Lately, I have been voraciously reading Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865). I started with North and South, then read Cranford, and I just finished Mary Baron. North and South are full-fledged novels, with gripping plots and striking characters, set against the background of the Industrial Revolution. Cranford is a interwoven series of gently satirical vignettes. I’ve enjoyed them all immensely, and I strongly recommend them heartily, particularly to fans of Jane Austen.
As usual, I’ve been listening to what I can on audiobook from Audible.com, and then I’ll read the rest of her collected works on my Kindle.
A few days ago, I dug up the following story from Cranford to send to Katie Granju, who recently lost her son teenage son Henry.
“Have you been in India?” said I, rather astonished.
“Oh, yes! many a year, ma’am. Sam was a sergeant in the 31st; and when the regiment was ordered to India, I drew a lot to go, and I was more thankful than I can tell; for it seemed as if it would only be a slow death to me to part from my husband. But, indeed, ma’am, if I had known all, I don’t know whether I would not rather have died there and then than gone through what I have done since. To be sure, I’ve been able to comfort Sam, and to be with him; but, ma’am, I’ve lost six children,” said she, looking up at me with those strange eyes that I’ve never noticed but in mothers of dead children – with a kind of wild look in them, as if seeking for what they never more might find. “Yes! Six children died off, like little buds nipped untimely, in that cruel India. I thought, as each died, I never could – I never would – love a child again; and when the next came, it had not only its own love, but the deeper love that came from the thoughts of its little dead brothers and sisters. And when Phoebe was coming, I said to my husband, ‘Sam, when the child is born, and I am strong, I shall leave you; it will cut my heart cruel; but if this baby dies too, I shall go mad; the madness is in me now; but if you let me go down to Calcutta, carrying my baby step by step, it will, maybe, work itself off; and I will save, and I will hoard, and I will beg – and I will die, to get a passage home to England, where our baby may live?’ God bless him! he said I might go; and he saved up his pay, and I saved every pice I could get for washing or any way; and when Phoebe came, and I grew strong again, I set off. It was very lonely; through the thick forests, dark again with their heavy trees – along by the river’s side (but I had been brought up near the Avon in Warwickshire, so that flowing noise sounded like home) – from station to station, from Indian village to village, I went along, carrying my child. I had seen one of the officer’s ladies with a little picture, ma’am – done by a Catholic foreigner, ma’am – of the Virgin and the little Saviour, ma’am. She had him on her arm, and her form was softly curled round him, and their cheeks touched. Well, when I went to bid good-bye to this lady, for whom I had washed, she cried sadly; for she, too, had lost her children, but she had not another to save, like me; and I was bold enough to ask her would she give me that print. And she cried the more, and said her children were with that little blessed Jesus; and gave it me, and told me that she had heard it had been painted on the bottom of a cask, which made it have that round shape. And when my body was very weary, and my heart was sick (for there were times when I misdoubted if I could ever reach my home, and there were times when I thought of my husband, and one time when I thought my baby was dying), I took out that picture and looked at it, till I could have thought the mother spoke to me, and comforted me. And the natives were very kind. We could not understand one another; but they saw my baby on my breast, and they came out to me, and brought me rice and milk, and sometimes flowers – I have got some of the flowers dried. Then, the next morning, I was so tired; and they wanted me to stay with them – I could tell that – and tried to frighten me from going into the deep woods, which, indeed, looked very strange and dark; but it seemed to me as if Death was following me to take my baby away from me; and as if I must go on, and on – and I thought how God had cared for mothers ever since the world was made, and would care for me; so I bade them good-bye, and set off afresh. And once when my baby was ill, and both she and I needed rest, He led me to a place where I found a kind Englishman lived, right in the midst of the natives.”
“And you reached Calcutta safely at last?”
“Yes, safely! Oh! when I knew I had only two days’ journey more before me, I could not help it, ma’am – it might be idolatry, I cannot tell – but I was near one of the native temples, and I went into it with my baby to thank God for His great mercy; for it seemed to me that where others had prayed before to their God, in their joy or in their agony, was of itself a sacred place. And I got as servant to an invalid lady, who grew quite fond of my baby aboard-ship; and, in two years’ time, Sam earned his discharge, and came home to me, and to our child. … [In the novel, the child Phoebe is alive and well when this story is recounted.]
Literature is, undoubtedly, my most valued form of art. (By that, I mean serious literature, not popular fiction.) I could do without all other forms of art, if need be… but to deprive me of literature would be to steal my very soul! And Elizabeth Gaskell has been a most nourishing discovery for me.