PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Elizabeth Gaskell Collection


Though her name is not a household one, Gaskell's willingness to take on some of the important social issues of the era make her an author deserving of wider exposure.

The Elizabeth Gaskell Collection

Subtitle: Wives and Daughters / Cranford / North and South
Display Artist: Simon Curtis, Brian Percival, Nicholas Renton
Creator: Nicholas Renton
Cast: Judy Dench, Richard Armitage, Francesca Annis
Distributor: BBC
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2002

Nineteenth century British author Elizabeth Gaskell (1820-1865) picks up where the tradition of Jane Austen left off, and moves forward posthaste, not simply chronologically but ideologically as well. Gaskell's subject matter ranges from the gossip and gallantry of small town English life to the harsh industrial life of urban workers, and includes some of the more feminist ideas of the age, when women and the lower classes start to not only possess, but seize with both hands, a voice in society.

Gaskell examines some normally unaired details of the class structure of Victorian England, taking her audience into the slums of an industrial northern city, and into the struggle between mill workers' unions and their privileged masters. She brings the railroad into a small community and meaningfully examines what the residents fear about the possibility of strangers flooding their close-knit society.

Finally, she puts the ugly issue of xenophobia squarely between an otherwise amiable widower and his eldest son, who has chosen a bride his father cannot accept. Though her name is not a household one such as Dickens or Brontë, Gaskell's willingness to take on some of the important social issues of the era make her an author deserving of wider exposure. This BBC collection should ensure just that.

Cranford combines three of Gaskell's novels, all taking place in a scenic English town brimming with widows and spinsters, and few men to be found. The ladies take a great interest in every last detail of their neighbors' lives, as the pace of everyday life is rather slow. When a young doctor (Simon Woods) comes to town and presents certain medical advancements, like a willingness to set a carpenter's broken arm rather than amputate immediately, many residents are resistant to such progress, though they are glad to continue having the services of the tradesman. The doctor's affable demeanor and capable manner quickly win over some of his detractors, but his unfamiliarity with Cranford custom is swiftly mistaken for romantic attachment to any number of the ladies, and his real affection for a particular young lady degenerates into a comedy of errors.

Romance is not the primary focus of this five part mini series, however. Class prejudice figures largely, with the matronly owner of the local estate, Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) both obsessed with maintaining her estate for her absent heir, and keeping those in the servant class in their place. There is much resistance to educating the young son of a poacher tenant with more children than he can feed: Harry Gregson (Alex Etel), whose potential is recognized and encouraged by Lady Ludlow's estate manager. Lady Ludlow must make way before progress in its myriad forms, however, as she is forced to sell part of her estate to the railroad company in order to continue to finance her son's lavish lifestyle. She starts to perceive that such change is inevitable.

North and South

In North and South, industry takes center stage, whereas in Cranford it merely encroaches upon the scene. Without the presence of the cotton mills in the northern English town of Milton, the clash between 'master' and 'worker' wouldn't lend dramatic impact and depth to what might otherwise be a flimsy love story.

Margaret Hale's father is a country preacher who bravely admits his doubts about his life's work in judgmental Victorian England, and is swiftly ostracized by his southern colleagues, forcing him to leave his parish and relocate with his wife and their grown daughter to a northern manufacturing town in order to get a fresh start. The family quickly comes into contact with the most notorious mill owner in town, John Thornton (Richard Armitage). As charismatic as he is unyielding, Thornton has built his family's fortune from the ground up, raising his mother and sister out of poverty. His unusually stern mother, constantly singing her sons praises, is a perfect foil for his silly and ungrateful sister, who provides a few of the sparse humorous moments in the film.

The film's portrayal of the gritty, dismal city of Milton is an excellent reprieve from sometimes superficial adaptations of period literature, and serves as a refreshing break from the over-filmed south of England. The setting, which takes place almost entirely within that grim locale, comes complete with a harsh northern accent that may have non-Brits reaching for the subtitle menu option. Margaret is more content to make friends among the working classes and to try to ease their suffering, than to consort with young women of society, as she finds her own status to be somewhere in between. She is a determined, honest and kind, and it is no wonder she finds her share of admirers through the story. Though the ending has more than just a little to do with synchronicity, is does seem fitting at last that a form of industry brings her together with her match in purposefulness and strength.

Initially I was put off by the third series in the collection, Wives & Daughters. Perhaps because the presence of industry and social progress that had such a large role in the first two works seemed absent. In their place, Gaskell directs her discerning eye to a more microscopic view of the interaction of individuals at various levels of society. To one used to Austen and Brontë adaptations to the screen, Gaskell offers something new, opening the story with a bizarre sequence where the young heroine, Molly Gibson, stumbles around a garden party in a fever, blinded by the sunlight, and with no one to look after her. She is an awkward child, and she grows into a serious, and still slightly awkward, teenager, yet it doesn't take long before most viewers will be in love with her.

Self-dependant and wise beyond her years, Molly deserved to be the star of the show. No wonder I resented the sudden intrusion of a step-mother who could be described as evil but perhaps more accurately as selfish and small minded and therefore easy to perceive as malignant. Likewise, Molly's new step-sister, Cynthia, is everything that Molly is not: untrustworthy, egocentric, and in fact, sexy.

Actor Keeley Hawes, who plays Cynthia, calls her the Marilyn Monroe of the era (during the extra disc's commentary), flouncing into town from her fancy French boarding school and turning all the men's heads. That might not be so awful if only Cynthia didn't distract several of Molly's lovers away -- only to treat them all equally shabbily. And yet Molly is determined to love her step-sister as well as the sister she never had! She is too good to be true and yet the viewer can identify with her rather than resent her unlikely good nature.

Wives and Daughters

There are some uncomfortable themes in Wives and Daughters: xenophobia, class prejudice, and the frustration of seeing every man in sight fall for the flighty Cynthia when Molly is so much more deserving and constant. As Anthony Howell (Roger Hamley) remarks in the commentary footage: "Mrs. Gaskell understands very well in Wives and Daughters, the difference between love at first sight, that kind of all consuming fascination, and a warmer, growing love that will endure."

The only extra material in this DVD set deals with Wives and Daughters, with commentary by the cast, and then a rather unremarkable sequence where the Gaskell Society tours around England, Wales and Italy, visiting spots that were important to the author or where she spent time writing, and musing about her inspiration for various parts of any and all of Gaskell's novels, not just the three stories the viewer has now become familiar with. Interspersed with the journey of the Society are short pertinent readings from a number of Gaskell's novels by actor Miriam Margolyes, who renders this disc slightly more interesting.

Though the final disc is not the most captivating, for anyone interested in the social issues of the Victorian era, and industrial development and its impact on society at the time, these three serial films provide plenty to ponder. And of course it doesn't hurt the story to have a little romance thrown in. I think it's quite likely viewers will have access to more adaptations of Gaskell's novels on film in the future, and for those who cannot wait for more of her keen observations of Victorian society, fortunately she was one of the more prolific writers of the age.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.