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Summary

Lady Ludlow's appalling snobbery, prejudice and bred-in-the-bone conviction as to the superiority of the English aristocracy and their feudal way of life are deliciously tested, and found wanting, in this gently radical tale of the collapse of a social system.

Elizabeth Gaskell's My Lady Ludlow is a brilliant picture of the shift in power in a rural northern village, from the velvety feudal Ludlows to the glitter of the new money rattling through the system courtesy of the brazen baker from Birmingham.

The interruption of scenes from the French Revolution adds a crackling of horror to this quintessentially British of downfalls. One of the extraordinary things about My Lady Ludlow as a book is that in spite of the creation of a monster of hidebound arrogance and pretension, Gaskell cannot help but produce a character that you end up rooting for right up to the wide grin induced by the final twist in the plot.

Public Domain (P)2008 Silksoundbooks Limited

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A lost age

Mrs Gaskell is a wonderfully sympathetic writer. I thought at first the scope of the story was too narrow, and nearly set it aside; but gradually her sensitive study of an old lady lost in a changing culture won me over. Not as powerful as her other novels, but still worth the listen.

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  • Tad Davis
  • 04-03-20

A treat

If, like me, you were charmed by the BBC/PBS series “Cranford,” you probably already know that the series was a mosaic that wove together storylines from more than one novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. The main one, naturally enough, is Cranford, and if you want to go the audiobook route, you have a large selection to choose from there. Other parts of the series drew on the novels My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison’s Confessions, and the choice is more limited there: only one version of each. I haven't tried the Harrison novel yet, but I can vouch for this one: it's a treat.

Susannah York gives a delightful reading of this largely episodic tale of a baron’s widow trying to cope with economic and social change. Lady Ludlow takes a dim view of educating the peasants: once they learn to read, she says, they'll be clamoring for the “rights of man” rather than their duties, and then the English will have the French Revolution on their hands. Yet she has a kinder side, and her face lights up, the narrator tells us, whenever she hears of a compassionate deed. The narrator is a young relation who lives with the Lady, and about whom we know little except that she has a chronic illness that has left her partly disabled.

The initial tone of the novel is laid back, and it comes as a surprise to find, dropped into the middle of it, a tragic novella narrated by Lady Ludlow. It turns out her reference to the French Revolution was more than a figure of speech. A refugee from that upheaval, a young man named Clément, lived with Lord and Lady Ludlow for a brief time. But he decided to go back to rescue his cousin Virginie, with whom he had fallen in love. He unknowingly crossed a rich citizen who had also fallen in love with Virginie — with the kind of love that would rather see her dead than be with another man. Denounced by this would-be lover, the young man and Virginie were both captured and both died on the scaffold together.

There are other tragedies. The Ludlows' own son, a proud naval officer, perished at sea in the Napoleonic wars. (In fact all of the Ludlow children die, including the last remaining heir to the title and estate.) There is some overlap with Jane Austen in terms of period and subject, but Gaskell’s tone is darker and the shadows more prevalent. A local parson upsets the equanimity of the community by preaching against slavery: he won't take sugar in his tea because it's a product of slavery. Lady Ludlow, decent as she is on the whole, doesn't like new ideas, and is especially offended by the existence of illegitimate children. (Given her negative attitude toward universal education, illegitimate children, and poachers, it should come as no surprise, this being a novel with SOME plot development, that she helps build a school for the poor, supports a young girl who is probably illegitimate, and employs a former poacher as her gamekeeper.)

Gaskell herself was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, but it would be hard to imagine a writer more different in tone. Where Dickens’ humor veers between farce and angry satire, Gaskell’s is soft and humane. The novel operates as a character study rather than a plot-driven narrative: it flows gently; it reminds me more of the workaday realism of Anthony Trollope than the sharply drawn melodrama of Dickens.

This is the only audiobook narrated by Susannah York on Audible (apart from a couple of plays). She does it like she was born to the job, and it's a delight.

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  • Fontaine Ralston
  • 19-01-19

So beautiful

So many winsome characters and such a sweet story. I cried when it ended. More Elizabeth Gaskell, please!