The TV here in the UK has been mining a vein of nostalgia for years, with period dramas, which tend also to sell well in the US and maybe elsewhere. From Upstairs Downstairs to Downham Abbey, people have been glued to the screen for the old-fashioned soap operas. Adaptations of 19th and 20th century literature have become almost an industry, from Jane Austen ( which has spawned a whole genre of Pride and Prejudice imitations and sequels) to Evelyn Waugh. Specials too, on Elizabeth I, the Tudors, the story of Wales, and so on.
Elizabeth Gaskell first caught my attention on my dad’s bookcase in the early 1950s, but because the book looked old ( it was) and the author was called “Mrs. Gaskell” I passed it over for H.G.Wells and Punch annuals. Then, much later, somewhere I read “North and South” and I was hooked. She knew the industrial north of her time in a way I had not expected of a gentlewoman, who wrote, as I remember, to support her children when their Unitarian minister father died. She also wrote a biography of Charlotte Bronte which was very worth reading, though not as one would write today in such a different world for women. She is now, therefore, one of the authors I know I can always return to with enjoyment.
I saw “Cranford” on TV and imagined I had read it, but discover, on reading this Vintage edition of the works which were melded into the Cranford series, that I had not. Joy of discovery. I still prefer the written word, and the space for musing and imagining the story’s world, over the sweeping pace of a visual presentation. The humour of Mr Harrison’s dilemma is a work on its own. The quiet voice of “Cranford” itself is such a humorous and insightful musing on the few characters and limited experiences of the single gentlewomen. I do have to interject, however, that I would far rather have had the life of Elizabeth Philpot, the friend of Mary Anning, who found a passion in the quest for fossils of prehistoric creatures on the Jurassic coast of England: the two women are the heroines in Tracy Chevalier’s “Remarkable Creatures”. I have seen some of her fossils, labelled by her hand, in the Natural History Museum in Oxford. Now there is a life legacy!
The story that caught my imagination on this reading was, however, “My Lady Ludlow” told, like Cranford, through the eyes of a young companion. Having just moved through medieval and Tudor periods in reading, My Lady followed on in the history of the generations. The Industrial Age looms, railroads encroach, scientific farming techniques are tried, and (horror) classes do not know or keep their place, but my Lady Ludlow knows and keeps hers! Yet it is a portrait of tradition changing, as it must, a tale told with sensitivity to the receding world of the hereditary aristocracy. That the author who is so sensitive to the world view of an aged aristocrat is the same author who portrays the desperate world of the industrialised workers is amazing.
Mrs Gaskell, I appreciate your voice.