Monday, May 28, 2012

Elizabeth Gaskell's England

In a previous post, @IdleHistorian confessed to never having read Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate. Now, I (@SloaneScholar1) must also come clean and reveal that I have never read the works of Elizabeth Gaskell. Shock. Horror. Bewilderment. Yes, it's true. I was weaned on Jane Austen. I have tackled the George Elliot. I laboured over Charlotte Brontë. But, in recent years I have neglected the prim and proper 18th/19th centuries for the bold, dystopian, and very "modern" 20th century. My shelves are filled with Sarah Waters, Virgina Woolfe, Graeme Green, and Andrea Levy. I still seek out delicate portraits of social manners and, as @IdleHistorian described to me in an email, novels that show a more "subtle touch in delineating social problems, change and human character." And so, I have made an effort to squeeze in Winifred Holtby's South Riding, Rosamund Lehman, and, of course, Nancy Mitford. You might (rightly) wonder, how one even has time to write a dissertation with all of this fiction reading!

This summer, I will endeavour to correct this oversight by reading Cranford. I understand there's an accompanying BBC series, which will be my reward for getting through the tome. I will be posting on my progress and, perhaps, I can encourage a colleague (who wrote a master's cognate on Gaskell's representations of the working classes) to guest-post her thoughts and my fellow Anglophiles on LIACC to chime in!

Wish me luck.


I wholeheartedly endorse @SloaneScholar1's foray into reading the works of Elizabeth Gaskell! I do think she is one of those underappreciated novelists of the nineteenth century. Like Anthony Trollope, her novels are often too narrowly typecast. Trollope is seen as a somewhat fusty writer who is too preoccupied with nineteenth-century mores or religion to appeal to the modern reader (I disagree), and Gaskell is viewed as domestic, even a bit "twee." (Indeed one of the criticisms of the miniseries of Cranford was that it was "sentimental" - as a sort of code for "too female.") While the minseries necessarily took great liberties with the stricter narrative of the book, I don't believe that either are at all "twee." Gaskell (as demonstrated in North and South) was at home describing a variety of disparate settings, class structures, and views of the world in an age of great flux.

I have Wives and Daughters presently on my bookshelf for summer reading. I await further discussion!


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Love in a Cold Climate: On Actually Reading the Novel

One is never quite sure
just what will happen next.
Though this collaborative blog borrows its title from Nancy Mitford's classic novel, Love In a Cold Climate, I must confess, in shocking fashion, that I had never read it. Until last week.

I had missed much. Mitford had a delightful comedic touch, alighting on topics such as class, snobbery, social relationships, longing and love in just the right manner. I was personally amused by the frequent reference to the reading of society magazines like Tatler and Bystander. Mitford seems half disdainful of them and half cognizant of the entertainment value therein for even the highest intellects (ahem, the Idle Historian definitely enjoys a dose of Tatler now and then...).

But surely the most hilarious descriptions in the novel take the form of blithe references to our homeland. A portion of the story centres on an heir from “the Colonies” (Nova Scotia in fact) by the name of Cedric. The man and the terrain from which he hails are variously described thus:

“Sad, isn't it, the idea of some great lumping colonial at Hampton!”

“ that time it was our idea to live in capital cities and go to the Opera alight with diamonds, 'Who is that lovely woman?' and Nova Scotia was clearly not a suitable venue for such doings... Colonial we thought, ignorantly.”

“Montdore's lawyer has had the most terrible time getting in touch with her at all. Now fancy moving, in Canada. You'd think one place there would be exactly the same as another, wouldn't you?”

“Words dimly associated with Canada kept occurring to me, the word lumber, the word shack, staking a claim... How I wished I could be present at Hampton when this lumber-jack arrived to stake his claim to that shack.”

Of course Mitford's narrative is itself a spoof of the British aristocracy looking outwards, though the actual person of Cedric and the surprise he elicits somewhat confirms the validity of the stereotype of the “Colonial.” In the end, Cedric is no lumberjack. In fact, he is decidedly and grandly camp, sophisticated, cultured and civilized – a larger-than-life figure (who had long left Canada for France) who brings a breath of fresh air to the inhabitants of the rather stuffy and closed circle he finds himself within.

One will reveal no more. Read the novel. And then you will also realize the vital importance of the word “One.” 


Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Monarchy Industrial Complex

Common touch?
It was only a year ago that the world descended upon London to watch two beautiful young people (one a "commoner" and the other a prince) walk down the aisle and pledge their love to one another. Kate Middleton (whose parents are self-made millionaires) was hailed as: a style icon, an ordinary girl, a suitable match (mainly because she didn't talk to the press in their courtship or party too hard), and the breath of fresh air that would save the House of Windsor. The inevitable comparisons to Diana were made especially when she brandished the famous blue sapphire on her left hand. But, as many seasoned royal commentators observed, Kate at 29 was a more mature and confident woman who seemed to know exactly what she was in for … right?

Remember in the months leading up to the wedding, all of those documentary style television shows that poked and prodded into her background? Where did she go to school? Where did she like to hang out in London. Where did she shop for those chic frocks and knee-length boots? And, ultimately, how did she meet and bag the future king? Lifetime even produced a terrible made for tv movie that chronicled the royal romance. The press liked to speculate on whether she was too thin (the Duchess does not have what one might call child bearing hips) or whether her make-up was (is) too harsh. Canadian television coverage was just as extensive (mind-numbing) as anything the Americans offered as we sent teams of (overly fake-tanned) entertainment reporters to: etiquette lessons (should they find themselves in the presence of royalty) and to prance around London tourist sites in outrageous fascinators. Was it just me or did these features on British culture present only the most (offensively) stereotypical caricatures of Brits? The media consistently adhered to the "happily ever after" narrative. After all of the bad examples the previous generation had set, this marriage had to work to ensure any future for the institution of monarchy.

I remember having a discussion with fellow academics over beers about the impending nuptials (NB: historians of Britain in their 40s are almost all anti- Monarchy and will roll their eyes in exasperation at the mere mention of the royals) and someone mentioned how boring this couple is. And, indeed, they are. They don't fight. They don't have romantic baggage. They get along with their in-laws. Much has been made of the "genuine love" between this couple. It is a relationship that has survived university life, co-habitation, a break-up, and international media scrutiny. It is a relationship based on a decade long friendship. It is a relationship that follows a long line of marital dysfunction. And, after 365 days together as man and wife, royal observers/ "experts" (a legit career title nowadays ... for the children of ex-Palace staff) are ready to declare this union a complete and utter success. The Queen could not have asked for more on this the year of her Jubilee celebrations.

Domestic harmony.

Yet, that's not what's newsworthy. It's not what sells magazines and papers. It's not what will keep people interested in this archaic/ traditional institution.

So, the engine of the Monarchy Industrial Complex (MIC) keeps chugging along waiting for something to happen. How will Kate face the loneliness of life in her Welsh cottage? How will they cope with married life (Kate was pictured shopping at Waitrose - *shock* pushing her own shopping cart! Golly. She is just like one of "us"). Will she be able to fulfill her public role alongside senior royals? How long will the press and readers continue to lap up such comfortable scenes of poise and harmony like this "Girls Day Out" before they beg for a public display of tension and discord? And, when will she produce the "heir" and "the spare"??


 The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge can certainly be credited with getting many things “right.” They are, at the very least, not this royal couple.

I've remarked before that the ballyhooed “sensible” nature of William's bride and ordinariness of the new royal family reflects a model which is, truly, more middle class than aristo-posh. Many of the truly grand families have never considered the royal family as more than common, middling, arrivistes – and German ones at that. The obvious disdain of Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, for the family his sister had married into reflected not only a typical ruckus between in-laws who do not see eye to eye but, I think, something deeper. The Spencers trace their spectacular ascent back to the sixteenth century, and they have intermarried with the grandest families in England – the Devonshires, the Marlboroughs. The Windsors, or Mountbatten-Windsors, are but one such illustrious name. So, while intimates of William were said (at one point) to mock Carole Middleton for her “doors to manual” past as an air stewardess, perhaps they now understand that a quotidien, comforting, everyday touch is what the modern day royal family is all about. OK! and HELLO magazines, with their multiple-page spreads on Kate's tasteful frocks, are the collective equivalent of being tucked in by the stewardess for a few hours on the aeroplane with a G&T (alright, one is alluding to a rather distant time here, but you get the idea). And why not? The eccentric posh are all well and good in their place, but you don't want them on your stamps. Bravo for the new royals.

As historians we are, as my colleague suggests, well familiar with the self-conscious eschewing of anything “royal” by many in our field. If they are forced to comment on royal matters at all, it is with the resignation (and possibly facial expression) of a duchess disposing of a mousetrap. Many are republicans (the British kind of course) – the sort of earnest Guardian-reading types so ready to find injustice in the world. We certainly require such individuals for many admirable goals. But I would argue that in a world with no shortage of wrongdoers and villains, getting too exercised about the comfy middle class royals is a little woolly-headed. Just a wee bit.

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