The Moorland Cottage – Elizabeth Gaskell
Hesperus Press, 2010 (originally published 1850)
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In The Moorland Cottage, Elizabeth Gaskell brings you to the countryside and shows you the sites as well as the lives of a few people living there.
Gaskell’s style is beautiful and sparse. She does not dwell romantically on everything she imagines nature to be, and yet she succeeds in painting such a thorough picture that you feel as if you are right there, next to her, while she crosses the fields surrounding Moorland cottage in her imagination:
If you take the turn to the left after you pass the lyke-gate at Combehurst Church, you will come to the wooden bridge over the brook; keep along the field-path which mounts higher and higher, and, in half an hour or so, you will be in a breezy upland field, almost large enough to be called a down, where sheep pasture on the short, fine, elastic turf. You look down on Coomehurst and its beautiful church spire. After the field is crossed, you come to a common, richly coloured with the golden gorse and the purple heather, which in summertime send out their warm scents into the quiet air..
The Moorland Cottage is classic Gaskell, in the vein of Cranford or Wives and Daughters. Unlike North and South, or Mary Barton, Gaskell does not dwell on social inequality because of the Industrial Revolution. Yes, the two families depicted follow a different path in life, and one is poorer while the other is quite well off, and there is a commentary on the idea that people should not marry below their class, since Gaskell makes sure to let love prevail in the end, but The Moorland Cottage definitely has a more cosy setting than the works in which she talks about manufacturing towns.
Moorland Cottage is inhabited by Mrs. Browne, a widow, who has retreated from village life after her husband’s death. Mrs. Browne has two children, Edward (Ned) and Margaret (Maggie). Maggie and Nancy, the servant, take up running the household, while Mrs. Browne and Ned are depicted as unprepared to do the work, and very much reliant on Maggie doing all that is commanded of her by her mother and brother. According to Ned, this is only fair:
You see, Maggie, a man must be educated to be a gentleman. Now, if a woman knows how to keep a house, that’s all that is wanted from her. So my time is of more consequence than yours. Mamma says I’m to go to college, and be a clergyman; so I must get on with my Latin.
While the family continues living in this manner, they get acquainted with the Buxton family, a well off family living nearby. Maggie becomes good friends with Erminia Harvey (a cousin living at the household of the Buxton family) and the very ill Mrs. Buxton. The son of the household, Frank Buxton, soon learns to resent Ned for his treatment of Maggie, and together with his mother and cousin, they choose to accompany Maggie when they can, inviting her over and learning her to ride on the pony of Erminia.
But then, since a description of a cosy family life is often not enough to make a novel, things change in a manner that has Maggie still carrying out all that is asked of her, often thinking only of the comfort of her brother and mother and setting aside her own, but also having her make choices about what she is what she isn’t willing to give up in life for the comfort of others. I do not wish to say more about the challenges that occur, because I fear it would take away from the pleasure of reading this novella.
Throughout the book, I felt for Maggie. She is clearly mistreated by her family and works hard to keep them satisfied, which they never are. During the story, Elizabeth Gaskell emphasizes these qualities of Maggie. She even sets her up as a sort of martyr. I did wonder a little at that. Elizabeth Gaskell obviously does not approve of Ned’s laziness, or his reasoning that since a woman ‘is meant to work in the household’ he had better not help Maggie with anything. However, the martyrlike qualities of Maggie do remind me an awful lot of the Victorian ideals of womanhood. Elizabeth Gaskell did of course live in the Victorian age, but I might have liked to see her challenge these ideas a little more.
Nevertheless, The Moorland Cottage was a pleasant read and especially Maggie’s character will remain with me for a long time. Throughout the book, I did so feel the wish to help her. This might not be Gaskell’s masterpiece, but it is a worthwhile read.
I read this novella during the read along hosted at the Gaskell Blog. If you are interested, please click over to this blog, where every chapter is introduced and annotated with pictures and context.
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