Classics Club Challenge #3: “Mr. Harrison’s Confessions”

Cranford & Other Stories

Mr. Harrison’s Confessions by Elizabeth Gaskell
originally published in 1851

first read on May 22nd 2014

The arrival of a bachelor doctor in the small town Duncombe causes for an internal uproar for its inhabitants – it seems young ladies find themselves more frequently sick now that they have a new doctor in town. Matrons are keeping a sharp eye out for a possible match with their young female charge and/or sharp ears out for possible gossip. What Mr. Harrison does not expect is that every gesture he makes and every word he says will be carefully analyzed and carelessly blown out of their proportion. Generally understood as Cranford in miniature or a prequel to Cranford (although the characters and settings are in no way related to each other), Mr. Harrison’s Confessions is a delightful story – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant (as the narrator is a doctor, and he can’t cure everything) – that captures the comings and goings of a small town in a witty and exaggerated way.

I have to confess I am not a lover of short stories. I prefer full-length novel to 20-page short story out of various reasons, one of which is that 20 pages (or 30, or 40) are way too short for me to get acquainted with, and attached to, the characters. Also, reading one short story after another will inevitably cause the effect of you scratching your head at the end of the day, wondering what exactly happened in this story, and did this detail belong to that one?
These were the reasons why I was wary of reading the six short stories by Elizabeth Gaskell that are contained in this volume (Mr. Harrison’s Confessions being the first of the lot). But I have to say I am pleasantly surprised! It played in my favor that Mr. Harrison’s Confessions is categorized as novella and not short story regarding the length (on Wikipedia, anyway; also, compared to the next story, The Doom of the Griffiths), allowing me the room and time to get to know the narrator, Will/Frank Harrison (in the first page it’s Will, then all throughout the novella Frank), and the “secondary” characters – Mr. Morgan, Mrs. Rose, Miss Caroline, Miss Sophy, the Bullocks, Miss Horseman, Mrs. Munton, and so on.

The story is told in retrospective; Mr. Harrison, now married to someone whose name is not revealed (yet), and with a baby, is entertaining his friend Charles, who asks Mr. Harrison to pray tell how he got himself such a pretty wife and domestic bliss? So Mr. Harrison starts his narration, which does have a feel of “story within the story” if it weren’t for the occasional reference to the presence. The ending is rather abrupt although everything is wrapped up, as his narration stops once his wife comes back from having put the baby to sleep (which took awfully long if you consider Mr. Harrison had about 70 pages to tell his story).

I can see why this novella is compared to Cranford – small town, fast spreading rumors, female population in abundance etc. – but I rather delighted in the different details that Mr. Harrison’s Confessions had that Cranford didn’t. For one, we have a male narrator who is rather dense and insensitive, yet not boring in narration. His colleague/supervisor/advisor Mr. Morgan made also a welcome addition that sometimes fueled the conflict and other times soothed Mr. Harrison. Jack, who caused most of the strife in the short amount of time of his visit, I still remember with fondness, even though if he did the same thing to me, I wouldn’t be as forgiving.

It was also very fascinating to observe – and confirm my observations of real life – how being told that someone is in love with us changes our opinion of that person. Like, you might think you are just very fond of this person, but once another person tells you – mumble mumble mumble – that s_he is sure that that person is in love with you, your opinion of that person changes. First you are flattered (it might stop there, but it rarely does in my limited experience of the world), then you become flustered until you’ve convinced yourself in love with that person also. Fortunately, once the (in this case) the mistaken information is corrected, you huff and puff for a while and then calm down. *Wink* I’m looking at you, Mrs. Rose. Although not only you, to be fair.

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