When Katherine of Gaskell Blog extended an invitation to a group read of The Moorland Cottage I was delighted and, I must confess, a little surprised.
I’m used to readalongs featuring the bigger books that you never quite get to, and this was just a little novella of around one hundred pages.
But when I picked up my copy I soon saw that Katherine knew just what she was doing. The Moorland is a little story that contains a great deal, and by proceeding slowly I am reaping rich rewards.
The first two of ten chapters have painted wonderful pictures in my head, and they have touched my heart.
Mrs Gaskell took me by the hand and lead me through the countryside to the Moorland Cottage.
“If you take the turn to the left after you pass the lyke-gate at Combehurst Church, you will come to the wooden bridge over the brook; keep along the field-path which mounts higher and higher, and, in half an hour or so, you will be in a breeazy upland field, almost large enough to be called a down, where sheep pasture on the short, fine, elastic turf. You look down on Coomehurst and its beautiful church spire. After the field is crossed, you come to a common, richly coloured with the golden gorse and the purple heather, which in summertime send out their warm scents into the quiet air…”
Her words were simple, clear and lovely, making it so easy to picture the passing countryside in my mind.
The Browne family, widow and two children of the curate were painted just as clearly with details just as real.
Mrs Browne had retreated from the world to mourn her beloved husband, and though she coped from day to day she was clearly still distracted by her grief.
That left Maggie, her daughter, and Nancy, her loyal servant, to look after the house, and the gardens and livestock that supported them. Maggie so missed her father, but she understood that life had to go on and that she had to play her part in holding her family together. Ned, her brother, is less mature and indulged by his mother, who maybe sees her future through her son.
A picture was built up from well chosen and observed details, and I came to understand the family’s situation, how loss had altered their lives, and how their relationships worked. I believed in them and they touched me.
Mrs Browne turned down most invitations, but there was one that she had to accept. Mr Buxton is a wealthy man and Mrs Browne and her son see social advancement, while her daughter saw her world maybe growing just a little.
And so Mrs Gaskell took me by the hand again on a journey into town. More wonderful pictures were painted of a very different path to a very different home. I observed the family too: I grew to love Maggie even more as she was so clearly and naturally caught up the adventure, but I liked her mother and brother rather less as they seemed to only be concerned with how they appeared to the world and to their hosts.
The Buxton family – father, invalid mother, son Frank and niece Ermina – reacted in the same way as me. They did not warm to Mrs Browne and Ned, but they were charmed by Maggie.
At first Erminia was unsure, but when she saw Maggie’s distress at tearing her dress her heart softened. She took Maggie to her aunt and a warm bond grew between the woman and the two girls.
“It was the happiest part of the day to Maggie. Something in herself was so much in harmony with Mrs. Buxton’s sweet, resigned gentleness, that it answered like an echo, and the two understood each other strangely well.”
A simple account of two families meeting, but it says so much about the effects of both family circumstances and the class system.
And, though her mother and brother fail to understand, Maggie does have a friend at home to love and care for her.
“Nancy had at last to put away her work, and come to bed, in order to soothe the poor child, who was crying at the thought that Mrs Buxton would soon die, and that she should never see her again. Nancy loved the little girl dearly, and felt no jealousy of this warm admiration of the unknown lady. She listened to her story and her fears till the sobs were hushed; and the moon fell through the casement on the white, closed eyelids of one, who still sighed in her sleep.”
Just two chapters but such wonderful pictures, such quietly powerful emotions, such wonderful possibilities in the story still to come …