Sunday, 30 December 2007


Elizabeth Gaskell has long been one of my favourite authors; imagine how pleased I was to hear that Cranford, one of her novels, would be adapted on TV in five parts. Sadly, it's now come to an end and has left a gaping hole in Sunday nights: it's not often that a TV serial improves on a book but this production of 'Cranford' was one.

What I like in Gaskell's novels is her understanding and portrayal of social inequalities; many novelists of the time skated over the less savoury elements of society (Jane Austen for one) or made them into characters (Dickens) but Gaskell embraces the gritty and the grey without preaching. She was a good friend of Dickens, who encouraged her writing, and she helped to promote the talents of her great friend, Charlotte Bronte.

Gaskell was married to a church minister whose parish was in Manchester and it was there that her strong sense of social injustice was developed. Her harsh depictions of mill owners in Mary Barton was garnered from her experience helping the poor slum dwellers of her husband's parish. And her understanding of life's tragedies was partly based on her own experiences.

Her own mother had died when she was only one year old and her father rejected her, sending her off to live with an aunt when he remarried (fortunately she was kindly). Then her beloved brother was lost at sea and some of her own children died. She was therefore no stranger to sadness and loss.

In fact, Cranford is not one of my favourite Gaskell novels – nor are Sylvia's Lovers or Wives and Daughters - but Mary Barton and North and South are, I think, brilliant. Perhaps it was because Cranford was initially written as a short story and later enlarged on – at Dickens' suggestion – that I found it less than gripping.

Some have described the production of 'Cranford' as sentimental, self-indulgent stuff and rather tame. But I disagree. In the TV production there's not a lot of action but the story has been so well done – and so well acted -that what comes through are the subtle nuances of society, the deeply felt slights and the strongly felt emotions kept under control.

The main characters are a group of genteel women (played brilliantly by Francesca Annis, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton) who live in the village of Cranford (modelled on Knutsford, Gaskell's childhood home). They take tea, buy hats in the local store, play card games and gossip. Dashed hopes, unreasonable aspirations, petty jealousies are all there: so too is the poverty of a feckless family, the death of relatives and of beloved pets.

Gaskell's ideals shine through: the philanthropy of a good man who educates a poor boy and how he shames the lady of the manor into acting in a Christian like way. Cranford is a novel that shows the reader every day life – Gaskell set her novels in the present unlike Austen – and it was this that was so sensational. It drew her middle class reader's attention to what life was like in quiet village or industrial town.

Gaskell achieved fame and fortune in her lifetime – she was born in 1810 and died aged 55 from overwork and a poor heart – but she has been largely ignored and unappreciated as a novelist until the last few years. Recent biographies of her, along with the rise in appreciation of women novelists, women's studies and radio adaptions of her work, have introduced many new converts to her writing.

Gaskell's dry and wry humour is amusing when put into the mouths of the frustrated spinsters of Cranford: "She [Miss Jenkyns] would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior." Perhaps this is why she is such a popular novelist at last!



ktylerconk said...

I just discovered your blog, and found this entry very interesting! I hope that the TV series makes it here to the States, as it has a great cast and sounds fascinating.

Thanks for sharing this!

Lucy said...

Thanks for your comment: great to think that people have interests in common although thousands of miles separate them. I'm sure Cranford will make it to the States because it was such a classy production.