The Elizabeth Gaskell umbrella mystery.

jenny uglowPerhaps it’s because we’ve lacked rain for two months that my attention was caught, the other day, by a reference to umbrellas in Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography of Elizabeth Gaskell.  I turn up all sorts of intriguing oddities when preparing for classes.  Some I can use, but there are always nuggets that don’t have a place in my course plan.

This one tantalises because its thrown in so casually, in reference to Gaskell’s honeymoon in Wales.  Uglow says:

At Beddgelert Elizabeth had to overcome her terror of umbrellas, at least the mundane variety.

As the old saying goes, ‘and that’s all she wrote’.

Surely I can’t be the only reader who expects such a statement to be followed by an anecdote? The biography is, in other ways, admirably explanatory.  Where possible, events are referenced by extracts from letters, they’re put into historical context, and possible conclusions are identified.  If something is being guessed, Uglow provides her justification for drawing assumptions.

I’d been involved by Elizabeth’s story, frequently forgetting that this is a non-fiction.  Call me picky, but I’ve two problems with this sentence.

First, is the inclusion of the word had. Why is it there? Uglow could have said, ‘At Beddgelert, Elizabeth overcame her terror of umbrellas.’  I’d have accepted that.

I’ve met people with surprising and unsurprising phobias, and seen how the word ‘terror’ is attached to them.  People can and do confront their phobias for all sorts of reasons. What the word had implies to me is a very specific need that forces the issue. Had, means a story, and I longed to know it.

Chekov said that if you introduce a gun into your narrative, it’s a promise, and needs to go off before the story ends. True, he was talking about fiction, and yet, don’t some of the same rules apply to non-fiction too?

Uglow’s second half of that sentence, intensifies my problem.

At Beddgelert Elizabeth had to overcome her terror of umbrellas, at least the mundane variety.

The ‘at least’ picks up the implications of ‘had’: it says, ‘by the way, here’s some ammunition.’  At least means this was not a casual event, it refers to a crisis.  Elizabeth was placed in a situation that forced her to confront a major fear (terror) and it was not an easy battle, because she only partially succeeded.  That, is the heart of most stories.

This quibble doesn’t quite stop here, I have one more question.  Forgive me if it seems a little frivolous, but I really want to know, what does a ‘mundane‘ umbrella look like, in 1832?


17 thoughts on “The Elizabeth Gaskell umbrella mystery.

  1. This sentence was a bit of a dalliance really and it was quite unfair that Jenny Uglow didn’t give anything more than a teaser. Sentences that leave one hanging with baited breath. Because it seems the most interesting story of all, and yet we are left dangling by a thread without being told what the real story was, or I’d even say, it is so tantalisingly interesting we are left panting like thirsty dogs! Could be a writing exercise in class, maybe. Great blog post, thanks.

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  2. What a fascinating post, Cath. Makes me want to run to the biography. Love Jenny Uglow’s eclectic books. Quite coincidentally while sorting out some papers I came across a book which featured at the Chipping Campden Literature Festival this year which may interest you. “Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature” by Marion Rankine. This in turn led me to the Japanese umbrella ghost, variously called the kasa-abake Karakasa-Obake, Kasa-Bake, or Karakasa Kozo, one of the Japanese yokai, a set of characters from folklore. The umbrella monster has one eye, one leg and an enormous tongue!!! Food for thought?
    Apparently the umbrella appears over 120 times in Dickens; Derrida and Nietzsche both wrote about umbrellas: Leonard Bast in Forster’s “Howard’s End” ‘could not quite forget his stolen umbrella and Will Self’s “Umbrella” was on the 2012 Booker shortlist.

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  3. Dagnabit, now you got me wondering about this, too! Did the writer think, “hee hee! This will add a touch of humor to the bio!”? But the problem with such a line is, as you said, it begs for explanation. And we can’t pass a beggar like this one.
    It makes me wonder about the setting, too. What is it about Beddgelert that requires mundane umbrellas, whereas other towns need even more? So…many…questions…

    (Excellent post, by the by xxxxxxx)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jean. Apologies if this now niggles at you too. I can explain a little of the landscape: Beddgelert is a village in North Wales, an area known for its dampness, but that only explains umbrellas.

      These days it’s a popular hiking area, with access to a variety of beautiful landscapes. Middle-class British Victorians were fond of travel. Maybe it was busy then, too, with weather-aware tourists who had enough cash for sight-seeing and the basic sensible walking wear, but nothing frivolous. Though that still leaves me wondering just what constitutes a mundane umbrella…

      I’m tempted to track down Jenny Uglow and ask if she knows the answer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Me being the practical Midwesterner that I am cannot comprehend the frivolization (new word!) of what is otherwise a practice tool. But then, I went to a high school where umbrellas were some strange taboo–no students ever used one on the campus. Nor did we run. You walked in the rain, you soaked your school gear (because backpacks=taboo) and you liked it because…reasons!

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  4. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #29 – Book Jotter

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