Thursday, June 26, 2008

Grace and Gaskell

Two months ago, my book club read What's So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey. I read very few books with a distinctly 'Christian' label and had, for some reason, a tough time sitting down to begin this one. That struggle ended with the first few pages. I read what seemed non-stop for a few days, unable to put it down. I was surprised, challenged, encouraged, distressed, and convicted.

This is a book every Christian and non-Christian should read, and I will be eternally grateful for the wonderful book club member who recommended it. I have felt a mighty shift in my perception and attitude towards myself and others. A number Christians have the notion that 'We're righteous and they are sinners.' Many non-Christians have the notion that 'We're all good. It's all good.' Philip Yancey sums up grace by saying 'We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway.'

It was completely a God thing that I randomly chose to place Ruth on the schedule the month following What's So Amazing About Grace, having not read either.

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell embodies the ideas and questions so beautifully presented in What's So Amazing About Grace?, but in story form that engaged me emotionally in a way that I have not felt in a very long time. I read through many passages with tears streaming down my face. Gaskell created a variety of characters who, sometimes whispering--sometimes shouting, were the voices of grace and 'ungrace.'

pg. 119

In the Bensons' house there was the same unconsciousness of individual merit, the same absence of introspection and analysis of motive, as there had been in her mother; but it seemed that their lives were pure and good, not merely from a lovely and beautiful nature, but from some law, the obedience to which was, of itself, harmonious peace, and which governed them almost implicitly, and with as little questioning on their part, as the glorious stars which haste not, rest not, in their eternal obedience. This household had many failings: they were but human, and, with all their loving desire to bring their lives into harmony with the will of God, they often erred and fell short; but, somehow, the very errors and faults of one individual served to call out higher excellencies in another, and so they re-acted upon each other, and the result of short discords was exceeding harmony and peace...[I]f Mr. Benson did sometimes, in hours of sick incapacity for exertion, turn inwards, it was to cry aloud with almost morbid despair, 'God be merciful to me a sinner!' But he strove to leave his life in the hands of God, and to forget himself.

pg. 170

Miss Benson piqued herself upon being less carried away by her love for this child than any one else in the house; she talked severely, and had capital theories; but her severity ended in talk, and her theories would not work. However, she read several books on education, knitting socks for Leonard all the while; and, upon the whole, I think, the hands were more usefully employed than the head, and the good honest heart better than either.

There were moments of dry humor, romance, despair, and hope. The ending was tragic and beautiful.

Gaskell's writing is superb. Not being a literary critic myself, I wonder why Gaskell hasn't enjoyed posthumous popularity and success equal to her contemporary, Jane Austen. Apparently I am not the only one who thinks that Elizabeth Gaskell is a swirling blend of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. She captures the romantic conflicts of Austen and cries out in Dickens fashion against the injustices of the time.

A few years ago we read Wives and Daughters (also in a terrific film version). I enjoyed the book until the very end when, tragically, the author dies before completing the book (something I was completely unprepared for), and the editor speculates on the ending, quickly wrapping things up in a neat little package. I was devastated and longed for the emotional closure of a perfectly ended romance story.

We then read North and South last year, which was already a favorite in film version--one of my most favorite movies of all time--and I ran out of hours in the day, unable to complete my reading before the book club meeting. The writing was first class, but it is hard for me to read a book after being so familiar with the story through a movie, especially a excellent and lengthy movie version, and so the book was put aside for a rainy day.After reading Ruth, though, I am inspired anew to read North and South from beginning to end so that I might savor Gaskell's prose and add the book to my 50 favorite novels (which list I've been working on since December and have not yet posted).

Cranford is currently on my DVR, waiting to be viewed. I think I will bump it up on the priority list accordingly!


Bella Art Girl said...

I love North & South and Husband's and Wives. It is hard to read the books sometimes if you have watched the movies [and liked it]but Gaskell is good. I am trying to get through Woman in White and also reread Little Women for my bookclub this month. After that I may reenter into Gaskell land. - good stuff - thanks again

Heidi said...

Ooh, I've read Woman in White a couple times and loved it. Gives me the shivers just thinking about it! Have you read Wilkie Collins's Moonstone? It is a great mystery but less gothic/scary and has more humor and personality. The butler was an absolute crack up. I haven't read Little Women for years, but Eight Cousins is on my list to read to Levi this year or next.

Dreams of a Country Girl said...

Frank Lloyd Wright -- recently stayed in one of his buildings that is now a MUST read the book Loving Frank about his life....SUPERB! I laughed, cried, and examined my eye opener.

Mom2legomaniacs said...

Philip Yancey is good, isn't he! I have a book I borrowed from a friend that this reminded me needs reading.

And I hope to borrow Cranford from my MIL the next time we visit!

Barb said...

Yancey's book changed my life when I read it several years ago. I apply the truths everyday and look at Scripture - and people- much differently - with grace!

I really enjoyed the movie North and South. Much like Austen but it seemed grittier, more real. I should pick up a book by her.

Luke Holzmann said...

Just tossing in my vote for Yancey's book as well. An absolutely great read which demands that we carefully consider our attitudes toward others, ourselves, and our God.


Anonymous said...

I love "North and South". It reminded me very much of Jane Austen, but since Gaskell is less known, it almost seemed like more of an adventure when I opened her book.
I had no clue she had written all those other books. I'll have to start on them now! =)

carole said...

Okay, so now I re-read your review and find that it made you teary as well. Good to know that it probably wasn't all pms. :) And now I'm off to see if my library has a copy of North and South!