Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell: A Naxos Audiobooks Review & Giveaway

To prime myself for Return to Cranford, the new Masterpiece Classic sequel to last year’s award-winning mini-series Cranford on PBS, I wanted to read Mrs. Gaskell’s original novel that it was adapted from. Since I am always short of reading time, I chose instead to listen to an audio recording, my favorite pastime during my commute to work. After a bit of research on Cranford audio book recordings, I settled on the Naxos edition. From my experience with their recording of Jane Austen’s novels I knew the quality would be superior. I was not disappointed.

A witty and poignant portrait of small town life in an early Victorian-era English village, Cranford was first published in 1851 as a serial in the magazine Household Words edited by Charles Dickens. Inspired by author Elizabeth Gaskell’s (1810-1865) early life in Knutsford in Cheshire where she was raised by an aunt after her mother’s death and father’s subsequent re-marriage, the novel revolves around the narrator Miss Mary Smith and the Amazons of the community: the authoritative Miss Deborah Jenkyns and her kindhearted but timid younger sister Matty, the always well informed Miss Miss Pole and the self-important aristocratic Mrs. Jamieson. This gentle satire of village life does not supply much of a plot – but amazingly it does not matter. Gaskell has the incredible talent of making everyday occurrences and life events totally engrossing. Miss Matty’s conservative friends, the middle-aged spinsters and widows of Cranford, do not want their quaint life and traditions altered one bit. They like Cranford just as it has always been, therefore when the industrial revolution that swept through England in the 1840’s encroaches upon their Shangri-La, they lament and bustle about attempting to do everything in there power to stop the evil railroad’s arrival. Gaskell is a deft tactician at dry humor, not unlike her predecessor Jane Austen, and the comedy in Cranford balanced with a bit of tragedy is its most endearing quality.

This unabridged audio book recording is aptly read by Claire Willie whose sensitive and lyrical interpretation of Gaskell’s narrative enhanced my enjoyment of the story by two fold. Her rendering of the different characters with change of timbre and intonation was charmingly effective. My favorite character was of course the kindhearted Miss Matty. Even though she is of a certain age she has a child-like naïveté refreshingly seeing her friends and her world in simple terms. In opposition to our present day lives of cell-phones, blackberries and information overload, a trip to Cranford was a welcome respite. I recommend it highly.

2010 marks the 200th anniversary of author Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell nee Stevenson’s birth on 29 September 1810 in Chelsea, which was then on the outskirts of London. In celebration of her bi-centenary, Naxos Audiobooks will be releasing three additional recordings of her novels: North and South in February again read by Claire Willis, Wives and Daughters in March read by Patience Tomlinson and Cousin Phillis in May read by Joe Marsh. Happily, I will be enjoying many hours of great Gaskell listening this year.

5 out of 5 Stars

Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell
Read by Claire Willie
Naxos Audiobooks, USA
Unabridged, 6 CDs, running time: 7h 02m
ISBN: 978–9626348505

Giveaway

Enter a chance to win a copy of the Naxos Audiobooks recording of Cranford by leaving a comment by 11:59 pm PT on Sunday, January 24th, 2010 stating which character in Return to Cranford on Masterpiece Classic was your favorite, or which other Victorian era author you have read and would like to see an audio book recording made of. Winner will be announced on Monday January 25th, 2010. Shipping to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

UPDATE 01/25/10: The contest has concluded. The winner was announced. Follow this link to discover id it was YOU!

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Return to Cranford for Bustling Bonnets and a Bit of Melodrama – Recap and Review

Image from Return to Cranford: Judi Dench as Miss Matty © BBC Worldwide 2010 for MASTERPIECE

The Masterpiece Classic season premiered last night on PBS with Return to Cranford. For those of us who loved Cranford, the award winning 2007 miniseries set in an idyllic English village populated by bustling bonnets and a bit of melodrama, this new two-part period drama was tagged as must see TV. Dame Judi Dench reprises her role as the compassionate and kindhearted Miss Matty Jenkyns, the heart and soul of the small insular Cheshire village resisting the encroachment of the industrial revolution in 1844 England.

