Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and a discussion of books as products of their times

1853. 257 pages (including appendices and endnotes).

Hardcover. Penguin Classics.

From: I bought this at Shiretown Books, an indie bookstore in Woodstock, VT

For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older than Myself


My header of “review” will not be an entirely accurate description of the following paragraphs.  I’ll talk a little about Cranford but I’m also going to use it as a launching point for a broader topic of discussion.

Cranford is the first book of Elizabeth Gaskell that I have read.  Its gentle humor, rural locale, and rumination on days gone by made for ideal summer reading.  Gaskell’s observations of the elderly ladies of Cranford are affectionate without being too sentimental.  It’s a wonderful book and I will make sure and link to others’ reviews of it at the end of my post if you want a more detailed review.

My experience of reading Cranford spurred me to think about how books are a product of their time and culture and how that affects the reader’s perception of that book.  My edition of Cranford is annotated, with notes explaining customs of the time and place as well as literary and historical allusions.  A quick example: in the book, a character goes off to Cheltenham, and the note connected with that sentence explains that it is a spa town.  At other times Gaskell quotes poetry, plays and other writings and the notes explain who wrote it and from which work and when it was published.

At first, I was not going to read any of the ‘extra’ material provided in my edition.  For my first read, I just wanted to keep to the original text and not spoil myself with the introduction, or bother yet with the appendices of a related work of Gaskell.  However, the notes proved really useful in helping me to understand phrases and terms, context and connotations.  Indeed, I enjoyed the knowledge I was gleaning about the times in which Cranford took place.

However, then I started wondering about my own dislike of contemporary literature that includes too many pop culture references.  Recently I’ve criticized such books as You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up and All-American Girl for their frequent pop culture references.  I still stand by those criticisms for those two books, but at what point and to what saturation is referencing current culture okay? Additionally, if a contemporary book was constantly quoting other (often recent) poets and writers as Cranford does, it might come off to me as insular or pretentious.

Cranford is certainly reflective of its time and culture, but it has a transcendent quality in its story and observations of human nature.  I could never call it ‘dated’ as I have been known to do with other, more recent, books I’ve read.  Gaskell’s style of quoting other authors comes off quite naturally and not like she’s trying to name-drop (not even with Dickens who she knew quite well.)

But will books written now, set in our present-day, and that incorporate present-day culture, literature and opinions be automatically viewed as ‘dated’ by future generations?  Or maybe years and years from now, will some get their own annotated editions?

Of course, there are books like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, which already comes with its own footnotes for its sci-fi culture references and notes about Dominican Republic history.  And that leads me to another facet of this discussion, which is of course in a given time or era, there are multitudes of cultures in the world.  There is no ‘one’ culture for the 2000’s even as there was no ‘one’ culture for Cranford‘s time.  One needs footnotes for Cranford not only because it was published in the 1850’s but also because it is written by an English author about a rural village in England.

So, is there a point where a book is stuck so deeply in its given culture that no one outside of it will understand it, much less enjoy it?  Does time have an affect?  For instance, I may find pop culture references hard to take in a book written now or in the 1990’s, but maybe I’m more forgiving – even intrigued – by the same choice displayed in a book, say, from the 1950’s.

While visiting with my parents, I’ve been watching episodes of “The Outer Limits” which aired in the 1960’s.  The sci-fi show clearly bears the marks of a Cold War mentality and yes, that and its special effects may make it dated, but I kind of like how it encapsulates the era in which it was made.  (I may laugh at some of the special effects though.)  But its concerns and themes still resonate today, even in its 1960’s trappings.

So perhaps, like with me and “The Outer Limits,” a book from today will be viewed later as a quaint capsule of its time and culture for its capturing of its contemporary culture.  However, looking back over what I’ve written above, I have alluded or mentioned several times the idea of ‘transcendancy.’  I think there is a need for a book to tap into some essential aspect of human nature and life and imagination to maintain relevance and accessibility with future audiences.

I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic, so I look forward to your thoughts in the comments to extend the discussion!

As promised, more reviews of Cranford here:

A Book Lover

Becky’s Book Reviews

Books and Cooks

Books ‘N Border Collies

Dear Author

eclectic / eccentric

Let me know if I’ve missed yours and I’ll add it!


