry, he sent some poems to Emerson, who immediately recognized their merits, and sent Whitman an enthusiastic letter. Whitman’s career was launched. Today, however, if an unknown writer wrote to a prominent writer, he wouldn’t get a response because a “dense throng” is pursuing the same strategy.
So Tocqueville’s remarks seem applicable to our time, but not to an earlier time, not to Tocqueville’s time. Somehow Tocqueville was able to perceive a trait, a trend, that wasn’t yet plainly visible, that was still in the womb.
In the last issue, I discussed Werner Jaeger’s Early Christianity and Greek Paideia. I decided to read Jaeger’s best-known book, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Paideia is an impressive book, full of deep ideas; if you’re looking for something light and anecdotal, this isn’t it. Most people who want something philosophical turn to the philosophers themselves — Plato, Aristotle, etc. — so Jaeger’s stock seems to be declining. I never heard of Jaeger until I was in my 50s.
In the last issue, I noted that the Greeks viewed the universe as an organic whole; they spoke of sympnoia panton [sympathy of all things]. Jaeger makes the same point in Paideia:
|[The Greeks] did not see any part of [the world] as separate and cut off from the rest, but always as an element in a living whole, from which it derived its position and its meaning. We call this the organic point of view, because it sees individual things as elements in a living whole.9|
According to Jaeger, this organic view is
|closely connected with the Greek instinct to discover and formulate the laws governing reality — the instinct which appears in every sphere of Greek life, in their thought, their speech, their action, and all their art.|
This search for underlying laws made the Greeks philosophers. Greek philosophy is
|the clear perception of the permanent rules which underlie all events and changes in nature and in human life.... The Greeks always sought for one Law pervading everything.... They are the philosophers of the world.|
They saw the One in the Many, and the Many in the One. Turning to Greek science (natural philosophy), Jaeger says
|The earliest natural philosophers, with their efforts to see the cosmos as a whole governed by one law, are a complete contrast to the calculating, experimental, empirical scientists of modern times. They did not work by summarizing a series of separate results and systematizing them into an abstract conclusion, but went much further, and interpreted each isolated fact from a general conception which gave it position and meaning as part of a whole.|
My own approach resembles the Greek approach — I take an organic view of the universe, I seek underlying laws, I interpret each fact from a general conception. My philosophy is a philosophy of the world, not a philosophy of God, or a philosophy of mind, or a philosophy of language.
The Greek urge to seek the underlying law, the universal pattern, is apparent in Plato’s theory of Ideas (Plato said that Ideas/Forms are the “non-physical essences of all things, of which objects and matter in the physical world are merely imitations”).
|The Platonic idea — a unique and specifically Hellenic intellectual product — is the clue to understanding the mentality of the Greeks in many other respects. In particular, the tendency to formalize which appears throughout Greek sculpture and painting sprang from the same source as the Platonic idea.|
Jaeger says of the Greeks that “Man is the center of their thought,” they had “an anthropocentric attitude to life.... Other nations made gods, kings, spirits: the Greeks alone made men.” Greek education was about forming character, as a sculptor would form a statue:
|The greatest work of art they had to create was Man. They were the first to recognize that education means deliberately molding human character in accordance with an ideal.... Only this type of education deserves the name of culture.|
The Greek focus on man is apparent in
While the Greeks focused on the human, their concern was with the “universal human” rather than individual subjectivity. “By discovering man,” Jaeger writes, “the Greeks did not discover the subjective self, but realized the universal laws of human nature. The intellectual principle of the Greeks is not individualism but ‘humanism.’”10 The Greeks are concerned not with the individual’s subjective qualities, but with the ideal man, a “universally valid model of humanity which all individuals are bound to imitate.”
Below is a statue by Praxiteles, Hermes with the infant Dionysus. Perhaps this statue is an example of what Jaeger means by “the images of the gods that embody all the Greeks felt about the physical and spiritual perfection possible to man.”11 Perhaps this statue is also an example of the Greek focus on the ideal, rather than the individual/subjective.
