Elizabeth Gaskell’s Moorland Cottage: Summary and Thoughts Chapter 1

Gaskell Blog © Katherine C.

Moorland Cottage, belongs to the family of the late curate, the Browne’s. Mrs. Browne and her children, Edward (Ned) and Margaret (Maggie), are dependent on the produce of their surrounding fields and gardens. Nancy, their old and loyal servant, tends to the livestock, which doesn’t leave her enough time to do all the housework. So, Mrs. Browne and Maggie do a deal of it while Ned studies, complaining at the slightest interruption.

You see, Maggie, a man must be educated to be a gentleman. Now, if a woman knows how to keep a house, that’s all that is wanted from her. So my time is of more consequence than yours. Mamma says I’m to go to college, and be a clergyman; so I must get on with my Latin.

An Afternoon in the Garden, by Myles Birket Foster

Secluded from Combehurst, the local town, they only venture out when the church bells ring on Sunday. On their way home Mrs. Browne faithfully cries over her husband’s grave — unless of course it’s raining.

The custom had arisen out of true sorrow for his loss, for a kinder husband, and more worthy man, had never lived; but the simplicity of her sorrow had been destroyed by the observation of others on the mode of its manifestation. They made way for her to cross the grass toward his grave; and she, fancying that it was expected of her, fell into the habit I have mentioned.

She allows her judgments of what society wants to affect her behavior, even on something as deep as the grief of a loved one. Edward also shows concern over what society thinks, but being more discerning than his mother realizes her behavior is being criticized not admired. Embarrassed he confides to Maggie that he wishes it would rain every Sunday, and he’s glad his father is no longer there to scold and admonish him.

Painting by Myles Birket Foster

Maggie’s genuine sorrow is shown in her comment to Edward:

Do you ever waken and fancy you heard papa calling you? I do sometimes; and then I am very sorry to think we shall never hear him calling us again.

She brushes away her older brother’s callous words, saying they’re too young to rightly understand such things and shouldn’t talk about them, but throughout the chapter Edward’s heartless and arrogant nature become more and more apparent. When fetching water at the Spring, he condescends to help her carry the water jug, but when it spills he becomes irritated and refuses to help her again. Maggie, already tired, goes back to refill it and carry it home by herself.

She felt sad, she knew not why. “I think Ned is sometimes very cross,” thought she. “I did not understand he was carrying it there. Perhaps I am clumsy. Mamma says I am; and Ned says I am. Nancy never says so and papa never said so. I wish I could help being clumsy and stupid. Ned says all women are so. I wish I was not a woman. It must be a fine thing to be a man. Oh dear! I must go up the field again with this heavy pitcher, and my arms do so ache!”

The Milk Maid by Myles Birket Foster

Edward’s nature perhaps could have been improved if Mrs. Browne took the trouble to correct it, but in her love for him she indulges and spoils him too much, making them both very inconsiderate towards Maggie. When she returns home, dinner has already started and after washing her hands and tidying herself up she is about to sit down to her meal when Edward asks for butter; Mrs. Browne asks Maggie to fetch it for him. She obediently goes without a word but thankfully runs into Nancy in the hall. Knowing how tired and hungry Maggie must be, she fetches the butter instead.

Every hour in its circle brought a duty to be fulfilled; but duties fulfilled are as pleasures to the memory, and little Maggie always thought those early childish days most happy, and remembered them only as filled with careless contentment.

Despite all of Edward’s studying Maggie has more common sense. He can’t figure out how to keep his toy ship from falling sideways in the water, Maggie says ‘it’ needs ballast. Aggravated at her logical answer, he chastises her for not using the correct pronoun of ‘she’. But then asks her advice once more when he realizes pebbles are too big for the ballast and he’s at a loss at what to use.

The Itinerant Fiddler, by Myles Birket Foster

The townspeople are always inviting the family to stay until dinner after church service but, to the relief of the timid children, they never accept. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if they’d accept Mr. Buxton’s invitation, he has two children their age– one day, they do. Mr. Buxton drops by the cottage for a visit. He’s a wealthy man and Mrs. Browne and Edward put on their best clothes and become rather pretension, changing the way they speak and act to impress him.

