The Elizabeth Gaskell Collection

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.

RATING 7 / 10