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Two Surprising Classics: Cranford and The Picture of Dorian Gray

August 28, 2009

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.

CranfordCranfordby 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

DorianGrayThe 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!

35 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2009 5:15 am

    Awww, I really loved Dorian Gray (I can’t wait for the film) – Sorry you didn’t take to it too much.

    I’ll have to check out Cranford. I read ‘North and South’ by Gaskell which I absolutely loved (and recommend :-D )

  2. ollda97 permalink
    August 28, 2009 5:24 am

    I was reading a review of At Swim Two Boys by ONeill, I think, and the reviewer, Joseph Valente, explains that it has some Wildean themes. I have been interested in picking up Wilde, so what would you recommend me to start with if not Dorian Gray?

  3. August 28, 2009 5:56 am

    Cranford sounds wonderful! I thought it was a mammoth volume, knowing it’s so short and delightful makes me want to go read it this week!

  4. August 28, 2009 6:16 am

    Oh, I loved Dorian Gray. I read it a couple of years back and I fell in love with Wilde’s witticisms.

    I’ve been meaning to read Elizabeth Gaskell ever since I saw North and South (and fell in love with it), but I haven’t managed to find any of her books :(

  5. August 28, 2009 6:22 am

    I have North and South on my TBR shelf, I think its been there since my first year of uni *whisper* 10 years ago! I’ve just never fancied it, and I avoided Cranford when it was on TV. I may have to move North and South higher up the tbr pile. Talking of TV dramas have you seen the BBCs Little Dorrit, I’m hiring the DVDs at the moment and it is fabulous, I love Arthur and Amy.

    I wasn’t too fussed with Dorian Grey either, though I keep thinking I should reread it. Stephen Fry is great, I used to get to serve him in a little shop I worked in down the back streets of Cambridge. We sole quirky gifts and he’d come and buy random stuff for parties at his house. He was lovely, but so big in real life he had to duck to get down to the back of the shop.

  6. August 28, 2009 6:32 am

    You know what’s really interesting, once you’ve read Dorian Gray? Oscar Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, edited a transcript of his first trial, in which he spends a lot of time defending his book to the court. I mean the trial is fascinating anyway, but it’s especially cool to see what he has to say about his book – and he’s obviously loving the chance to defend it in public. The book of the trial is called The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde; or if you’re British Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde.

  7. August 28, 2009 6:53 am

    I’ve never read a Gaskell book but a couple weeks ago I rented the movie w/ Judi Dench and LOVED it. I was so addicted. I need to read her books now. And I felt the same way about Dorian Gray. I mean, some parts are good…but the whole section with the book and the implied naughty things he was doing…yeah that just fell flat with me too. Great reviews!

  8. August 28, 2009 7:18 am

    Hi Eva! I’ve actually never read anything by Wilde except Dorian Gray, and I loved it. I’ve reread it several times. I think the first time I was a little underwhelmed, particularly because it gets so pedantic that second half, but when I had to do lit crit on it for my book club, studying it became fascinating and another readthrough made it better.

    I want to read Cranford. My only attempt to read a Gaskell book was with Ruth on audio through Librivox, and the reader was…not the best. She read like she was addressing a kindergarten class. It took me months to get through the first 12 chapters, and then I gave up. That sort of put me off more Gaskell, but I’ve been told I should give her another try, and Cranford sounds like the way to go.

  9. August 28, 2009 7:23 am

    Hi, just visiting via Emeraldsfire. I can’t say I enjoyed Cranford, it’s just not my cup of tea but Dorian Gray? – I loved this book. I must confess it’s the only Oscar Wilde I’ve ever read and I keep meaning to rectify that but at the moment it’s a case of so many books, so little time.

  10. August 28, 2009 8:05 am

    I liked Dorian Gray- particularly the ending.

  11. August 28, 2009 8:41 am

    Hi, Eva!

    I’m so glad you loved Cranford, too! (And thanks for the link!) I still smile when I think about that book and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

    Bummer about Dorian Gray. It’s the only Wilde that I’ve read, and even though it was very different from what I expected (I kept waiting and waiting for that “deal with the devil” which never happened) I liked it a lot. You make me want to explore his other work though!


