My Commonplace Book: August 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


Margaret Beaufort

She could have asked, of course, but she would not get any answers. She thought of all the words that went unspoken in the world, throughout time: what happened to them, where did they go? What would happen if they were all spoken? How different would the world be then?

Succession by Livi Michael (2014)


“Molly, I cannot have you speaking so to Lady Harriet,” said Mrs. Gibson, as soon as she was left alone with her stepdaughter. “You would never have known her at all if it had not been for me, and don’t be always putting yourself into our conversation.”

“But I must speak if she asks me questions,” pleaded Molly.

“Well! if you must, you must, I acknowledge. I’m candid about that at any rate. But there’s no need for you to set up to have an opinion at your age.”

“I don’t know how to help it,” said Molly.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)


I know very little about my mother, and have no family to help me fill in the gaps. I am an only child and my father’s two elder sisters died several years ago. I am intrigued by this photograph and would like to find out more about the people in it…I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions. Any information you could offer would mean a great deal to me.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (2011)


Penny dreadful

Since cheap magazines were traded on street corners, in playgrounds and factory yards, each issue could have many readers. Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale (2016)


It can’t have been much of a life, can it? for a woman of over seventy, living alone in lodgings, in debt to her landlady, wearing our cast-off clothes, trotting round after jobs that never materialised, writing articles that nobody would publish, and eating bread and margarine for supper. There really was something rather pathetic about that awful room of hers – crowded with papers full of impossible schemes…I don’t suppose there can ever have been anyone whose life was much less important, or who had less influence on anybody else.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)


It was something he’d learned in the war: only think about what is directly in front of you. No, that wasn’t quite right. He’d had to plan ahead all the time…but not to feel ahead. For a man of Giles’s far-seeing, intricate temperament that had been a hard lesson. But Simon, he could see, knew it by instinct.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore (2016)


Red Cocker Spaniel

Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been — all that; and he — But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.

Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)


“I play,” he once said to me, “for the best musician in the world – he may not be there, but I play as if he were”. I thought to myself that he was always there when Sebastian was playing, but I did not say so, for that was the kind of thing which did not please him.

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell (1925)


It is quite beautiful, a metaphoric triumph over adversity, with every millimetre of its gnarled trunk proudly displaying its struggle.
I wonder now why humans hate the map of their life that appears on their own bodies, when a tree like this, or a faded painting, or a near-derelict uninhabited building is lauded for its antiquity.

The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley (2016)


I cannot say – I had misjudged him before – yet I do think, in that moment, he had his battle to fight – one fierce as his fiercest charge. Cosmas waited, devouring him with his eyes. And I waited; a sudden, amazing sense springing up in me, that if he yielded, as I had so desired him to yield, this King who might be would never be the Prince whom I had served and loved.

Rupert, by the Grace of God by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1899)



“Life, monsieur,” said Planchet, laughing, “is capital which a man ought to invest as sensibly as he possibly can.”

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas (1850)


Hélène wondered whether the lady was protesting a bit too much in order to convince her, or to convince herself. Could she start a new life at her age? You can start a new game of cards or redecorate the living room, but life itself, can you do that again?

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat (2013)


And now? Overseas in England, his brethren in the faith were fighting, were dying, to achieve the freedom which he had sought. Before his eyes rose the grey, thronged sea-port town he knew, the richer fields, the narrower skies; and yet here, in this strenuous bleakness, he had found his soul.

Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1903)


Love for her was to be a slow, ripening process, the fruit of many meetings and mutual interests. She had never believed in love at first sight. That surely, she told herself, was an invention of novelists, whose business it was to make everything slightly larger than life.

The Jewelled Snuff Box by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1959)


Fountains Abbey 1

The queen responded a week later. “We are sending a young gentleman up to Yorkshire to resolve the matter. We do not wish to hear from you again.”

It was a measure of Mr Aislabie’s poor standing at court that I was the young gentleman in question.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson (2016)


Favourite books this month: Wives and Daughters, Flush and Exposure

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Gaskell Now that I’m starting to come towards the end of my Classics Club list, I’m having to tackle some of the books I’ve been putting off reading since I put the list together in 2012. I’m really not sure why I haven’t picked up Wives and Daughters until now; I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Gaskell (North and South, Sylvia’s Lovers, The Moorland Cottage, Cranford and Mr Harrison’s Confessions) so it seemed likely that I would enjoy this one too. And did I? Yes, of course I did!

Wives and Daughters is set in a village in England in the 1830s, a world similar to the one Gaskell created in Cranford, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Molly Gibson, our heroine, is the daughter of the village doctor; her mother is dead and, as an only child, Molly is very close to her father. The two have a strong relationship built around love and trust, but the harmony of their little household is disrupted when Mr Gibson decides to marry again. His new wife is the beautiful widow, Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, former governess to the Duke of Cumnor’s children, and he hopes she will provide the seventeen-year-old Molly with the motherly guidance he is unable to give. Unfortunately, Hyacinth proves to be a selfish, manipulative woman and she and Molly don’t always see eye to eye.

As well as a new stepmother, Molly also has a new stepsister – Cynthia. Although she and Cynthia have very different personalities, the two girls become good friends – and it is this friendship which will get Molly into trouble when she tries to help Cynthia find a way out of her tangled love affairs. Meanwhile, there’s a romance for Molly too but it’s quite a subtle one and also quite one-sided, as the man she loves appears to be in love with someone else, so poor Molly has to keep her feelings to herself.

Wives and Daughters is a very long novel, with more than 700 pages, and there were times when it seemed to be going on forever, but I didn’t really mind because once I’d been pulled into Molly’s world I didn’t want to leave it again. I didn’t want to leave the characters behind either – they were drawn with so much care and in so much depth. I loved Molly for her honesty, intelligence and kind heart, and Cynthia, with all her charms, flaws and vulnerabilities, was also an interesting character. But I particularly enjoyed reading about the family at nearby Hamley Hall: the old country squire, his invalid wife, and their two sons, Osborne and Roger.

First published as a serial between 1864 and 1866, this was Elizabeth Gaskell’s last novel, sadly left unfinished at the time of her death. I was aware that it was unfinished before I started to read, so I was prepared to be left feeling frustrated (as I was when I read Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood) but luckily this wasn’t the case. At the point where the novel finished I could see the direction in which the plot was heading and I was satisfied that, if the story had continued, things would have worked out in the way that I’d hoped.

Gaskell has a style all of her own, but I think this particular book would appeal to readers of Jane Austen; I could see some similarities in the characterisation, the dialogue and the shape of the plot. So far all of the books I’ve read by Gaskell have been quite different from each other. Wives and Daughters is probably my favourite so far, but I’m looking forward to reading the other two novels I haven’t read yet – Ruth and Mary Barton.

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!