This post may contain thematic spoilers of My Lady Ludlow.
Lady Ludlow is the representation of the old aristocracy in England. She is a conservative who does not want to allow the lower classes to gain an education or to gain “rights” in the post-Revolutionary years. Beyond those that are her servants, she essentially does not want to even associate with the lower classes. Yet, her role as a widowed, property-holding woman puts her in a unique position. As situations arise that call for both economic development and her personal compassion, she learns to adapt.
The long novella My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell is not a sample of a well-polished work. Yet, the characters and setting that Ms Gaskell introduce seem to me to be reminiscent of the other characters and themes I’ve read about in the other Gaskell novels I’ve read, and I did like some of the characters.
Ms Gaskell captures an interesting time in England: the years following the French Revolution in which the aristocracy of England was trying to find their own place in a changing world. The story is told through the eyes of a distant cousin who has become crippled and so spends most of her days in the presence with the august lady, hearing her opinions and enjoying the local gossip as filtered through Lady Ludlow’s perspective.
Lady Ludlow is an opinionated old woman, and I couldn’t help disliking her. Yet, it was fascinating to see the portrayal of her opinions. From my modern perspective, it was striking how unfair her classification of the lower classes was, from firing workers who learned how to read to discouraging the local pastor from building a Sunday school building. She claimed she believed that Sunday worship was all that the lower classes could handle, since their bodies were made for labor, not learning. She didn’t convince me, though. I think she could foresee the results of further education: the lack of her influence in the community. Every opinion she held had a calculated purpose.
I personally hate reading about that type of power. Lady Ludlow was powerful simply because she’d been born to a powerful family and then married a powerful man as well. From my perspective, she had no right to tower over the community politically and economically. Her discrimination reminded me of the logic of slave holders. Given that she was living in an era with persons that practiced slavery, I suppose that comparison is very apt.
I am noticing that power is a theme in the books I’m reading, often times because of some discrimination, either by race or gender. The powerful, who are powerful for any number of reasons, try to overpower the less privileged. From a black family in 1950s Chicago (A Raisin in the Sun), or a young woman in 1815 England who wants to marry (Persuasion), or a black woman in the Harlem Renaissance era (Passing, thoughts coming tomorrow), or a younger brother to the King of England using his flattery and tricks to steal the throne from a different family of rulers (Richard the Third, in progress), literature is rife with power struggles and discrimination. These stories are what make life interesting.
For Ms Gaskell, the discrimination and power issues in which she’s interested are obviously those dealing with class. It’s interesting how Lady Ludlow, who has been discriminated against for being a woman (lawyers, for example, didn’t feel comfortable working with her), for most of the story seems to have a blind eye to the unfairness of her own prejudices toward those of a different class.
Ms Gaskell addresses similar issues in other novels. Mary Barton looks at a relationship between a working class girl and a higher class young man, and North and South examines the conflicts between classes in urban Manchester. In Cranford, a small rural community bonds together; while economic stability is a taboo subject in Cranford, the women all pretend they are in the same social class, for being in a lower class or admitting poverty would be scandalous. In Wives and Daughters, a wealthy family lords over a small community. (In that book, the wealthy are pleasant and understanding of the lower classes, maybe given it takes place fifty years later.) In short, the novels I’ve read by Ms Gaskell all have something to do with social class. It’s her “issue.”
Although overall I did find the class issues addressed fascinating, the novella as a whole was not spectacular. Particularly, the framing device did not work for me. I never felt the story was fully developed because of the weak frame, and Lady Ludlow’s long stories didn’t work well as framed stories. The BBC miniseries incorporated much of My Lady Ludlow into the Cranford story line, a concept that to me doesn’t seem intuitive. I enjoyed watching the miniseries, but the setting for Lady Ludlow is so different from that of Cranford, that it would be impossible to tell the same story in the Cranford setting.
I think the underlying theme of My Lady Ludlow is that as times change, stuffy conservative old women can have a change of heart. I think it’s a nice sweet story (and I liked some of the characters very much), but it was rather poorly executed. I’m glad Gaskell has addressed the class issues in other books. My Lady Ludlow was not her strongest look at the issues.