  12. August 28, 2009 9:16 am

    It’s been so long since I’ve read Dorian Grey, all I remember is that it was creepy and fascinating. I wonder if reading it now after so many years I’ll feel more like you did?

  13. August 28, 2009 9:26 am

    I started Dorian Gray through Daily Lit but for some reason I just can’t keep up with the daily emails, so it’s piled in a folder waiting t be read. I liked what I’d read so far… but I think I’ll just have to get the book.

  14. August 28, 2009 9:38 am

    Now you can watch the BBC adaptation of Cranford! It’s wonderful.

  15. August 28, 2009 11:07 am

    I’ve been meaning to read Cranford, well for a while now but you know how that goes. It sounds absolutely wonderful. I missed the tv adaptation too but now I think I want to read the book first and then catch up on the movie. And, Dorian Gray, is yet another of those classics which I must get to one of these days!

  16. historyofshe permalink
    August 28, 2009 11:10 am

    Yes, yes, yes! I know how you feel about Dorian Gray! I was so disappointed after all the hype it had gotten over the years. As it was my first novel by Wilde, I kinda wrote him off as an author I should not check out again. After reading your review, however, I feel as though I should give him a second chance. Thanks!

  17. August 28, 2009 11:52 am

    This is a strange coincidence … I read Cranford the other week (my review goes up next week) and I watched Dorian Gray for the millionth time the other night when I chanced across it on cable.

  18. August 28, 2009 1:02 pm

    Interesting reviews as always, Eva. I read Cranford in July during my summer vacation. It was my first Gaskell and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I, too, was hooked when I read the first page in the bookstore! :) I did not know that Cranford had been filmed and starring Dame Julie Dench!! That is a must have for me!
    I have The Picture of D G in my to read list. It will be interesting to read it now that I’ve seen your review.


  19. August 28, 2009 1:37 pm

    I never read Dorian Grey but I loved the movie (I saw the old version on television once). However, I heard the book was not as good.

  20. August 28, 2009 2:36 pm

    I thought I had a Gaskell book in my TBR pile, but when I went to look, couldn’t find it. Hmmm…maybe not.

    I’ve read some of Wilde, including Dorian Gray, but it has been such a long time. DG is a relatively short read, so maybe I need to refresh my memory soon! I don’t remember the “undertones” you are talking about–just that Dorian wasn’t a “good” guy. And of course, I remember the picture itself!

  21. adevotedreader permalink
    August 28, 2009 7:08 pm

    Cranford is a wonderful book, and the BBC adaption is certainly worth getting a hold of.

  22. August 29, 2009 2:45 am

    Ceri, I have North and South on hold at my library! I’m #6, so it’ll be a bit of a wait. :)

    Ollda97, I’d recommend starting with his plays! “Importance of Being Earnest” is probably his most famous, and I love it, but I love “An Ideal Husband” even more.

    Rebecca, I thought it was going to be really long too! I think you’d definitely enjoy it. :D

    Hazra, see, I’m used to his plays where the witticisms come almost nonstop. :) I hope you get ahold of some Gaskell soon!

    Katrina, I was hesitant about Gaskell for a long time, because her plots all sounded too depressing (what with workers’ rights and stuff). Thanks for the Little Dorrit rec-I haven’t seen it! (And I think I’ve told you before How Jealous I Am that you’ve met Fry-and regularly! He is huge, though, isn’t he?!)

    Jenny, thanks for the rec! I hope my library has it. :D

    Amanda, you have to see North and South if you haven’t!!! And I’m glad you felt the same way about Dorian.

    Other Amanda (hehe), you know, I think if I hadn’t read so many other works by Wilde, I’d have enjoyed this one a lot more. Or if I did a paper on it. :) I hate bad audiobook narrators.

