Saturday, January 29, 2011

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

For three days I’ve been the hopeless prisoner of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South (1855), presented in audiobook format by BBC and superbly narrated by Juliet Stevenson. It’s 18.3 hours long. Now that it’s done I’m pining. I feel adrift, severed from scenes where my imagination belongs.

North and South is a romance set during the Second Industrial Revolution in Victorian England, and “north” and “south” refer to regions of England which interpreted England’s changing society and economy quite differently. I wonder how Elizabeth Gaskell escaped my knowledge all these years when she and I could have been such friends.

I presume Mrs. Gaskell knew her Jane Austen novels intimately. Comparison with Pride and Prejudice is inevitable. Both Pride and Prejudice and North and South bring two proud, stubborn, unlikely lovers with starkly different backgrounds into each other’s orbits. Paragons of manhood and irresistible women meet, sparks fly, what’s not to like? The female protagonists are not beautiful at first, but ultimately revealed to be utterly bewitching. Good, good, a well-known convention; every romance reader’s inner fantasies are thus far stroked. Both heroines are notably braver, cleverer, and more sensible than their flighty, shallow female contemporaries. Better still. In both stories, strong aversion and strong attraction do battle; impetuous proposals are prematurely made and indignantly refused, ushering in agonizing prolonged periods of awkwardness, introspection, re-examination, stiffness, self-doubt, and finally … whatever outcome the author had in mind. Relinquishing pride and changing one’s mind are fundamental to character arcs in both books. The outer shape of both romances is obviously similar.

But Pride and Prejudice is more comical, with a sharp satirical wit, and it concerns itself mainly with manners, money, and marriage among turn of the 18th Century aristocracy and gentry. North and South is a more earnest book, with obvious social reform sensibilities. If Elizabeth Bennett’s charms are chiefly her quick wit and her fine teeth, Margaret Hale’s are her lofty ideals and her limpid eyes.
North and South invites its readers to scrutinize shifting class boundaries in the changing economy of Industrial Britain. The novel acquaints itself with labor unions, strikes, riots, the volatile markets for raw and finished goods, squalor, suicide, industrial pollution, public education, and employee relations--scarcely subjects for Austenian salon novels that only concern themselves with laces, the social season, and who’s wintering at Bath. From our modern vantage point, with our experience of evolved labor laws and social services, as well as the dangers of reckless capitalism and pollution, Gaskell’s dinner party discussions of industrial ethics seem quaint and rustic, and at times misguided, but for her time, the debates reveal both an idealistic embracing of the new economy (why can’t a merchant be a gentleman?) and a nuanced, cautionary treatment of unrestrained industry and pollution. Gaskell’s answer to the master-laborer conundrum seems to be a genteel sort of master who listens to workers, respects them, and considers their quality of life – an image redolent of idealized manorial feudalism, with its reciprocal responsibilities, and everyone content whilst the system hums smoothly. At the same time, she argues in favor of a more inclusive and upwardly mobile model of British society than manorial feudalism ever allowed.

Morality and faith can’t be overlooked in the workings of the novel. The book’s significant events are set in motion when Margaret’s father, a country parson, admits to a crisis of personal doubt and leaves the Church of England, thereby assuaging his conscience but thrusting his family into poverty. A major turning point in Margaret’s own story is her moral crisis surrounding a lie she told in order to protect someone’s life. The extent of her guilt and anguish might mystify modern readers who might weigh a life against a lie in the moral scales and see no problem with Margaret’s choice, but we need to remember the absolutism of Victorian morality to fully understand Margaret. Mr. Thornton’s integrity becomes the deciding argument in his favor as both a potential lover and a gentleman, and Margaret is only ready to embrace (ahem) him once she has performed an inner penance for her sin. Gaskell’s character study of pride brings both her lordly main characters to a place of humility more morally and religiously colored than the humility Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennett acquired, which was essentially social. Denominational faith matters in this novel as well, and we observe characters expressing dismay at others’ non-orthodoxy, yet the text seems to me fairly liberal and tolerant in its acceptance of religious Otherness, from Mr. Hale’s lapsed Anglican non-belief to Frederick’s newfound Catholicism to Bessie’s impassioned Methodism.

Modern readers may face a few hurdles in appreciating this novel. For my part, I’m extremely glad I heard Juliet Stevenson’s audiobook performance before reading the novel. Her talent with dialects, and her thoughtful creation of each character made them more sympathetic than I might otherwise have found them. 21st Century readers may share some of my impatience with Margaret initial passionlessness, and her passivity in the second half of the novel, though I remind myself that a series of devastating losses may indeed have thrust her into a paralyzing depression, and in any case, inertness was a culturally familiar role for gentlewomen to play. At least Margaret does look inward and rebuild herself (and start to blush now and then). Early in the novel she was a stronger, more decisive (if unromantic) character. Modern readers may also feel some frustration that Margaret relies so much on men to make needed arrangements and communications for her, and that she lingers on for months under clouds of unresolved misery that a single written letter could have cleared up. But letters do not romantic scenes enable, and perhaps we can be generous and attribute her reticence to dignified reserve. I’m glad that Margaret asserts her independence (economic and spiritual) by the end and is free to act as her own woman in finally rejecting old class distinctions and choosing her own entrepreneurial and matrimonial happiness.

