Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)
“The formidable Miss Deborah Jenkyns and the kindly Miss Matty live in a village where women rule and men usually tend to get in the way. Their days revolve around card games, tea, thriftiness, friendship and an endless appetite for scandal (from the alarming sight of a cow in flannel pyjamas to the shocking news of the titled lady who marries a surgeon). But, like it or not, change is coming into their world—whether it is the new ideas of Captain Brown, a bank collapse, rumours of burglars or the unexpected return of someone from the past.”
My Lady Ludlow, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)
“Lady Ludlow is absolute mistress of Hanbury Court and a resolute opponent of anything that might disturb the class system into which she was born. . . . The vicar, Mr. Gray, wishes to start a Sunday school for religious reasons; Mr. Horner wants to educate the citizens for economic reasons. But Lady Ludlow is not as rigid as one may think.“
Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)
“The story revolves around the arrival in the town of a young doctor and the attempts of the ladies of the town to place his status within their society and of course to find him a suitable wife.”
Democracy in America, Volume 2, by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Henry Reeve (French classic, American classic)
“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character.”
I’ll admit that the little novel Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell, didn’t impress me much at first or even engage me. The story is told by a young woman who writes about her experiences in Cranford as if she’s writing in her journal, which makes for a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing. That, combined with the episodic nature of the plot, results in a lack of strong narrative drive. I kept reading because the style of writing, sense of place, and quaint characters relaxed me. I felt as if I had stepped into a world that didn’t exist anymore, and that, while not always happy or comfortable, was more self-sacrificing and less frenetic than our own.
Cranford gave me such a pleasant feeling that I went on to read two other stories by Elizabeth Gaskell that are similar to it: My Lady Ludlow and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. It wasn’t until I had finished reading all three stories that I realized they dramatize some of what Alexis de Tocqueville describes—in philosophical and political terms—in Democracy in America, Volume 2. Tocqueville details the differences between aristocratic and democratic ages in great depth, and Gaskell breathes life into those differences as she looks back at the diminishing agricultural, aristocratic age of the generation that came before hers and gently carries her characters—and readers—into a more industrialized democratic world. Tocqueville observes:
The feelings, the passions, the virtues, and the vices of an aristocracy may sometimes reappear in a democracy, but not its manners; they are lost, and vanish forever, as soon as the democratic revolution is completed.Book 3, Chapter 14
Lost ages intrigue me just as much as fantastical worlds and futuristic universes, which was why I ended up enjoying Cranford and its companion stories so much. My favorite of the three books was My Lady Ludlow. Reading about this pious, imperfect, self-sacrificing noblewoman—a relic from a vanishing aristocratic age—absolutely fascinated me. Many of Lady Ludlow’s fundamental values horrify modern readers, particularly her belief that common people should not be taught to read and write. Gaskell, however, expertly shows why a noblewoman in the early part of the nineteenth century might have held that belief, helps us see her goodness in spite of it, and subtly dramatizes the change in her mindset we want to see.
Much of the change in Lady Ludlow comes in the wake of death. The narrator of the story observes that “the thoughts of illness and death seem to turn many of us into gentlemen, and gentlewomen, as long as such thoughts are in our minds. We cannot speak loudly or angrily at such times; we are not apt to be eager about mere worldly things, for our very awe at our quickened sense of the nearness of the invisible world, makes us calm and serene about the petty trifles of to-day”(Chapter 12).
Tocqueville says something similar in Democracy in America, Volume 2:
In the ages of faith the final end of life is placed beyond life. The men of those ages therefore naturally, and in a manner involuntarily, accustom themselves to fix their gaze for a long course of years on some immovable object, towards which they are constantly tending; and they learn by insensible degrees to repress a multitude of petty passing desires, in order to be the better able to content that great and lasting desire which possesses them.Book 2, Chapter 17
In another one of my favorite quotations from this book, Tocqueville says:
Christianity . . . teaches that a man must prefer his neighbor to himself, in order to gain eternal life; but Christianity also teaches that men ought to benefit their fellow-creatures for the love of God. A sublime expression! Man, searching by his intellect into the divine conception, and seeing that order is the purpose of God, freely combines to prosecute the great design; and whilst he sacrifices his personal interests to this consummate order of all created things, expects no other recompense than the pleasure of contemplating it.Book 2, Chapter 9
The ladies of Cranford are experts at working together and sacrificing their “personal interests to this consummate order of all created things.” Jessie, the sister of an invalid, says:
“But, to be sure, what a town Cranford is for kindness! I don’t suppose any one has a better dinner than usual cooked but the best part of all comes in a little covered basin for my sister. The poor people will leave their earliest vegetables at our door for her. They speak short and gruff, as if they were ashamed of it: but I am sure it often goes to my heart to see their thoughtfulness.”Chapter 2
Mary, the narrator of the story, makes an observation similar to Jessie’s:
I had often occasion to notice the use that was made of fragments and small opportunities in Cranford; the rose-leaves that were gathered ere they fell to make into a potpourri for someone who had no garden; the little bundles of lavender flowers sent to strew the drawers of some town-dweller, or to burn in the chamber of some invalid. Things that many would despise, and actions which it seemed scarcely worth while to perform, were all attended to in Cranford.Chapter 2
The surprise of these younger characters—newcomers to Cranford from busier areas of the country—shows that even in Elizabeth Gaskell’s age, the inclination to do small, unheralded acts of service for others was disappearing in the wider culture.
I have one last quotation from Tocqueville that illuminates the transition from an aristocratic age to a democratic one that Gaskell dramatizes in such a nostalgic way:
In proportion as castes disappear and the classes of society approximate—as manners, customs, and laws vary, from the tumultuous intercourse of men—as new facts arise—as new truths are brought to light—as ancient opinions are dissipated, and others take their place—the image of an ideal perfection, forever on the wing, presents itself to the human mind. . . . [A man’s] reverses teach him that none may hope to have discovered absolute good—his success stimulates him to the never-ending pursuit of it. Thus, forever seeking—forever falling, to rise again—often disappointed, but not discouraged—he tends unceasingly towards that unmeasured greatness so indistinctly visible at the end of the long track which humanity has yet to tread.Book 1, Chapter 8
I can’t help but believe that in our present tumultuous time, Tocqueville’s “image of an ideal perfection, forever on the wing” should include many of the lost manners that were perfected in the more genteel age described by Elizabeth Gaskell.