Filed under Book Review

12 responses to “Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and a discussion of books as products of their times

  1. I think so much depends on the skill of the author, and how s/he uses cultural references. I read a book recently that spent two pages with the characters talking about Ivy Compton-Burnett, and it felt very natural for the characters and worked really well–and would have done, I think, even if I didn’t know who Ivy Compton-Burnett was. You just had the sense that these characters needed to talk this way about the writers they liked. Whereas I can think of another book in which a character’s ability to catch references to Shakespeare and Madeline L’Engle is used as a quick ‘n’ dirty way to signal the reader that this character is likeable.

    References to films and brands are even trickier, because it can feel self-conscious and product-placement-y. The vital thing seems to be keeping the references from feeling like authorial intrusion, making them integral to the characters.

    • Very well put. In particular, the word “natural” seems key. It has to be a natural outgrowth of what the story is and who the characters are. And yes brands, of-the-moment celebrities, and films seem like the riskiest names to include.

  2. Erin Leigh

    Hmmm…very thought provoking indeed.

    I wrote a response to this entry, then realized I would practically be spamming your comments section with my thoughts. But you did really inspire me to think about this topic.

    I’ve posted my thoughts here.

  3. Pop culture references that aren’t much more than flippant jokes always fail for me. Pop culture references that reflect a character and how they view the world always work for me. For instance, while I may not know the specifics of a show a character loves, I can understand that love as a fellow fan. (This is the only way I can relate to sports fans.) As long as it’s true to the characters, I’m fine- but as soon as it’s just there to be cute or add color, I’m not.

    • I like what you’re saying here – that you as the reader don’t have to know the specific ‘thing’ as long the significance of the ‘thing’ to the characters and story is reasonably clear.

      Chick-lit is one of the genres that comes to mind for being too brand name dropping, but it is hardly alone. I’ve seen it in thrillers as well.

  4. I don’t mind pop culture references when they’re done well – when they’re more than the kind of humour Clare mentions above, which becomes dated extremely fast. But as to why I feel about them in general, this Nick Hornby quote from Shakespeare Wrote for Money sums it up well:

    “Just recently, I read an interview with a contemporary literary novelist who worried that books by other writers who use pop-culture references in their fiction would not be read in twenty-five year’s time. And, yes, there’s the possibility that in a quarter of a century, The Abstinence Teacher will mystify people who come across it: it’s about America now, this minute, and it’s chock-full of band names and movies and TV programs. (…) Yet some fiction at least should deal with the state of the here and now, no matter the cost to the work’s durability, no? (…) My advice to you: don’t read writers with an eye on posterity. They are deeply serious people, and by picking up their books now, you are trivializing them. Plus, they’re not interested in the money. They’re above all that. ”

    I’m going to have to paraphrase Clare again, but that’s what makes the difference: if the references tell us something about the here and now, then they belong in the book, even if they’ll probably mystify future readers.

    • You have an excellent point. Indeed, as I was concluding my post yesterday, I did think: but then again, books can be made for more short-term readership and that could be fine.

      As a reader, I think I tend to value books that transcend time more than books that don’t. It’s not a deliberate decision, I don’t think: society values that which is “long-lasting” and my mindset reflects that intrinsic valuation.

      However, I can think of books I’ve enjoyed like Generation Kill and others that reference brand names and celebrities. It doesn’t pay to categorically dismiss a book for its specific pop culture references.

      That’s a great quote by Hornby and I like that snark at the end. Just as I can get turned off by ill use of pop culture references, “deeply serious” authors can also turn me off as a reader.

  5. Oh, I love Cranford! Haven’t reviewed it, but you’re making me want to read it again.

    I love the way it is so quiet, gentle, and slow-moving and focused on people and their concern for one another. And I love the place and time.

    • Those are the aspects I love too. It’s like the affection that the characters feel toward one another spills over so that it is what one feels toward the book.

  6. Pingback: It Ends with Revelations, Dodie Smith « Jenny's Books

  7. teadevotee

    Hi Christy, your review reminded me that I must read this! Also, I must get this edition, it look beautiful. There’s been a big Mrs Gaskell craze in the UK recently, thanks to a BBC adaptation.

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