When the mini-series Cranford was first shown on TV, I avoided it.
I couldn’t believe that anyone could get a screenplay out of that quiet not-really-a-novel without distorting it horribly. After all, it was about the small doings of a handful of aging widows and spinsters, more focused on the internal landscape than the external. How could any filmmaker stay true to that?
When I discovered that the producers and writer on this project were all women—and one of the players was Judi Dench—and that this production team had done Wives and Daughters—I had to check it out.
Within the first few minutes, I discovered how they’d found a plot for Gaskell’s not-a-novel: Cranford was actually a skillful weaving of three of Gaskell’s novellas. It works because all three novellas shared characteristics. One of them, “Mr Harrison’s Confessions,” was a kind of proto-Cranford, which itself was written in segments over time, from very early in her career to later.
The first Cranford story was her response to an invitation from Charles Dickens to write for his new magazine aimed at the family market. He was pleased enough to function as patron to this vivid, family-oriented new voice in the literary world—until she began venturing beyond the ladylike domestic sphere he thought proper for lady writers.
Wife of a pastor, she was in essence an unpaid social worker, deeply concerned about the miseries of the poor. Against Dickens’ advice, and his mandates as editor, her stories began to focus on those forced to live in poison-choked industrial towns, the horrors of illegitimacy and girls “betrayed” etc. Gaskell wanted to write human business, though her strongest writing is from the female POV.
Cranford is good because of Gaskell’s remarkable eye for distinct, character and emotion-revealing detail. Here is a telling line:
I will answer for it, the last gigot, the last tight and scanty petticoat in wear in England, was seen in Cranford–and seen without a smile.
That line says so much, evoking the genteel poverty of inhabitants of a poor town, wherein dignity is about all they have left. But the reader needs to know a gigot is a huge puffy sleeve (popular just after the Regency) and the scant and tight petticoats date back to the Regency period, when the widows and spinsters in the story were young, sprightly things perhaps damping those petticoats so their sprig muslin tube-gowns would show their youthful shape. The nice thing about film is that we can see these details at a glance—though viewers might not catch quite all the context.
Gaskell’s genius was in managing to capture real emotion and how people express it. Not just that, but how real emotion can change in a heartbeat—irritation becomes compassion, sadness shared laughter—just like in real life, rather the characters tromping through the book with a sustained attitude representing some aspect of social commentary.
This film version has all the best scenes of the written Cranford and the acting is excellent. The woman who plays Miss Jenkyns is brilliant in how she manages to convey the character’s gravitas when she’s being the most prickly over ridiculous things, like insisting that each woman sit alone in her room to consume her orange, as there is no way to eat it with proper delicacy. Or jumping up to change the candles so that they give the impression of two candles burning—which is genteel—while only one burns at a time, which is saving.
But even deeper than that, she and the other old women’s faces reflect their own attitudes toward relations with men; in one scene the women are together, discussing the new young doctor, and the camera stays with them just long enough for you to perceive who’s been longing for a man, who knows the touch of a man and misses it, and who is complete in herself, who never had any interest whatsoever in that side of life. When Miss Jenkyns murmurs, “A man in the house is so in the way,” she doesn’t say it scoldingly, or angrily, or stuffily, just an observation: you not only picture her house being organized for a woman’s life, but there’s also a reminder that in those days, whenever a man entered a scene, he took precedence as a matter of course.
My favorite scene from the book is also in the film, though perhaps the film version is doesn’t resonate quite as deeply as the written version. I don’t think it could, as so much of the book’s power is conveyed through internal realizations, sorrow at the passage not just of time but of a way of life as Miss Matty and the narrator sit looking through Miss Matty’s parents’ letters when they were young marrieds. The two women comment on the distinctive style of the late 1700s, and Miss Matty believes that the letters ought to be burned, as there is no one to come after them to care. There are so many exquisite touches that illuminate the styles of the two periods—not just fashion but ways of seeing the world. Each detail intensifies the effect.
Anyway, I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Victoriana.