Again, we see three plots cleverly interlaced revolving around the characters of Cranford. It has been two years since Miss Matty’s older sister Deborah died, but her household is lively with the return of her brother Peter (Nicholas Le Prevost), her maid Martha (Claudie Blakley), Martha’s  husband Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) a capenter with the railroad and baby Tilly who she cherishes. As the opening credits roll, the camera follows Miss Matty as she proudly takes baby Tilly for a stroll down Cranford’s main street meeting her closest friends; the eccentric Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie) and her beloved cow Bessie (still in protective flannel pajamas), dotty Miss Tomkinson (Deborah Findlay), snobbish Mrs. Jamieson (Barbara Flynn) and quirky gossip Miss Octavia Pole (Imelda Staunton) reminding us of the importance of personal connections in this tight-knit community. This was a nice touch by director Simon Curtis, one of many moments throughout the production that add pause and sentiment.

Meanwhile, Local aristocrat Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) is anxiously awaiting the return of her prodigal son Septimus (Rory Kinnear) from Italy after a long absence. Her health is failing and Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding) fears he will not return in time. Also under her watchful eye is young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel), the impoverished local lad who inherited the fortune of Lady Ludlow’s stewart, now on his way to public school in Shrewsbury to receive a gentleman’s education. When Lady Ludlow’s son returns and discovers that the estate has been heavily mortgaged and that young Harry holds the note against it, he attempts to swindle him out of repayment and his fortune.

Newly returned to the neighborhood is wealthy widower, Mr. Buxton (Jonathan Pryce), his handsome Eton-educated son William (Tom Hiddleston) who aspires to be engineer and his outspoken ward Erminia Whyte (Michelle Dockery) fresh from finishing school in Belgium. Miss Matty calls on her old friend and recommends a re-introduction into Cranford society, namely Mrs. Bell (Lesley Sharp) also a widower and her two children Edward (Matthew McNulty) and Peggy (Jodie Whittaker) who live under reduced circumstances at nearby Thorn Cottage. William and Peggy spark a romance challenging social strata and the objections his father.

Even though the railroad’s plans to bring the line all the way to Cranford were halted by Lady Ludlow’s refusal to sell her land, Captain Brown (Jim Carter) is determined to proceed and a new scheme may challenge the resistant village residents in ways they had not imagined, until it too is thwarted. As the economic impact of the railroad’s loss affects Cranford’s young prompting them to leave to seek employment elsewhere, Miss Matty realizes that Cranford’s desire to maintain tradition may be its demise. When she consults her conscience remembering her sister Deborah’s advice, “Examine all things. Hold on to what is good,” she has a revelation. Can she convince her dear friends to also stand behind her new plan?

It was a delight to be back in the parlor sipping tea and melodrama with the endearing ladies of Cranford. Their Victorian life of “busy nothings” is a welcome respite in our modern techno-infused, multi-tasking, frenetically paced world. The elements that I enjoyed in the first mini-series: finely drawn characters, beautiful production values and an outstanding British cast all return in this new sequel. If it suffers in comparison to the original, it is that it has lost a bit of its freshness. The surprise discovery of a new set of characters and plot is now gone. That was inevitable. Adapted by Heidi Thomas from stories written by Elizabeth Gaskell, this sequel is chockablock full of details in its three hours making it a bit too rushed. Cranford was six hours long, and had the great advantage of telling the story involving three plots and multiple characters in a more leisurely pace. There were many funny moments (Miss Pole and the parrot) and some great plot twists for a drama set in a provincial town. However, being the hopeless romantic, I wanted the story to be more drawn out between the two love interests William Buxton and Peggy Bell. Beyond him being handsome, rich and well educated, I was not quite convinced of their attachment to each other and was surprised at his proposal. Overall, the storyline did not quite match my interests as much as the first, but the cast, especially Dame Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton and Andrew Buchan made up for an deficit carrying it along to a shining conclusion. Since this will be the last period-drama produced by the BBC/WGBH for some time, I must savor every be-ribboned bonnet and yard of opulent silk while it lasts. Anglophiles will be quite charmed by Return to Cranford. It does not get much better than this, unless of course, it is Austen!

Image courtesy © BBC Worldwide 2010 for MASTERPIECE

Elizabeth Gaskell & Jane Austen: Comparisons are Inevitable

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-era 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 fortune that several of her novels have been recently adapted into movies by the BBC/WGBH: Wives and Daughter (1999), North and South (2004) Cranford (2007) and now Return to Cranford (2009), which will be presented on Masterpiece Classic on the next two Sundays (January 10th & 17th) on PBS. You can read a preview of the series here.

