Mr Harrison’s Confessions by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mr Harrison's Confessions Mr Harrison’s Confessions is a novella often described as a prequel to Gaskell’s longer novel, Cranford. Published in 1851, it’s the story of a young doctor and his adventures in the provincial town of Duncombe – and at just over 100 pages it can easily be read in an afternoon.

In the first chapter, Mr Harrison agrees to entertain his friend, Charles, with the story of how he and his wife met. While his wife goes upstairs to put the baby to bed, Mr Harrison begins his tale, starting with his arrival in Duncombe as a newly qualified surgeon. After becoming a partner in Mr Morgan’s medical practice, Mr Harrison gets to know his patients, many of whom are unmarried women. Needless to say, the appearance of a handsome young man in a small, rural community causes a lot of excitement and it’s not long before Mr Harrison has attracted the attentions of several of Duncombe’s female residents. Unfortunately, though, none of them is Sophy, the vicar’s pretty daughter and the only girl Mr Harrison himself is interested in…

Mr Harrison’s Confessions is a lovely, witty story and although it is not actually set in Cranford, but in a similar small town, it has all the humour and charm I remember enjoying when I read Cranford. There’s not a lot of plot, but what you’ll find instead is a mixture of domestic scenes, funny anecdotes and moments of poignancy and sadness: the same combination that makes Cranford such a success.

For such a short book, Gaskell also manages to incorporate a good variety of interesting characters into the story, from Mr Morgan, the traditional country doctor with a suspicion of modern medicine, to Mr Harrison’s friend, Jack, who is fond of practical jokes, and the widowed housekeeper, Mrs Rose, obsessed by the memory of her late husband. The only disappointment is that Sophy, the woman Mr Harrison loves, is kept in the shadows and we don’t have an opportunity to really see romance blossoming between them.

While this is the same type of book as Cranford, the characters are different and it’s certainly not necessary to read one before the other. For those readers who enjoyed Cranford and want to return to that world, Mr Harrison’s Confessions should satisfy your craving, but I also think it might be a good introduction to Gaskell’s work for newcomers who don’t want to commit to a longer novel.

Thanks to Hesperus Press for my copy of Mr Harrison’s Confessions.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford “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.”

Cranford is the fourth Elizabeth Gaskell book I’ve read, following North and South, The Moorland Cottage and Sylvia’s Lovers. I had been hesitant to read this one, despite it being highly recommended by other bloggers, because I wasn’t sure it sounded like the sort of book I would enjoy. A few weeks ago, though, Hesperus Press sent me a review copy of Gaskell’s novella, Mr Harrison’s Confessions, which is described as a prequel to Cranford, so I thought it would make sense to actually read Cranford first.

Originally serialised in Charles Dickens’ journal Household Words in 1851, Cranford is set in a small English town populated mainly by women, most of whom have either never married or are widows. Our narrator is a young woman called Mary Smith who lives in nearby Drumble but who spends a lot of time staying with her friends in Cranford. Through Mary we meet the ladies of Cranford, listen to their gossip, join them at their tea parties, and watch as they go about their everyday lives. The book has a very episodic feel and feels almost like a collection of short stories, particularly throughout the first half of the book. Later in the novel, we focus more on one storyline – the collapse of the Town and County Bank and its impact on the people of Cranford – as well as returning to some of the earlier storylines and developing them further.

At first it seems that the narrator doesn’t have an active role in the novel and that her main purpose is to act as an observer, reporting on the daily lives and routines of her Cranford friends. Unless I missed something we don’t even learn that her name is Mary Smith until the fourteenth chapter, yet she is obviously an integral part of Cranford society, a loyal friend to several of the ladies and regularly invited to their parties and gatherings. Towards the end of the book we finally get to know a little bit more about Mary and she does eventually play an important part in resolving some of the novel’s storylines.

If the novel has a main character, though, it is not Mary but her friend, Miss Matty Jenkyns. Matty’s story is quite sad: her brother Peter left for India years ago and has never been heard from again, and now that her parents and older sister are dead, Matty is the only member of her family left in Cranford. She’d also been romantically linked with a Mr Holbrook decades earlier but their relationship ended as Matty’s sister, Deborah, disapproved. As the narrator observes: “She had probably met with so little sympathy in her early love, that she had shut it up close in her heart; and it was only by a sort of watching…that I saw how faithful her poor heart had been in its sorrow and its silence.” Despite her troubles, Matty remains a loving, kind-hearted person, liked and respected by everyone in the town and also by the reader – this reader at least!