If I’ve analyzed and chopped the novel to death, thereby stripping it of its joys, let me make myself quite clear: I was entirely captivated by this story. I forfeited significant sleep for it. I fretted until I knew the ending. I’ve reheated and re-eaten the ending and other significant scenes many times since. I’m somewhat fearful of renting the recent miniseries, though I’ve heard good things about it, lest I destroy my own image of the people and places. (Tell me if I should relent and watch it anyway, please!) I can’t wait to spend more time with Mrs. Gaskell’s works. And my crush on a certain figure in the novel will be a guilty pleasure for many rereads to come.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tolkien: It’s About the Journey. Setting, language, society, and race in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

My cat, by instinct, knows when she needs to gnaw on my houseplants to soothe her troubled belly, and sometimes I, in much the same way, know instinctively what I need to read to soothe a troubled soul. Over the holidays I needed rest, and a good story to take my heart on vacation. My hand reached for The Hobbit, despite a tall bedside stack of new books waiting to be read, and I plowed straight onward through the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I’m a different traveler each time I pass through Middle-earth. I pay less attention now to landscape and geography – I’ve already paid my dues to the maps of Mordor and Gondor.
It’s a travel story. The geography is a character, and by golly, to Tolkien at any rate, place details matter. I wonder what percentage of detail of every crag and bluff and outcrop would have been struck by the red pen of modern editors, not to mention the seven different names in three different dialects for each leaf, mound, tower, or Numenorean. But lest we criticize, where would modern fantasy be today without Tolkien in the first place? The landscape, and the language that arises from it, mattered to Tolkien, and not merely intellectually. (He was a noted philologist and linguist.) Desecration of the natural world to feed the maw of progress was one of his chief concerns, as he states clearly in his prologue, and as he illustrates plainly in the penultimate chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire.”

The “high” fantasy language, the over-embroidered speech, is both one of the great nostalgic comforts of reading Tolkien, and at times one of its barriers. My older attention span is more fractured, so the language can chafe at times, like a granule in my sock, but not enough to justify removing favorite socks. (That analogy is so reekingly bad, I just have to leave it in.) Language, just like scepters, crowns, and garments of rank, are outward signs and tokens of inner nobility and greatness in Tolkien’s well-ordered world. The series is a love song to a dying hierarchical notion of English society, as reckless industry and unlearned democracy threatened to topple all that was ever sweet and comforting about traditional English life. Or so, I think, did Tolkien feel. And he wasn’t alone. C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and Kenneth Grahame, and countless other British fantasists sang the same love song in their own tune.

It’s harder now to reconcile myself to Tolkien’s treatment of race/color and gender. Thank heaven for Galadriel and Eowyn who raise the Girl Power Quotient from zero to, er, not-quite-zero. Skin color and purity of bloodline as tokens of greatness … the obvious slant against “swarthy” and even “Black” minions of the Dark Lord must be at least a partial product of Tolkien’s times. Perhaps this is merely the mythology of Middle-earth, with no reference to our world, but I think not; the allusions are too many and too obvious. The racial purity that places Aragorn on the throne feels much like the creed of Voldemort’s Death Eaters now. But it wasn’t meant to be, and Tolkien’s heroes didn’t feed on death nor practice genocide. Mercy, rightful governance, and freedom to live and let live mattered to him. Some of his heroes, hobbits for one, and Wild Men of the woods for another, seem absolute mongrels in contrast to the Elfstone, but they get their moment of heroism too.

Tolkien wrote a story of high heroism, of sacrifice and miracles, of an age when despite desperate odds, hopelessness and terror, a generation mounted up its courage and fought on through dark night to the tide-turning at the dawn. Again and again this happens – at Helm’s Deep, on the fields of Pelennor, in the mines of Moria, even in Bilbo’s encounter with the trolls. Stay defiant in the face of destruction, and hold on until the morning. It’s a tale of triumph, yet also it’s the tale of the dying of the Third Age, when all that was holy and magical in Middle-earth passed away, the good and the bad mingled. To rid the world of Sauron, Gandalf had to leave.

Tolkien’s generation, rightly called The Greatest Generation, has all but passed away, and if a man who fought in WWI and lived through WWII is not entitled to weave such a story as this one, I’d like to know who is. But his age, with its courage, and its fatal misconceptions, is fading away. The Greatest Generation helped stop The Third Reich and interred Japanese Americans. They are our fathers, grandfathers, uncles; our mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. They deserve our forgiveness for their sins and errors, just as we will one day need our children’s forgiveness for our blindness and waste and greed. But forgiving does not require us to adopt their prejudices.

I reached for Tolkien because I needed a zap of idealism along with the comfort of a high adventure. I needed to borrow his belief in inner nobility, greatness, and courage, even as I set aside his notions of how such greatness is bred and fostered. And mostly, I think, I needed to be carried away to another world for a good long stretch, such as only Tolkien, with his thousand characters, geological micro-detail, and songs in Elvish could promise.