Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mr. Harrison's Confessions

This is an utterly charming story--funny, sweet, sad in parts, and thoroughly enjoyable. It is no surprise that it was included in the Cranford mini-series as the village of Duncombe is the twin of Cranford, from the Amazonians to the interactions of the servants with their masters to the quiet round of life in a country village.

Simon Woods was perfectly cast as Mr. Harrison. He makes a better country doctor than first emperor of Rome, but then I rather perfer Mr. Harrison over Caesar Augustus anyway.

It is a framed story, one of Gaskell's favorite storytelling modes, with Mr. Harrison recounting his courtship of Mrs. Harrison, that is, Sophie Hutton, to a friend within the first year or so of their marriage. I'm also currently reading E.M. Forster's set of lectures entitled Aspects of the Novel. In the section on "The Story," Forster makes the point that the basic definition of a novel is that it tells a story, and suspense is the storyteller's single most potent tool. But framed stories dull that edge a bit in that the narrator, if he or she is the protagonist, as in the case of Mr. Harrison's Confessions, clearly survived the tale he or she is telling, and in this case, the edge is even further dulled because he lovingly refers to his wife and child on the first pages, which means that the reader is never in any doubt that Sophie survives the illness that is the climax of the story.

If you are interested in reading this novella of Gaskell's, I advice you to steer clear of the version offered by the Dodo Press. It is full of annoying typos--Waiter for Walter and conic for come are but two of the most egregious that occur repeatedly throughout the book. The layout of the dialogue was also not right, and I found myself having to reread a few sections because of our the book was laid out.

One other note on Mr. Harrision's Confessions--I found a reference to Austen in it. I am looking for hard evidence of Austen's influence on Gaskell, and in chapter 4 Gaskell writes that Mr. Morgan, in helping his protege Mr. Harrison set up his house, as furnished with Mrs. Rose's furniture and other household goods, "gave me a skull to put on the top of my bookcase, in which the medical books were all arranged on the conspicuous shelves; while Miss Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray...were skilfully placed in a careless way, upside down or with their backs turned to the wall." Since Mr. Morgan is helping Mr. Harrison establish his credibility among the good folk of Duncombe, I imagine that Mr. Harrison should be seen as having novels but not having the time to read them. I suppose all this really says about any influence Austen may have had on Gaskell is that Gaskell viewed Mr. and Mrs. Rose as the type of people whose library would contain Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray.

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