Sunday, November 2, 2008
When most people think of Victorian novels, inevitably they think first of Charles Dickens, second the Bronte sisters and Oscar Wilde, third maybe Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope. But usually only Victorianists read novels by people such as Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), but people need to know more about her. About a decade ago I read Cranford, a collection of novella-like stories Gaskell published in the early 1850s. It's the story of a fictional town in Cheshire, England, around the early 1840s, just at the time when the Industrial Revolution was stretching the railroad throughout the English countryside and frightening people in small towns such as Cranford. It has a great opening line: "In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons." These Amazons are the women of Cranford, mostly spinsters or widows, but all seemingly in charge of this town where men seem to play no role at all, certainly not in the lives of the Amazons. Cranford is actually one of the funniest, most sentimental, and most endearing Victorian books I've ever read, and I always remembered it fondly as a favorite.
Needless to say, I was pleased to hear last year about the new BBC production of Cranford. It aired in the US earlier this year on PBS, and I finally managed to catch it on DVD and watch the five episodes over the course of a fortnight (sorry, couldn't resist). It was superb! Some of you may remember the production of Bleak House that was done a few years ago, and if you loved that, then you'll love Cranford. Judi Dench plays Miss Matty Jenkyns, a warm-hearted but occasionally befuddled spinster. Dench heads an all-star cast that also includes Eileen Atkins, Francesca Annis, Imelda Staunton, Julia Sawalha, and on and on. Among the men, Michael Gambon has a brief role, but it's well done, and Simon Woods (who I've had a crush on since he was in HBO's Rome) plays Cranford's young, new, doe-eyed Dr. Frank Harrison. It's important to keep in mind that the producers were all women as well, which I think adds a certain flair to the production (one of the sole males on set was the director). They did take some serious creative license with Gaskell's book, so don't expect a true-to-the-novel adaptation, but as has been noted, Cranford is such a melange of individual tales that it reads more like a series of interwoven short stories and not a solid novel in and of itself. But the miniseries succeeds in its representations of issues of the day, like the approaching railroad, the importance for a women to marry (or not, as the case may be), new treatments for medical ailments, and education for the impoverished and women. There are some hysterically funny moments, like when the cow falls in the limepit and the women sew him grey flannel pajamas to heal his wounds. But this is emotional drama too, and death is a recurring motif throughout the miniseries, as it was during the Victorian period, so be prepared to watch it with a handkerchief.