Thursday, May 8, 2008

Victorian Feminism

I've been meaning to post about Masterpiece's latest show, Cranford, but there's been so much else going on...

However, here I sit in the family waiting room of the hospital, waiting for Aaron's knee surgery to be completed and him ready to head home. The kids are with my mom, so Yay! I'm on vacation! Basically. I mean, he's not have open-heart surgery or anything likewise life-threatening, and I have the hospital to roam, the Internet, and a good book. AND, I don't feel guilty spending money on indulgences such as a soda or a meal cooked by someone other than me.

While Cranford started and I was getting my tea, I guess hostess Gillian Anderson said something about it being a feminist story. Well, yeah. It has such modern sentiments ("Women are not equal to men. They are far superior in almost every circumstance.") that I was even unsure of when it had been written. Maybe in the last 50 years, but set in Victorian England? No dice. Elizabeth Gaskell was the daughter of a Unitarian minister, as well as the wife on one. Which also surprised me, since there was another line in the show, "I'd rather fight for his life than pray for his soul," that seemed pretty anti-religion - but maybe it was just anti-Catholicism.

This was the first episode of three - and I'm looking forward to learning more about how the modernization of Cranford will progress. Basically, that's the heart of the conflict of the show. There are certain characters who are entrenched in tradition and are horrified at signs of progress. There are other folks eager to bring Cranford up to date, whether it be by new surgical techniques (like operating on an arm with a compound fracture instead of amputating - imagine!) or by bringing the railroad to town.

In this way, Gaskell is reminiscent of Charles Dickens, who was a fan of her writing. Dickens wrote social commentary - almost all of his novels show the distinct separation of the classes, including how miserably the poor lived and how indulgently the rich lived. Gaskell also has several storylines regarding the social distinctions, the most sentimental being that of a young boy trying to provide for his extremely poor and numerous siblings while his father is...gone. Somewhere.

Cranford takes place in England, but the French Revolution has affected the opinions of many of its higher-ranking inhabitants. Lady Lovell is afraid that if the lower classes learn to read and become educated, England will have it's own revolution - a terrifying thought, especially to the class of people who's biggest concern is whether or not their son will return from Italy for their Garden Party.

Here's what really fascinated me. Cranford and, say, Emma, LOOK very similar. Corsets - check. Big hats & bonnets - check. Wagons - check. Dark, closed in kitchens - check.

At their cores, however, they are like night and day. Where Gaskell concerns herself with subtle criticism (and appreciation, it must be said), Austen focuses on the more minute issues of individuals. Morality is more the focus of Austen's writing - personal morality, not societal.

Those two quotes I mentioned earlier? You would never find anything like that in any of Austen's novels. Not unless the character saying it was in direct contradiction of that very statement. Her books were filled with tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of how her world functioned.

It will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

The clergy are role models for society, Austen feels. She points us toward personal responsibility, not outward criticism

Okay, somehow this turned into a thesis paper. Sorry, aunts & uncles out there!

1 comment:

Noel said...

Oh, but meaty literary criticism is one of the charms on draws of this blog for the genetically dissimilar reader.

Aaron has been in our thoughts and prayers today. I am just breezing through for an update which is appearently "The wife is doing splendidly". Will need to check back later on how Aaron did ;-)