Like Jane Austen, Mrs. Gaskell wrote six major novels, her last novel Wives and Daughters was published posthumously in 1865. Her characters are so engaging and finely drawn that comparisons to Miss Austen are inevitable. We see a bit of the garrulous Miss Bates (Emma), the melodramatic Mrs. Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and indolent Lady Bertram (Mansfield Park) in Mrs. Gaskell’s characterizations. Life in the village of Cranford has it’s similarities to Meryton (Pride and Prejudice) and Highbury (Emma) with its small close community, shops and market. However, Gaskell’s narrative is much more expansive than Austen’s, introducing a wider social and economic sphere into her characters lives. We also feel the influence of her contemporaries such as author Charles Dickens’ deeper social commentary and moral sensibility throughout her stories.

Return to Cranford aired in the UK in December, 2009 and was warmly received. This new series has been highly anticipated by many Masterpiece fans, and a fitting opener to the Masterpiece Classic season which also includes a four part adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma premiering on January 24th, 2010 staring Romola Garai as the clever, handsome but clueless Miss Woodhouse and Jonny Lee Miller as her disapproving neighbor Mr. Knightley. You can prime yourself for the premiere at these fine sites.

Return to Cranford Preview – the enchantment continues Sunday on Masterpiece Classic

Image from Return to Cranford: Cranford ladies leaving church © BBC Worldwide 2010 for MASTERPIECE

The Masterpiece Classic season premieres on Sunday, January 10th with Return to Cranford, a two part series based on the stories of Victorian-era writer Elizabeth Gaskell. Dame Judi Dench reprises her role of the compassionate Miss Matty Jenkyns, the heart and soul of the small insular Cheshire village resisting the encroachment of the industrial revolution in 1844 England. Also returning as Miss Matty’s dearest friends are Octavia Pole the quirky town gossip (Imelda Staunton – Charlotte Palmer in Sense and Sensibility 1995), the eccentric Mrs. Forrester who dresses her prized cow in flannel pajamas (Julia McKenzie – the eponymous Miss Marple), the self elevated town aristocrat Mrs. Jamieson (Barbara Flynn – Miss Browning in Wives and Daughters) and the dotty but well intentioned Miss Tomkinson (Deborah Findlay – Miss Phoebe in Wives and Daughters). Here is brief synopsis of the first episode from the good folks at PBS:

New life is charmingly apparent in Cranford as Matty Jenkyns enjoys sharing her home with Tilly, the daughter of her maid Martha and carpenter Jem Hearne. Familiar faces including Miss Pole, Mrs. Forrester and Mrs. Jamieson surround Miss Matty in a loving community. Some new faces have arrived as well — Mrs. Bell, her daughter Peggy and son Edward. Mr. Buxton and his son William have returned to town after years away. Young William eagerly aspires to be an engineer, while his father is grieving the loss of his wife. The railway has crept closer to Cranford, but has been halted several miles outside the village. For it to move any further, Lady Ludlow would have to sell part of her land. Captain Brown is determined to make progress for the railway, but meets resistance from the village residents. An unexpected and alarming shift signals yet more change in store for Cranford. Can Matty and the women of Cranford muster support for what inevitably awaits?

Viewers who enjoyed the first six hour mini-series of Cranford last season on Masterpiece Classic will recognize the return of several familiar characters: Martha (Claudie Blakley), Captain Brown (Jim Carter), Sir Charles Maulver (Greg Wise) and Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) among many others. New additions rounding out this stellar British cast are William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston) and Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker) who offer a new romance in the village for the elders to object too.

Return to Cranford aired in the UK in December, 2009 to much acclaim by critics and strong viewer ratings. It was produced by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin who brought us such classics period dramas as Pride and Prejudice 1995, Emma 1996 and Wives and Daughters 1999. Since the BBC has feigned bonnet fatigue and will not be producing any more period dramas in the immediate future, we must hold fast to this last effort and enjoy it why it lasts. Return to Cranford airs on January 10th and 17th at 9:00 – 10:30 pm eastern on PBS. (check your local listings) Enjoy!

Did you miss the reprise of Cranford that concluded on Sunday, January 3rd? Watch all three episodes of Cranford online at the Masterpiece website until January 10th.

Image courtesy © BBC Worldwide 2010 for MASTERPIECE