“A comparison (of Elizabeth Gaskell) to Jane Austen for its combination of humor and moral judgment in the observation of character and conduct is often made, not unjustly, though Mrs. Gaskell’s canvas is larger than Austen’s bit of ivory.” Edgar Wright
Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) has been said to have a “wit to challenge Jane Austen’s, a conscience of social struggle unrivalled by Dickens, and charm and values to enrapture George Eliot’s fans”. This is high praise indeed to be mentioned with such exalted literary company, and we are fortunate that several of her novels have been recently adapted into movies by the BBC; Wives and Daughter (1999), North and South (2004) and now Cranford, which will be presented on the next three Sundays (May 4th, 11th and 18th) on PBS.
Cranford is a combination of four of Elizabeth Gaskells’ stories; Cranford, Dr. Harrison’s Confessions, My Lady Ludlow aka Round the Sofa, and The Last Generation in England; that were written as short stories for her employer Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words between 1851- 1853. It offers us a glimpse of Victorian life in a rural English village circa 1842, introducing us to many memorable characters that revolve around the lives of Misses Deborah (Eileen Atkins) and Matty (Judi Dench) Jenkyns; – two spinsters who live a seemingly quiet life full of “busy nothings” with their mostly female community of Cranford as they face adversity and change.
The characters are so engaging and finely drawn that comparisons to Miss Austen are inevitable, and we see a bit of Miss Bates (Emma), Mrs. Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Lady Bertram (Mansfield Park) in Mrs. Gaskells’s characterizations. Life in the village of Cranford has it’s similarities to Meryton (Pride and Prejudice) or Highbury (Emma), but Gaskell’s narrative is more expansive than Austen, introducing a wider social and economic sphere into her characters lives, and we feel the influence of her contemporaries such as author Charles Dickens’ deeper social commentary and moral sensibility throughout the story.
The new adaptation of Cranford aired in the UK last fall to rave reviews, so this series is highly anticipated by many Masterpiece fans, and a fit finale to the Classic portion of the re-modeled Masterpiece Theatre which began last January with The Complete Jane Austen series. You can prime yourself for the premiere at these fine sites…
- Biography of Mrs. Gaskell
- Cranford: Masterpiece Classic
- Cranford Episode One: Mrs. Elton Sez…
- Cranford fansite at Cranford Chronicles
*Image of the miniature portrait of Elizabeth Gaskell, circa 1832 by William John Thomson (Scottish, born circa 1771-1845)