“Mrs Forrester … sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up, though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes.”
-Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford
Elizabeth Gaskell is a Victorian author I introduced myself to quite unexpectedly, and without whom Wives and Daughters and Cranford, had I not read them, would have left a great literary void in me. Gaskell is a great novelist who often reminds me of the sagacity of George Eliot. Both Victorian writers battled with a sword adorned by femininity and delicacy in a world wrapped in David Copperfield. And yet, they were able to revolutionize the common male-dominated rhetoric discourse, and renovate readers, even Dickens himself, into righteous admiring bibliophiles.
‘I would exchange my sensibility for George Eliot’s mastery’, as my twitter banner proclaims, is sweetly directed towards Eliot who I have become greatly influenced by over the years- and for a reason I have yet to understand the depth of. I recently read an article claiming Middlemarch to be a book “that allows its reader to grow multiple times…”. The first time I read Middlemarch I was 22-years-old and I thought of Eliot as a ghost companion who knew my thoughts a couple of hundred decades ago and wrote about them; freaky yet reviving. Perhaps I hadn’t grown in the sense to which the writer of the article was alluding to (Middlemarch was my first great literature experience; before it I was reading Canadian literature in high school) but it does change something- it offers immaculate language carved neatly through exemplary sentences and verbal phrases that somehow you find wanting. And at 22, I was thrown down the rabbit hole of prose wilderness- its charm was everything I could ask for.
A couple of days ago I discovered an essay written a year before Eliot’s first published literary work and it was called ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’. This essay was published anonymously in the Westminister Review in 1856. I was extremely happy to have found this essay, mainly for two reasons: first, the title was extraordinarily enticing, and second, reading Eliot’s personal thoughts aside from her crafted story-telling would, I thought, be undoubtedly stimulating. And I was not proven wrong.
The essay was everything remarkable. I delved deep into her thoughts on why female writers (of the Victorian era) should not be romanticizing and sheepishly idealizing the prep and proper lady in their work of fiction. Eliot opposed the downsize of intellectual prose and spoke of the dangers of having ‘silly novels’ that undermine the value of a woman’s education. In her essay, Eliot describes the female heroine in ‘silly novels’ as beautiful, virtuous, desired, humorous, exceptionally talented, fluent in more than one language (particularly French, or Hebrew), and one who is well-read and holds supreme intelligence. Objection? Well yes, think of its abstract. Eliot objects superficiality. She believes female heroines are objectified (submissive, polite, cheerful, lovable, and always end up marrying suitably and living happily) and deeply unrealistic (for obvious reasons). But most importantly, the language written in these ‘silly novels’ do not lend to intellectual growth in either ‘depth, eloquence, or originality’. Therefore, the author is either silly or its heroine is silly. In any case, both author, heroine, and reader might find him/or herself coming to the conclusion that women might not benefit from education. This, according to Eliot, is the real danger of silly novels.
How remarkably relatable to the 21st century are Eliot’s penned thoughts?
Perhaps it’s for these reasons I grew fond of Middlemarch, and of Eliot herself, without getting an answer to why. Maybe somewhere between great dialogue and impeccable writing the pages whispered ‘pay attention’ and it was referring to Eliot’s insight and wisdom, and how maybe, just maybe, Eliot was careful to transfer insight and wisdom onto her readers, especially her female readers, and allow them to be greatly challenged by something more than dress and social class, but by political and philosophical rationalizations, the intertwined complexes of personal relationships, religion and the imbalance of ethics, and the multifaceted irregulaties of social elites. Eliot wanted her readers to pay attention. She was a woman of deep intellectual thoughts and she asked you to pay attention to her language use, her creativity and art, and most importantly, her thoughts- which to this day, all dead and living, could attest to them as not ever being silly.
Cranberry and Orange Zest Shortbread Cookies
Total time: 70 minutes (60 minute chill time- you can skip this if you want)
- 2½ cups all purpose flour
- ¾ cups sugar, divided
- 1 cup butter, cubed (and cold)
- 1 tsp almond or vanilla extract (your choice)
- zest of 1 orange
- ½ cup dried cranberries
- Sugar to coat cookies with
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- Combine cranberries and ¼ cup of sugar in a food processor and process just until the cranberries are broken down into smaller pieces. Set aside.
- Combine flour and remaining sugar in a large bowl.
- Use a pastry blender to cut in butter. You want very fine crumbs.
- Stir in extract, cranberries and sugar mixture, and orange zest.
- Use your hands to knead the dough until it comes together and forms a ball. Work the dough just until it comes together – do not overwork it.
- Shape dough into a log about two inches in a diameter and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for an hour or two, or up to 72 hours.
- Preheat oven to 325F.
- Cut slices of cookie dough about ¼ inch thick.
- Place about a half a cup of sugar in a bowl and coat the cookie slices with sugar.
- Place cookies on baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes or just until cookies are set. Do not over bake. 1o minutes is usually enough. They will still look undercooked but don’t worry!
Lessons Learned: A couple of things: do not try to cut corners with this recipe like I did (oops!). For the very first time I went to look for the butter in my refrigerator but couldn’t find any (surprise? not so much). Instead, I found the ‘it tastes like butter, butter’ substitute and some margarine. So, given that I went to the supermarket to buy cranberries so I could specifically make this recipe, I plunged into the mysterious adventure of baking faux pas. Even though the cookies turned out delicious, I am blogging it because I could only imagine the taste in these had these cookies been made with real 1 cup of butter. Also, the combination of cranberries (not usually a fan) and orange zest was incredible. Another lesson, I did not chill my recipe. Again, perhaps I was rushing? I can’t tell- but I could have sworn I read the recipe three times and didn’t read the ‘chill up to 2 hours or 72 hours’ part. I swear! Surprise, surprise – I had to read that part when I was indeed making the recipe and my oven was already pre-heated. So, I gambled again. Texture was great; soft and crumbly and delicious.