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Both Richard Jefferies’ After London and Elizabeth Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow are 19th century texts engaging with themes of history, class and education through a means of storytelling that encompasses more than one narrative. Despite not belonging to the same genre and presenting a clear structural differentiation, they similarly exploit the figure of the narrator to establish a channel of communication that relies heavily on the subtext contained within the use of syntax and language. Hence, the object of this essay is to compare the literary techniques at work in two extracts from these novels so as to determine the specific processes that condition the abstraction of meaning by the reader.
For this purpose, we must contextualise them within the wider narrative framework they are part of. Gaskell’s novella features three different narrators and time periods. Concretely, this passage belongs to the twelfth chapter, which is enclosed within Margaret Dawson’s narrative in the early 1800s and describes her feelings after the death of Lady Ludlow’s last remaining son. In contrast, Jefferies’ is comprised within the fourth chapter of a post-apocalyptic piece of fiction. While the first part gives an account of the aftermath of the fall of civilization, the second section of the text adopts a more traditional narrative model with a protagonist.
Specifically, the extract recounts an alternative history of class distinction resulting from restricted access to literacy as one would expect from a textbook. There being no references to its fictionality, a reader with access solely to this part of the text might ask whether it constitutes a simplified interpretation of the medieval feudal system. The only allusion to this not being the case is the hint ‘when the ancients were scattered…’, which nevertheless does not illuminate the issue further. At first glance, the fact that the narrator remains nameless also contributes to the conception of the text as an informative chronicle rather than a personal anecdote.
In addition, he utilises a formal third person with several temporal markers such as ‘after thirty years or so’ and ‘to this day’. This suggests that he is writing retrospectively, a notion reinforced by the vagueness of detail both regarding chronology and the definition of terms like ‘the ancients’ or ‘antiquity’. This indicates that the narrator was not a direct survivor of the mysterious catastrophe, but that he is writing after a sufficiently long time so that there is no accurate information on the past to be found. Consequently, we must necessarily dismiss the conception of Jefferies’ narrator as an omniscient one, since he does not possess all the answers.
Alternatively, it might be that he is simply placing emphasis on those aspects of his narrative that fit an agenda prioritising social realities. This is because the seeming objectivity of this passage does not correspond with the tone of the rest of the work, where descriptive sequences are interjected with the use of the first person, sometimes even in a self-referential manner: ‘I had forgotten to mention…’ (Jefferies 1885: 25). Likewise, the extract itself contains a degree of implicit subjectivity when observed closely. It does not retain the sense of detachment that a merely factual narrative would have, instead offering a veiled commentary on the merits of the aristocracy and the formation of power structures: ‘…the past was forgotten, and the original equality of all men lost in antiquity’.
This expression of opinion is substantially more straightforward in Gaskell’s passage: ‘I was absolutely jealous for my father’s memory’. Here, Margaret Dawson is a diegetic narrator speaking in the first person and employing a wide range of first-person pronouns: ‘…when I saw…’, ‘my father had spent…’. These examples in the past tense also insinuate hindsight, both in terms of her father’s death and in the recollection of her dissatisfaction with the village’s reaction while telling the story years later. However, unlike Jefferies’ historian, she is alluding to her own personal memories and thoughts. That is, she is referring to an episode that took place within her lifetime and that she can vividly evoke, as opposed to attempting to recover a narrative of social demise as a platform for exposition of one’s opinion.
Although there can be no doubt that she is significantly more direct, she is also lacking the security that Jefferies’ style evidences. In this light, it is noteworthy that the extract starts with her uneasiness and feeling of guilt at the expression of her thoughts, demonstrated by her need to justify them: ‘It might arise from my being so far from well at the time, which produced a diseased mind in a diseased body…’. This inner conflict is a consequence of the clash between her resentment at the different treatment of the death of her father and that of Lord Ludlow and her sense of loyalty both to her lady’s grief and views on class hierarchy.
Unsurprisingly, as a result, she struggles to articulate her thoughts in Jefferies’ concise manner. Whereas his narrator follows a clear chronological structure to convey a sense of progression in imitation of an actual historical process, she comments on her father’s death in a disorderly manner that resembles a stream of consciousness more than a thought-out argument. This difficulty might arise due to the fact that almost the whole of the novella is focused outward, toward Lady Ludlow and her estate, rather than on Margaret’s own person.