The story of Matty and Mr Holbrook is an indication that although many of the Cranford women are happy with the absence of men in their lives, not all of them are single by choice. I also thought it was interesting that it’s mainly the more genteel ladies who are unmarried, while their servants do have ‘followers’, as they call them. Matty’s early heartbreak makes her more sympathetic to her twenty-two-year-old maid, Martha, and she allows her to have a follower and consider marrying him, whereas some of the other women would never have agreed to such a thing.

Cranford is also a very witty book filled with lots of funny little anecdotes about the women of Cranford. I won’t go into too many details here, but I particularly enjoyed the stories of Miss Betty Barker’s cow who fell into a lime-pit, Miss Matty’s habit of rolling a ball under her bed to check that there’s nobody hiding under it, and the time Mrs Forrester’s cat swallowed her favourite piece of lace. But while there’s a lot of humour in Cranford, there’s also a good balance between funny scenes and moments of sadness and even tragedy.

It seems I was wrong about Cranford not being my sort of book, because I did enjoy it much more than I thought I would. If I’d known it was such a short book (only about 200 pages) I’m sure I would have read it before now. When I reached the end I was sorry to have to leave the world of Cranford behind, but at least I can still look forward to reading Mr Harrison’s Confessions!

Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

Sylvia’s Lovers is set in the final years of the eighteenth century in the small town of Monkshaven on the Yorkshire coast. During this period Britain and France were at war and the men of Monkshaven lived in fear of the press-gangs who regularly captured sailors from the town and forced them into action against France. Against this backdrop we meet Sylvia Robson, the beautiful young daughter of a farmer from nearby Haytersbank, and the two very different men who hope to marry her. One of these is Sylvia’s cousin, Philip Hepburn, a serious, reliable man who works in a draper’s shop; the other is the much more exciting and charismatic Charley Kinraid, a ‘specksioneer’ (chief harpooner) on a whaling ship. When Philip discovers that Kinraid is a rival for Sylvia’s love, he makes a decision that will eventually have tragic consequences for everyone involved.

Elizabeth Gaskell said this was the saddest book she ever wrote and I can definitely understand why she would have said that! Apart from the central storyline involving Sylvia, Philip and Kinraid, there are other characters with their own tragic stories to be told. Hester Rose, for example, who works with Philip in Foster’s shop and has been secretly in love with him for years without ever daring to say so. And Daniel Robson, Sylvia’s father, a former whaler who decides to take action to stop any more of the town’s young men being pressed into the navy.

Monkshaven is a fictional town but was based closely on the real North Yorkshire town of Whitby. A few weeks ago I posted a visual tour of Monkshaven – I hope the photos and quotes I included help to convey some of the atmosphere Gaskell created in her descriptions of the town. My own familiarity with Whitby (I’ve been there many times over the years) made it easy for me to picture the scenes. When we were told of a funeral procession slowly winding its way up the steps to the church on the cliff or the crowds gathering to watch a whaling ship coming in, I could see the images clearly in my mind.

Sylvia’s Lovers took a long time to read (it was 500 pages and felt even longer, partly because I had to concentrate on understanding the dialogue – I should probably warn you that this book does contain a lot of Yorkshire dialect) but the setting, the historical background and the characters kept me interested. Sylvia frustrated me at the beginning because she was so silly and immature, uneducated and unwilling to learn; by the end of the book though, she had changed a lot and I found myself starting to like her. I had sympathy for Philip, both before and after he made his terrible mistake, and I loved Hester Rose. Kinraid was the only character who never felt fully developed but I think that was maybe intentional.

This book reminded me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, with all the descriptions of scenery, the local dialect, the focus on rural working-class life and the overwhelming mood of sadness and misery. As one tragedy followed another through the second half of the book, it started to seem that there were going to be no happy endings for any of the characters. I can honestly say this was one of the most depressing books I’ve read and on a few occasions towards the end I wondered why I was still reading it. The answer to that is because I find Gaskell’s writing so beautiful and moving and because she had really made me care what happened to Sylvia, Philip, Hester and the others. This is only the second Gaskell novel I’ve read; the first was North and South which is a much more popular book, but I think I liked this one more despite it being so heartbreaking.