Since the Greeks had a major impact on Western nations, Jaeger refers to these nations as “Hellenocentric.”12 As Greek influence wanes and civilization evolves, will a new, world-wide civilization arise? “It is impossible to say,” writes Jaeger, “whether at some time in the future the whole human race will be united by a spiritual bond of the kind described here.”
Doubtless Oriental culture would have a role in a world-wide civilization. Indeed, Oriental culture is already having an impact on Jaeger’s “Hellenocentric” nations. Given the popularity of yoga, meditation, Zen, etc., one could argue that the Western nations are no longer “Hellenocentric,” they’re impacted by the Orient as much as by Greece. (Have we taken the first step toward a world-wide civilization, or the first step toward the extinction of civilization?) Jaeger doesn’t appreciate Oriental culture; he speaks of, “the sense of complete estrangement which we have when we confront the Oriental nations, who are both racially and intellectually different from us.”13
Jaeger perceives that Western culture is sick and declining. He says that modern society is “tired of civilization.... What we call culture today is an etiolate thing.... It is not so much paideia, as a vast disorganized external apparatus for living.” He doesn’t consider the possibility that Western culture could be invigorated by contact with the East. The best hope for the West, Jaeger argues, is a return to the Greek ideal.14 Perhaps he wrote Paideia in order to promote a return to the Greek ideal.
Jaeger says that the historical sense of the 19th century made people forget “the permanent values of classical antiquity.” He speaks of “a boundless and aimless passion for viewing everything as history, a night in which all cats are grey.” Doubtless Jaeger’s mission is to remind us of “the permanent values of classical antiquity,” and inspire us to incorporate these values into our own life, our own culture, our own educational system.
But Jaeger also cautions us against seeing Greek culture as “timeless idols,” with no connection to their milieu.
|The Greek mind owes its superior strength to the fact that it was deeply rooted in the life of the community.... The man revealed in the work of the great Greeks is a political man.... Our own intellectual interest in the state has opened our eyes to the fact that in the best period of Greece mind without state was as impossible as a state without minds. The greatest works of Hellenism are memorials of a unique sense of the state, which developed uninterruptedly from the heroic age of Homer’s epics to Plato’s educational state.... Any future humanism must be built on the fundamental fact of all Greek education — the fact that for the Greeks humanity always implied the essential quality of a human being, his political character.15|
I’ve only read a few pages of Paideia, but it’s already apparent that it’s even better than Jaeger’s Early Christianity and Greek Paideia. Jaeger has a deeper understanding of the Greek psyche, and Greek culture, than any writer I’ve come across.
|2.||“Note on the Text,” Oxford World’s Classics edition of Cranford. back|
|3.||See Dinah Birch’s Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition. (It’s a good introduction, worth reading, though it should be read after you read the novel.)
The Oxford World’s Classics edition has three appendices. The first is a non-fiction essay by Gaskell called “The Last Generation in England.” If you read Cranford, I would skip this essay, which repeats some of the stories told in the novel.
Clearly Cranford is based, at least partly, on true stories, as great fiction often is. In an earlier issue, I quoted Mark Twain: “If you found on fact in your personal experience, it is an acorn, a root, and every created adornment that grows out of it, and spreads its foliage and blossoms to the sun will seem reality, not invention.”
The second appendix is a short story by Gaskell called “The Cage At Cranford.” It features the familiar Cranford characters. If you liked the novel, you’ll like the story.
The third appendix is a collection of materials called “Cranford in Context.” I recommend it, it has interesting quotes from Dickens, Ruskin, Wilkie Collins, etc. back
|4.||“Structure and Movement in Cranford,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Sep., 1968), pp. 161-176, jstor.org/stable/2932367
Two of Gaskell’s novels — Mary Barton and North and South — are in the series called Norton Critical Editions. As for Cranford, I recommend the version in Oxford World’s Classics, which is available as an e-book as well as a paperback. The e-book is only $1.99. Oxford World’s Classics seems to offer the best value for e-books. back
|5.||Perhaps Wolfe’s essay is politically-incorrect; written in 1968, it may clash with the taste of today. The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Cranford has a long list of essays on the novel, but Wolfe’s essay is nowhere to be found.
