‘My Lady Ludlow’ could be classed among Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, being over 60,000 words long. Still, it’s a good deal shorter than the three volumes that were considered a respectable length for a novel by Victorians, and is included among her shorter and more minor works.
Besides, the structure is frankly faulty; or anyway, the structure as she uses it – a story within a story – comes out as faulty. That method can work: it certainly does, in ‘Wuthering Heights’. It seems ineffective much of the time, here. There are parts, as in the melodramatic episode set in Revolutionary France, where it becomes a story within a story within a story within a story, and that makes for too much distancing.
The tale of the eponymous Lady Ludlow is one of the tales told ‘Round the Sofa’ of the invalid society hostess Margaret Dawson, and recounted by the young narrator. She is also suffering from health problems, but fortunately, temporary in her case. All of the guests are required to relate a story, and the first is the recollections of their hostess of Lady Ludlow.
Margaret Dawson was for years one of the fearsome Georgian aristocrat’s retinue of well born but indigent young ladies.
I didn’t have high hopes of it when I first started reading it, partly because as I gathered the theme is about a benevolent despot type of country aristocrat who tyrannised in rural England up until the first world war. This one, holding sway in the early nineteenth century, in an unnamed county somewhere in the North of England, even opposes education for the masses as encouraging them to think too much and come by subversive ideas – a bit like Cassius and Brutus, only plebeian – and the story is about her gradual conversion to more democratic views over that.
In fact, I didn’t find the eponymous dame as unsympathetic as I thought . You could see that her particular religious convictions led to a sincere, if mistaken, belief that people are called to fulfil a particular role in life, and that education interfered with their humble submission to the Divine will that placed them there.
Of course, Elizabeth Gaskell, as a the wife of a Unitarian parson, inevitably takes an opposing view. The fact that she could make a sympathetic character out of this traditional, rigid autocrat, who mourns the passing of the Ancien Regime in France, was a sort of literary triumph. That also perfectly illustrates the broad scope of Elizabeth Gaskell’s own Christian charity and refusal to judge others.
Lady Ludlow insists on her aristocratic rights – she even will inform the vicar at times that ‘no sermon is required today’. Still, she applies the same rigid notions of duty to herself that she demands of others, and so is no hypocrite, as is so often the case with those who stand on their dignity and arbitary authority.
She may initially strongly oppose the new vicar, Mr Gray, in his desire to found a village school, but she is generous to her tenants in other ways. Comparatively impoverished through having to pay off a mortgage imposed on the estate by her late husband, she refuses to relinquish any of her duties to her tenants.
After Margaret Dawson’s health declines, the charitable if narrow old-school aristocrat keeps her on, as she does any ailing and aging servant, so that half of her staff are incapable of performing any useful duties.
I found the story generally dull, though there was some comedy provided by the eccentric Miss Galindo, a relative of Lady Ludlow who has gone down in the world and has to support herself by sewing, and various other characters. Miss Galindo is a ‘Cranford-esque’ type of eccentric. She appears later in the novel, and seems to have been put in to provide a bit of light relief. In fact, though her history is to some extent tragic, she is largely a comic character, and one or two of her unguarded and illogical remarks did make me laugh out loud.
‘But are you sure he has a wooden leg?’ asked I. ‘I heard Lady Ludlow ask Mr Smithson about him, and he only said that he was wounded.’
‘Well, sailors are always wounded in the leg, aren’t they?’
The French episode involves a fatal adventure of one of the friends of her late son’s (she has lost eight children, which would be unusual for an aristocratic parent even in the late eighteenth century).
The critic J G Sharps in ‘Mrs Gaskell’s Observation and Invention’ suggests that it was put in as padding, and that seems as good an explanation as any for a melodramatic story which has very little to do with the rest of the story.
The excuse given for its inclusion is that the episode convinced Lady Ludlow of the evil of common people being educated above their station. In it, a boy, Pierre, is sent to spy on the suspiciously genteel young lady Virginie, who is in hiding after the arrest of her father as a supposed enemy of the people. If he had not been able to read letters he intercepted, he would never have been able to discover the identity of an unknown visitor whom he suspect is scheming to help her to escape from France.
This is of course Clément, former friend of Lady Ludlow’s late son, who has gone over to France to try and rescue Virginie. He had always been in love with her, though she had rejected him as one of a parasitic class…
It all ends tragically, with the two reunited lovers executed, betrayed to the authorities by the coarse and jealous rival suitor Morin, who shoots himself. Dramatic stuff, it is wedged incongruously in the middle of the quiet manoeuveres between the forces of reaction and progress in an English country village.
It may well be intended as a hint from Elizabeth Gaskell of where depriving the majority of the population of the means to improve their situation can lead. If so, then perhaps the hint is a little too subtle, and some reflection on this by Margaret Dawson or someone else might bring the point home better. Anyway, Lady Ludlow sees the temptations faced by the boy Pierre as typical of the horrors that will follow from any commoner learning to read.
Perhaps, also, it was written to give a touch of romance to the story.
In the end, the earnest preacher Mr Grey, representing the forces of progress, has his way. The villagers are to learn to read (though the girls have to learn to spin and embroider first) and the illegitimate daughter of Miss Galindo’s old admirer becomes their teacher in the village school.
It takes Lady Ludlow a long time to acknowledge this girl, as she apparently has always thought is the proper thing to ignore the existence of those born outside wedlock.
Such views were of course, widespread in that era, and babies in ‘foundling hospitals’ faced a grim future. How Christians reconciled their beliefs with blaming someone for the circumstances of their birth, has always puzzled me. However, lots of things puzzle me, and that’s irrelevant here.
Anyway, Lady Ludlow does support the founding of the village school, acknowledge Miss Bessy, and mellow in her views. At about this time, Margaret Dawson’s brother offers for her to live with him, and so the story, which she admits has ‘neither beginning, nor middle, nor end’ does come to a conclusion.
I wouldn’t exactly recommend reading it for the plot. Like Samuel Richardson’s novels, or for that matter, Fanny Burney’s, I found it useful as a source of background information on life in Georgian England. Elizabeth Gaskell, after all, was born into the Regency age, and had many family anecdotes about everyday English life in those times, besides her own experiences.