Classics Challenge June Prompt: A tour of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Monkshaven

This year I am taking part in a Classics Challenge hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The goal is to read at least seven classics in 2012 and every month Katherine is posting a prompt to help us discuss the books we are reading. Our task for June is to create a Visual Tour of a scene or description from the book.

The novel I’m currently reading for the challenge is Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell. The story is set in the 1790s in the fictional town of Monkshaven which Gaskell based on Whitby in North Yorkshire. Whitby was also the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and is a beautiful coastal town with a busy harbour and a ruined abbey on the cliff. I would highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity!

In Chapter 2 of the novel Sylvia and her friend Molly are walking into Monkshaven so that Sylvia can buy a new cloak. While they are there, a whaling ship returns from a voyage to the Greenland Sea. I have chosen some images that I think help to visualise Gaskell’s descriptions in this chapter.

..but as they were drawing near Monkshaven they stopped, and turned aside along a foot-path that led from the main-road down to the banks of the Dee. There were great stones in the river about here, round which the waters gathered and eddied and formed deep pools.

Image from Wikipedia

The next turn of the road showed them the red peaked roofs of the closely packed houses lying almost directly below the hill on which they were. The full autumn sun brought out the ruddy colour of the tiled gables, and deepened the shadows in the narrow streets.

Image from Wikipedia

The narrow harbour at the mouth of the river was crowded with small vessels of all descriptions, making an intricate forest of masts.

Image from Wikipedia – sepia photograph by Frank Sutcliffe, dated around 1890

There the old stone cross was raised by the monks long ago; now worn and mutilated, no one esteemed it as a holy symbol…

Image © bythestars – Caedmon’s Cross at St Mary’s Churchyard, Whitby

The red and fluted tiles of the gabled houses rose in crowded irregularity on one side of the river…

Image from Wikipedia

The fresh salt breeze was bringing up the lashing, leaping tide from the blue sea beyond the bar. Behind the returning girls there rocked the white-sailed ship, as if she were all alive with eagerness for her anchors to be heaved.

Image from Wikipedia – Whitby 1886, a watercolour on paper by Frederick William Booty

I hope these pictures have helped bring Gaskell’s writing to life for you! I’ll be posting my thoughts on Sylvia’s Lovers after I’ve finished reading the book.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South is the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman who lives with her parents at their parsonage in the idyllic village of Helstone in the south of England. When Margaret’s father decides to resign as parson and takes a new job as a tutor in the northern manufacturing town of Milton, the Hale family initially find it difficult to adapt to their new environment. It is not until Margaret meets some of the inhabitants of Milton that the town begins to feel like home. She forms a close friendship with the Higgins family – the invalid Bessy, her younger sister Mary and their father, Nicholas, who works at the cotton mill. But when the Hales also get to know Mr Thornton, a wealthy mill owner, Margaret finds herself caught in a conflict between the poor mill workers and their rich masters.

There’s also a romantic element to the novel: Mr Thornton falls in love with Margaret who unfortunately is prejudiced against what she calls ‘shoppy people’. She seems to make up her mind to dislike him before she even gets to know him because he’s a tradesman who has earned his money rather than inheriting it and is not her idea of a real gentleman. And to make things worse, Mr Thornton’s mother thinks Margaret is haughty and wants to stop her son from becoming involved with her.

Although there were also a lot of things to like about Margaret, her attitude towards Mr Thornton prevented me from really warming to her until the second half of the book when after meeting different types of people and being exposed to important social issues she begins to reassess some of her views and starts to grow as a person. By the end of the book I didn’t find her the annoying character I did at the beginning. It was interesting to see how both Mr Thornton and Nicholas Higgins also changed due to Margaret’s influence. There’s a lot of character development in this book, which was one of the things I loved about it.

The book takes place during the industrial revolution, an important and interesting period of history. It was a time of progress, allowing the factory owners to develop great wealth and the country’s economy to grow. However, the factory employees were working under appalling conditions, with absolutely no regard for their health and safety. Bessy Higgins is one example of this: she is only nineteen years old and has already developed a lung disease which she blames on inhaling ‘fluff’ from the cotton in the mill where she used to work.

