Two Surprising Classics: Cranford and The Picture of Dorian Gray
In my (ongoing, most likely futile) attempt to get through my review backlog, I present another ‘themed’ post. In this instance, both Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde turned out to be wildly different from my expectations.
Cranfordby Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell had been on my radar for a couple of years at least. Then back in April I discovered the gloriousness that is the BBC adaptation of North and South. In my ensuing binge on costume dramas, I also managed to watch Wives and Daughters, which I really enjoyed (and thought the ending-which Gaskell herself didn’t live to write-adorable). So later when I was making my pool for the classics challenge, I wanted my first experience with a Gaskell novel to be fresh. Unfortunately, my library doesn’t have a huge selection of her works, so with her two best-known ruled out, the choice came down to Cranford or Mary Barton. The latter sounded too depressing, so without much more though I sprung for Cranford. And the surprises, Dear Reader, began when I picked it up from the library. It was much slimmer than I expected, at less than 200 pages. And there was Dame Judi Dench on the cover, wearing a decidedly frilly bonnet (I couldn’t find my actual cover image, in which Dench takes up the whole cover). I was already curious, and then I opened it up and found some of the most delightful opening sentences:
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on the railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.
I defy you not to want to read more! It turns out that rather than have one main plot, Cranford is a collection of stories about a circle of women who live in the town. The narrator is a younger woman who goes on visits there, and the book feels addressed directly to the reader. The stories are mainly amusing, some are touching, and all are simply delightful. In Lezlie’s recent review, she called it “almost Victorian Chick Lit”, and I completely agree. I effortlessly fell in love with all of the women, and couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next. For those who want to read more classics, but have never really enjoyed them, I can’t imagine a more accessible one. I highly recommend this to everyone! I know I’ll be reading more Gaskell in the future, even if I have to harass my library into acquiring more of her novels. :D
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Ah, then there’s Dorian. I love Oscar Wilde; I read all of his plays in high school, much of his poetry, and even a couple of his fairy tales. I’ve seen lots of adaptations (I think Rubert Everett’s the best actor for his plays!), the movie Wilde (with the indomitable Stephen Fry), and just in general I heart him. So it’s odd that I’ve managed to go so long without reading his only novel; when I put it in my pool for The Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name (aka GLBT), everyone said I should definitely read it, that it was awesome. I already had it out from the library, when I saw the trailer for the new film, and that galvanised me into immediately picking it up. I expected to fall in deep love with it. Sadly…I did not. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate it. In fact, I thought the first part was marvelous. There’s much of Wilde’s snappy dialogue, and the moments when Dorian faces big decisions, and gives up more and more of his principles, are exquisitely rendered. But then, there’s suddenly a big time lapse between the first part and the second. Not only that, but the second part shifts from showing me Dorian’s change into simply telling me about it. Sure, there are lots of hints about his dire deeds, and eventually we see him doing a couple of them, but the whole thing felt flat. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t expecting salaciousness. I know it was published in 1890, so no orgies or descriptions of just how Dorian corrupts those young men. ;) But it just got so, almost, preachy…Dorian as a character ceases to be like an actual human being and becomes a mere tool of the plot and themes. I don’t like it when that happens in literature, and as a huge Wilde fan, I certainly didn’t expect it to happen here. Am I glad I read it? Yes. And I think it could have been a true masterpiece, if it had all been written in the style of the first part. But as it is, I think I’ll stick to Wilde’s other mediums…and I certainly wouldn’t recommend this to people who have never read Wilde before!