Having enjoyed 3 BBC adaptations in the last 10 years – Wives and Daughters (1999), North and South (2005) and most recently Cranford (2007) – it really was about time I acquainted myself with Elizabeth Gaskell in written form. Why do today what can possibly wait until tomorrow? First let me listen to the unabridged audio I borrowed from the library.
Cousin Phillis (1864) in unabridged audio comes in at around 4.5 hours – perfectly listenable during the course of a week’s work runs. Fabulous northern English accents – reminders of home! In many ways standard Gaskell fare. A rural setting with a nearby railroad under construction. The havoc not wreaked by the railroad per se but certainly by its chief engineer, Mr Holdsworth.
The narrator, Paul, 19, naive and a little in love with Phillis himself, is an earnest fellow. A man with his heart in the right place. Yet even so, he causes poor Phillis more grief than the object of her affection.
This novella is enjoyable but it doesn’t have the humour of Cranford. Neither did I warm to Phillis, a bit unfairly perhaps. A product of her time, she has nowhere to go and nothing to do to take her mind off her grief and so she too much of a damsel in distress for my liking. Of course, if you see her as an allegory for a way of life that will never be the same after the coming of the railroad, things move to a different level altogether.
The Grey Woman (1861) was, by contrast, a complete revelation! Only 60 pages long, yet Gaskell takes us on a trip from the German Neckar to the French Vosges and back as our heroine is whisked away from her parents by a dodgy French count and installed in an isolated French castle where she endures an unhappy marriage with only a maid for company. Fortunately said maid is very resourceful when the husband’s secrets are revealed and the two must flee for their lives! What starts as a rural idyll transforms into gothic madness par excellence.
The structure of the main narrative is framed by the sub-narrative – in this case, a mother trying to persuade her daughter not to marry a dodgy Frenchman. This structure is traditional in a German novelle and as part of the action is in Germany, it’s very apt.
This story is included in an anthology of C19th Women’s Writing published by the Folio Society. It contains novellas by Eliot, Braddon, Austen, Bronte, Chopin and loads of other authoresses I have yet to read and who I’m sure will pop up during my A-Z exploration of shorter fiction.
However, if The Grey Woman is anything to go by, the standard of the stories will be such that I’ll be adding madly to the TBR rather than reducing it. Look at what has found its way into the electronic shopping basket.