Most of this industry was concentrated in the north of the country, in towns and cities such as the fictional Milton. Gaskell herself was born in London but spent most of her childhood in Cheshire and then settled in Manchester after her marriage (the town of Milton is thought to be based on Manchester), so she would have had first-hand knowledge of the northern way of life and how it may have differed from life in the south. Even today many people still have certain views and misconceptions about the differences between northern and southern England and even more so at the time when Gaskell was writing this novel, so I did appreciate the way she showed both the positive and the negative things about both regions.

North and South hasn’t become one of my favourite classics, but I did still enjoy it, although I was slightly disappointed by the way the book ended – not because I was unhappy with the outcome but because it seemed too abrupt. After reading The Moorland Cottage in February, I’ve now read the required two books to complete the Gaskell Reading Challenge, but as I’ve enjoyed both of my choices I’m sure I’ll be reading more of Gaskell’s work in the future!

Group Read: The Moorland Cottage by Elizabeth Gaskell

Having signed up for the Elizabeth Gaskell Reading Challenge I’m intending to read some of Gaskell’s full-length novels this year, but when I saw that Katherine of Gaskell Blog was hosting a group read of the novella, The Moorland Cottage, it seemed like a perfect way to start the challenge.

The Moorland Cottage is a short but very moving and emotional story. Mrs Browne and her children, Edward and Maggie, live with their elderly servant, Nancy, in a cottage near the town of Combehurst. It’s no secret that Edward is their mother’s favourite child but while she dotes on her son, she never has a kind word for her daughter. In a big house nearby live the wealthy Mr Buxton and his gentle, loving wife. There are also two children in the Buxton household: their son, Frank, and their niece, Erminia. The Buxtons attempt to befriend the Brownes, but while they can all see the goodness in Maggie, they find it difficult to like the spoilt, selfish Edward and the cold, snobbish Mrs Browne. As the years go by and the lives of the Brownes become more and more entwined with their neighbours’, Maggie is forced to make a decision which could potentially affect the future of both families.

The Moorland Cottage shows us the ways in which boys and girls were treated differently in Victorian society and I felt so sorry for Maggie. Throughout the first few chapters my heart was breaking for her as I saw how she was constantly pushed aside in favour of her brother. It was very, very sad to see the way, as a child, she meekly accepted her mother’s cruelty. For example, when Frank Buxton brings a pony for Maggie to ride, Mrs Browne decides “to spoil the enjoyment as far as possible, by looking and speaking in a cold manner, which often chilled Maggie’s little heart, and took all the zest out of the pleasure now”. How spiteful!

Maggie is also treated badly by Edward, and again, she allows him to do so, accepting that his needs are more important than her own. It’s not until she’s older and has spent more time in the company of the Buxtons and been exposed to other ideas that she starts to become aware of her brother’s faults. In the adult Edward, we see what happens to a child who is brought up always getting their own way and not being taught the difference between right and wrong.

I loved Gaskell’s descriptions of the Brownes’ home and the surrounding scenery throughout the changing seasons. Because the book was so short these descriptive passages had to be kept fairly brief which I thought made them even more effective.

The air on the heights was so still that nothing seemed to stir. Now and then a yellow leaf came floating down from the trees, detached from no outward violence, but only because its life had reached its full limit and then ceased. Looking down on the distant sheltered woods, they were gorgeous in orange and crimson, but their splendour was felt to be the sign of the decaying and dying year. Even without an inward sorrow, there was a grand solemnity in the season which impressed the mind, and hushed it into tranquil thought.

Finally, a few words on the group read itself: I thought this book was an excellent choice for a readalong. For such a short book it contains a wealth of interesting topics and issues. At only eleven chapters I could easily have read it in one day but I found that reading it slowly meant I had a better understanding of it and got more out of the story. And Katherine’s beautifully annotated chapter summaries were very useful and helped to bring the story to life. Visit Gaskell Blog to see them for yourself!

Gaskell Reading Challenge

I know I said I would be signing up for as few challenges as possible in 2011, but when I came across this Elizabeth Gaskell challenge I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist it. I still haven’t read anything by Gaskell, apart from one of her short stories (The Manchester Marriage, which appeared in the book A House to Let), and I definitely want to read some of her novels next year.

The challenge is hosted by Gaskell Blog and you can sign up here. I need to read a minimum of two works between January and June 2011. Any recommendations? I’m thinking about North and South and Cranford.