    Pettywriter, thanks for the visit! You should definitely read some of Wilde’s plays. ;)

    Bluestocking, I thought the ending was neat. :)

    Lezlie, I think her other work is more ‘social commentary’-ish, which has me nervous but excited. As far as Wilde, I’m seeing a bit of a trend in the comments-people who read Dorian before any of his other works seem to like it more!

    Jeane, I already knew the storyline and ending going in; mayve that decreased my enjoyment?

    Daphne, I can never read Daily Lit either! If I want to read on the computer, I have to just go for short stories. :)

    Tara, I’m really curious about who Dench plays!

    Iliana, I’m always torn about whether to do the book or movie first! But at least Cranford and Dorian are both quick reads, since they’re on your TBR list. :)

    HistoryofShe, go read his plays! now! :p

    Kristen, that is an interesting coincidence! Was Dorian on TCM? Because I watched that too. :)

    Tiina, isn’t Dench the best?! And I’m so glad you loved this one too-we read during the same month. :D Perfect summer reading!

    Rhapsody, I really enjoyed the old movie too-gotta love Angela Lansbury. :D (But they totally change what he does with her from the book.)

    Valerie, isn’t it annoying when books run away from your TBR pile?! I’ve been looking for this one book that I know I own on and off for months. I have no clue where it ran away from. Do you mean the homosexuality undertones? Since I read this for the GLBT challenge, I might have been more sensitive. But I know there are a couple of young men he’s corrupted!

    ADevotedReader, my library has it, which is so exciting!

    The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde

  23. August 29, 2009 4:08 am

    I haven’t read the book but I did love what I saw of the TV series.

    The only Gaskell I have read was North and South, after I became completely obsessed with the mini series. I do intend to read more in due course.

  24. August 29, 2009 4:53 am

    I have been meaning to read Gaskell for ages and from what you have said about Cranford it sounds like the perfect book for me!

  25. August 29, 2009 7:02 am

    Eva, yes I guess I mean the homosexuality undertones. Either it didn’t seem like a big deal to me or it just completely sailed over my head. I can’t remember. I always knew Wilde was homosexual. Like I said, it was a long time ago when I read DG; and now I definitely plan to re-read it!

  26. stacybuckeye permalink
    August 29, 2009 7:41 am

    I remember listening to the audio of Dorian Gray and while I didn’t dislike it as much as you, I wasn’t crazy about it. I haven’t seen anything about the movie.

  27. August 29, 2009 3:14 pm

    I’ve never read any of Gaskell’s stuff, but reading your review, I’m intrigued!!! Thanks, Eva!

  28. August 29, 2009 6:58 pm

    So glad to hear you enjoyed Cranford so much! It’s near the top of my tbr pile and I’ll be reading it soon for the classics challenge!

  29. August 30, 2009 6:25 am

    I first read Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde 40 plus years ago. I still remember some of the observations in the book. I think it maybe a book best read in youth and remembered for a long time then reread. I am currently reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Slyvia’s Lovers-this is my first of her novels-it is funny how fashion changes-I took a course in the Victorian novel in the 1960s and they never mentioned her.

  30. August 30, 2009 1:45 pm

    Eva – I’m sure that Dorian was on TCM. I love that channel late at night! I love that movie with George Sanders and Angela Lansbury. After the movie, the host said something about where that portrait hangs now … I will need to look that up now!

  31. September 1, 2009 12:27 am

    Marg, I need to see the TV series now! I’m totally obsessed with the N&S mini-series, all thanks to you. :p

    Karen, I hope you enjoy it!

    Valerie, I don’t think it was a huge deal, like front-and-center or anything. :)

    Stacy, I didn’t dislike it…I just didn’t love it. The first part I loved, and towards the end it got great again, but there was a definitel lull in the middle.

    Andi, do you read many classics? I think you’d enjoy this one just for the ‘women’s focus’, you know?

    JoAnn, I hope you love it too!

    Mel U, I’ll have to see how I feel a few decades from now! That is interesting how academia changes-my library barely has any Gaskell…maybe that’s why!

    Kristen, I love TCM! And Robert Osborne! :D


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