My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell

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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.

Reviewed on February 7, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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  1. I just finished reading my first full Gaskell novel (North and South), and I barely made it through, mostly skimming. I’m afraid I just don’t get along with her writing very well. In the past I tried to read Ruth, and later read a short story, and none of them have worked for me. I still have Cranford on my list – I’m going to try to listen to it this time, and see if that makes a difference – but if that one doesn’t work out either, I think I’m just going to wash my hands of her and say I gave her a valient try and I’m done. That makes me really sad, because I really thought I’d like her…

    1. Amanda, I really did like North and South — and I think it’s her best. Sorry it didn’t work for you….she’s not the BEST writer, but I do like her stories and her issues. Cranford is interesting. I like it much better on rereading, I think I understand her humor better now than when I first read it. And I love the people in the story.

      Have you seen the N&S miniseries? I know some people who don’t like the book much prefer the movie. I liked the personalities better in the book, but they are a little different in the movie.

  2. I haven’t read any Gaskell yet but hope that I correct that this year. I have ONE book on my shelf. (Off the top of my head I cannot think what it is, Cranford, perhaps?) I never realized that she was the one who wrote North & South and that might be the book I’ve heard the most about. It seems as though some people either really love her or really hate her. i wonder if that’s how most feel about classics?

  3. I love hearing your thoughts about Gaskell’s analysis of class. Have you seen the BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters by any chance? There is a terrific extra feature called something along the lines of “Who the Dickens is Mrs. Gaskell?” examining how she did class and gender critique across her books. Your essay fits right in.

    1. LifetimeReader, I have seen the BBC adaptation. I’m a bit mad at it for changing the end of Wives and Daughters. It takes away the specialness of the waiting — What’s-his-name would never have disobeyed the father like that by going to find what’s-her-name to say goodbye! But then, we don’t know how Gaskell would really have finished it, so I guess they had as much a right to change it as anyone…

      At any rate, I’ll have to get it again so I can see the special feature you mention, as I didn’t see that part of it 🙂

  4. Ooh, looking forward to your thoughts on Passing.

    It’s always a gamble to delve into the “lesser works” of an author one enjoys. Nonetheless, your analysis of her class-based concerns is interesting!

    1. Emily, just posted my thoughts on Passing! Finally. Having a hard time finding time these days. Yes, I think there’s a reason this one is lesser known. I think I’ve read all the “big” ones by Gaskell now. Not sure if there are others worth reading….will have to make a list and get everyone’s opinions…

  5. I’ve read N&S as well as Wives & Daughters. I enjoyed each one although her style isn’t my favourite. Class is such a big issue in England especially in such periods, and I enjoy reading different authors’ take on it. I’ll like to try another Gaskell, but I’m hesitant to go towards lesser work.

    1. Monica, I really do like her social class stories. I will be first to say, though, that her lesser known works are lesser for a reason! Have you read Cranford? I suggest that one next if you wanted to try more of Gaskell.

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