Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Another book I finished ages ago, but haven’t had the time to write about. I decided that since I’m on vacation I was going to do my best to catch up a bit!

Gaskell is one of those people I’ve wanted to read, but had been put off because I’ve been told her work can be very difficult to get through. Most of her books are about the hardness of life in the 1800’s and can be quite dense reading. However, when the BBC made this into a TV drama I thought I would give it a try. I didn’t get a chance to watch the programs, but I feel that I would have missed out a lot of I hadn’t read this book. It is FANTASTIC.....how can it not be when it starts out:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. (1)

Now, as a woman, how can you not find that intriguing! Especially when you have been told how little control women had back in that time? It is written from the standpoint of a young lady who visits. I think this was an interesting thing to do, get bored...go stay with someone for a few months. Back when you couldn’t easily go visit for a day, this seems to be the way to do things. She stays with several ladies during the time frame of the book and shows us life in several different living conditions. I enjoyed it, and would suggest it to anyone needing a light and enjoyable read.

I have to admit I enjoyed the book also because it was one of those tiny editions that you could easily see a young lady of the time period putting in her receptacle to pull out and read as she walked in the garden. It is about 3” by 4”, with tiny writing. I love these editions especially that have a large margin at the bottom. I can see someone even more reading these as they walked or sat in a garden, with plenty of room of their fingers to hold the pages open. So as you can see...I am a bibliophile of the extreme. Given an opportunity to read a book in a newer edition or an old one...I always choose the old. I think that it adds to the feel of the time period of the book.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

A Stranger Still by Anna Kavan (Helen Ferguson)

As promised I’ve finished this book, a while ago actually. I’ve found it hard to find the time to sit down and write though, even if I can do it from my bed (see earlier post). Anyway, I read this a month or so ago, but have been trying to think of how to write the review. I think it would be best to be a bit sketchy, because the book is easy to get a hold of new or used.

This book was much easier to read then Let Me Alone. The Kavan character isn’t central to the plot. Instead the plot revolves around the Lewison family. Cedric Lewison owns a department store chain, and has done very well for himself. Kavan, the author, I feel likes to show rot in families. Cedric doesn’t realize that he can’t control his partners anymore then he can control his family. Slowly things begin to change and go further out of his reach. His older son isn’t has business savy as he is and can’t take care of the business when Cedric becomes ill. His other son Martin, isn’t interested in the family business and has married a woman that has brings shame on the family. The daughter falls in love with the man that helps to topple Cedric’s empire. His partners take over the bulk of the shares and he is not longer in control of his business.

The Kavan character is involved only in a small way. We see her has she has left her husband and has moved back to England. She has opened a shop with a school friend, though this isn’t working out very well. Kavan just isn’t interested enough. When she decides to leave she feels that she has had an epiphany:

It was as if on this night of her twenty-fifth birthday someone had suddenly called her to account for herself. The sense of unreality had left her, she felt clear-headed as never before. She stood there in absolute honesty, looking into herself. She was suddenly, objectively, aware of the girl Anna Kavan, an individual human being, alive in the world, alone, without support, without obligations, capable of intelligent thought and responsible for her own destiny. For twenty-five years she had existed fortuitously. Her life had unrolled itself haphazard, without definite aim, direction or method. From laziness, from good nature, from thoughtlessness, from indifference, she had drifted into one meaningless situation after another. She had allowed chance external circumstances to control her life. She had relied vaguely for support on something indefinable and non-existent, on something outside herself. There were, she knew, elaborate systems of thought, philosophies and religions, specially designed to provide external support. But as far as she was concerned she knew they were useless, void. She was completely reliant upon herself, completely independent. She shuddered as she realised her utter freedom and the responsibility it implied. With perfect clearness she saw the futility of her past life; saw that it must be changed. She must change everything. Now, at once she must assume control of her existence. (55-56)

This all sounds great, but she finds that it isn’t that easy. For a woman of that age, she can’t just make her own decisions because she has no financial freedom. Even though she was in business with her friend, she was relying on her friend to make the money and her part had been finance by her Aunt. She was a good saleswoman, but her heart had to be in it, and it often wasn’t. She just wasn’t interested enough. She needed to find something that she could do herself, but that was impossible because she had not been taught skills. She ends up back under her Aunts financial control for awhile until she meets Martin Lewison, Cedric’s son. This is where the two stories collide. Anna and Martin fall madly in love with each other. Finally, you hope that Anna will find happiness. But of course, it isn’t to be. Martin can’t deal with the idea of having someone else relying on him. Germaine was ok as a wife, because she didn’t need him for anything. They got on with their own lives, and only because Cedric insisted did they divorce. But Martin finds it difficult to think that he is responsible for anyone.

There is so much more there, but I don’t want to chat on too long. The book is well worth a read and has themes that Kavan uses in most of her writings. I tried to read Goose Cross, her next book, but found it difficult going. I couldn’t take it home for one thing, because we had to Interlibrary Loan it from a library that made it reference only. I got about half way through so got the flavour of it. I can understand why it didn’t do as well as A Stranger Still, though the themes of not being in charge of your own existence are there.

Kavan, Anna. A Stranger Still. London: Peter Owen, 1995.