Thus, she endeavours to get her opinion across through the use of emphasizing interjections (‘…when we went to church-my father’s own church-‘) and parallelisms such as the repetition of ‘and yet’ in the second half of the passage. This strengthens the notion that she is writing almost the way she is thinking, making her confusion visible in the text’s structure and language. Her usage of long sentences with various clauses serves as reassertion of this, as the dashes offer an element of discontinuity that favours messy introspection over the linearity present in the other extract. This helps to augment the authenticity of her voice, especially in relation to Jefferies.
Even if his narrative persona does not give any indication of insincerity, it still produces an account that is not at dialogue with itself like Gaskell’s is. Instead, he is less inclined to be questioned, with no expressions of doubt and purposefully using morality to dispel disagreement. His description of inequality intends to stir indignation at injustice. Margaret achieves a similar effect by means of her sympathetic personal situation, but Jefferies actively seeks to make the reader complicit in his use of irony: ‘At this day a noble is at once known, no matter how coarsely he may be dressed, or how brutal his habits, by his delicacy of feature, his air of command, even by his softness of skin and fineness of hair’.
Intimately related to this is Gaskell’s suggestive use of imagery. By stating that ‘life, active, noisy life, pressed on our acute consciousness of Death, and jarred upon it as on a quick nerve’, Margaret is bringing to our attention the emotional toil of mourning and what she deems as the community’s unfeeling intrusion on her family’s grief. Given that death is written with a capital letter, we encounter a focalisation on this phenomenon that adds an emotional layer on top of the exploration of social difference in a way that Jefferies’ passage lacks.
Furthermore, though on a lesser level than in other parts of the novella, she exploits physical description: ‘… the church-bells tolled, and smote upon our hearts with hard, fresh pain… carts and carriages, street-cries, distant barrel-organs…the pulpit cushions were black…’. With this, she is stressing the importance of the materiality of mourning and what that reveals about one’s feelings. Inadvertently, she is equating her own writing structure in the excerpt to outer garments or black furnishing, as both serve to disclose her emotional state.
Nonetheless, in spite of these differences in their interaction with the reader, the fact is that there exists an attempt on both parts to appeal to them. This can be seen in the presence of rhetorical questions at the end of the respective passages: ‘But none do attempt; of what avail would it be to them?’ and ‘And yet what was Lord Ludlow’s relation to Hanbury, compared to my father’s work and place in-?’. The latter constitutes a half-finished thought, but resembles Jefferies’ in the sense that they both confirm the existence of an addressee and invite them to follow their same cognitive process.
Therefore, it becomes necessary to look more closely at the implied audience in both texts. In Jefferies’ case, the fact that his passage deals with access to readership and is itself written down to be read holds certain implications as to who the narratee might be, making us wonder if he is writing for the nobility within his own world or someone outside of it. With Gaskell, the implied audience becomes explicit if we consider Miss Greatorex’ s narrative. In Round the Sofa, Margaret is not only addressing the reader, but a collection of friends gathered around her to hear the story of Lady Ludlow. Hence, we learn that the actual manuscript was supposedly transcribed by Miss Greatorex after it was told, adding more significance to the aforementioned structure of the passage due to its status as oral history.
There is insufficient space to explore notions of authority in these extracts. Still, it is remarkable that both speakers shy away from the focus of the narrative and enter it because they feel compelled to make a point. In overall, their linguistic choices and usage of particular sentence structures propels forward an interpretation of the text that is very much in line with their own. As a result, their relationship with the narratee is determined not only by their position on class differentiation, but by their level of response to the implicit elements in the text that seek to align it with the correct social stance.
- Gaskell, Elizabeth.  2007. ‘My Lady Ludlow’ in The Cranford Chronicles (London: Vintage Classics), pp. 281-484
- Gaskell, Elizabeth  2015. ‘Round the Sofa’ in The Project Gutenberg
- Jefferies, Richard  2017. After London; Or Wild England, ed. by Mark Frost (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
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