Mr. Buxton was so large, and the parlor so small, that when he was once in, Maggie thought when he went away, he could carry the room on his back, as a snail does its house.

Maggie tends to the practical and doesn’t even stop a moment to brush her hair. Her earnest polishing of the glass wins over Mr. Buxton and in his delight of her invites the family to stay. Thinking they’ll be great friends for his son, Frank, and niece Erminia. Mrs. Browne is delighted at the prospect but cautiously says she’s not in spirits for visiting. It’s only when Mr. Buxton suggests it would be good for the children that she consents.

A fuss is made about what Mrs. Browne and Edward will wear, Maggie is quite forgotten about except by Nancy. She’s happy that Ned will be going to school and hopes he’ll learn his place. Suggesting he’s as arrogant with Nancy as he is with Maggie.

After her long day’s work was ended, Nancy sat up at her sewing. She had found out that among all the preparations, none were going on for Margaret; and she had used her influence over her mistress (who half-liked and half-feared, and entirely depended upon her) to obtain from her an old gown, which she had taken to pieces, and washed and scoured, and was now making up, in a way a little old-fashioned to be sure; but, on the whole, it looked so nice when completed and put on, that Mrs. Browne gave Maggie a strict lecture about taking great care of such a handsome frock and forgot that she had considered the gown from which if had been made as worn out and done for.

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13 Comments Add yours

  1. Alison says:

    Well that is a great summary what more can I say:-)

    The glorious descriptive opening sets the secluded scene very well…who wouldn’t want to live in such a wonderful place.

    The typical senario of a mother spoiling and eldest male child and the daughter doing all the work around the house not given credit for her interlect of manual efforts. Society and traditon seem to have squeezed every once of self worth out of the poor girl but she doesn’t exactly help her self by being such a martyr and excepting the situation although she probably had little choice.

    chapter 2 here I come…

  2. Alison says:

    should read * interlect and manual efforts.
    sorry

  3. Diane says:

    Right from the start you know Ned is going to be trouble – spoiled by his mother he doesn’t act like a responsible “man of the house” but rather like a spoiled “lord of the manor”. It’s easy to see how so many first sons of the period ruined their families by their behavior.
    On the other hand, Maggie is almost cast aside as an afterthought left to cater to her brother. Mrs Browne is responsible for both of their behavior and only Nancy manages to see through the situation to know what’s going on with each child.
    If Mr Brown had lived, this situation would probably have been somewhat rectified by keeping Ned in line but I don’t know if even he could keep Mrs. Browne from treating Maggie like a second-class citizen (which I suppose she really was).
    The interesting thing is that as a grandchild of immigrants I saw the same type of treatment of sons and daughters – so somethings never change.

  4. bccmee says:

    As I said in another part of the blog, this first chapter reads like a fable. I wonder how it will end up. The descriptions of the landscape are so vivid, but the character development is done with broad brushstrokes. However, I have a feeling that things will become apparent as the book progresses.

  5. I loved the description of the moor flowers. Thanks for the pictures too.

    Your summary is excellent Katherine. I think Mrs. Gaskell has set up the story and characters beautifully. You know right off the Ned is going to be trouble. He is so conceited and senseless. Mrs. Browne crying over her husband’s grave every Sunday is a telling clue to her sensibility. I am curious what the family lives on besides the farm produce. Could a family survive just on that and have servants? They seem to live very frugally, but would she have received a widow’s pension from the church?

  6. bccmee says:

    @Laurel Ann (Austenprose) I wondered the same thing about the Browne family’s income. Perhaps Mrs. Browne receives a small pension and she brought some of her own assets to the marriage. Also due to the fact that there is a son, any entail, no matter how small, would be protected.

  7. Summer says:

    Great summary and analysis. Mrs. Gaskell describes very clearly the specific roles of men and women in the Victorian society. One can not avoid disliking Ned right from the very beginning as well as feeling sorry for poor Maggie.

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