“At the beginning of the story,” Wolfe writes, “Cranford is pictured as a fortress of feminism defended by the indomitable Deborah.” The second half of Cranford “relates Matty Jenkyns’s struggle and triumph over the village’s policy of feminine isolationism which her sister had initiated.”
Some contemporary critics agree with Wolfe, at least partially. Dinah Birch, for example, says “The recognition of [Captain Brown’s] merit is the first stage in the lengthy process through which the ladies’ stubborn wish to exclude men from the town is gently corrected.” (Introduction to Oxford World’s Classics edition) But Birch doesn’t accept Wolfe’s argument that the “robbery panic” is based on a fear of men. Birch argues that this panic is based on a fear of the foreign — the Muslim, the Turk, etc. back
|6.||When Holbrook shows the narrator around his farm, “he surprised me occasionally by repeating apt and beautiful quotations from the poets, ranging easily from Shakespeare and George Herbert to those of our own day. He did this as naturally as if he were thinking aloud, and their true and beautiful words were the best expression he could find for what he was thinking or feeling.... Altogether, I never met with a man, before or since, who had spent so long a life in a secluded and not impressive country, with ever-increasing delight in the daily and yearly change of season and beauty.”
Then they tour the inside of Holbrook’s house. “The rest of the pretty sitting-room — looking into the orchard, and all covered over with dancing tree-shadows — was filled with books. They lay on the ground, they covered the walls, they strewed the table.... They were of all kinds — poetry, and wild weird tales prevailing. He evidently chose his books in accordance with his own tastes, not because such and such were classical, or established favorites.” back
|7.||On Gaskell’s brother, see footnote “some great war in India,” in Oxford World’s Classics edition back|
|8.||Democracy in America, Volume 2, Part 2, Ch. 13
Tocqueville on Trump:
“[The people] often assents to the clamor of a mountebank who knows the secret of stimulating its tastes, while its truest friends frequently fail in their exertions.
“Whilst the natural propensities of democracy induce the people to reject the most distinguished citizens as its rulers, these individuals are no less apt to retire from a political career in which it is almost impossible to retain their independence, or to advance without degrading themselves. This opinion has been very candidly set forth by Chancellor Kent, who says, in speaking with great eulogiums of that part of the Constitution which empowers the Executive to nominate the judges: ‘It is indeed probable that the men who are best fitted to discharge the duties of this high office [i.e., the Presidency] would have too much reserve in their manners, and too much austerity in their principles, for them to be returned by the majority at an election where universal suffrage is adopted.’” (Volume I, Part 2, Ch. 5, “The People’s Choice...”) back
|9.||Paideia, Introduction, p. 20 back|
|10.||Introduction, p. xxiii
Hegel made a similar point:
|11.||p. xxvii back|
|12.||Introduction, p. xv back|
|13.||It should be noted that Jaeger had some appreciation of Chinese poetry. “The Greeks were not the first people,” Jaeger writes, “nor the only people, to give artistic expression to private sentiments — as is shown, very impressively, by the Chinese lyrics which appeal so deeply to us today.” (Ch. 7, p. 117) back|
|14.||We need, Jaeger says, “a mental attitude closely akin to the Greek — an attitude which recurs in Goethe’s philosophy of nature, though probably without direct historical descent from Greece.” I find Goethe’s philosophy of nature congenial, and discussed it in an earlier issue. What’s the connection between Goethe and the Greeks? They both viewed nature as an organic whole, as Jaeger doubtless understood.
Jaeger realizes that a “civilization crisis” leads to an “education crisis.” He says that when “the values current within the community... are stable, education is firmly based; when they are displaced or destroyed, the educational process is weakened until it becomes inoperative. This occurs whenever tradition is violently overthrown or suffers internal collapse.”(p. xiv) back
|15.||One might compare Jaeger to Leo Strauss. They were both very learned, both influential with their contemporaries, both preached a return to the Greeks, both ignored Eastern culture, both took a dim view of historicism, both saw man as a political animal, both were commentators on the verge of being original thinkers. In my view, Jaeger is a deeper thinker than Strauss, and a better writer. back|