Cranford and the poverty of adaptation

The TV version of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel is enjoyable. But it fails to do justice to the subtle humour and pathos of the book.

Tara McCormack

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Elizabeth Gaskell was one of the great British novelists of the nineteenth century. She is less well known today than George Eliot or Charles Dickens, but her books remain in print and are still reasonably widely read. She wrote for Dickens’ magazine Household Words, and in her own time achieved both popular and critical success. Gaskell, or Mrs Gaskell as she was known, wrote highly intelligent, insightful and moving novels about her rapidly changing society, discussing issues of class, class conflict, industrialisation, and love and duty, always with humour and great compassion.

Her best-known novels include North and South, set in mid nineteenth-century Manchester, dealing with class conflict between the factory owners and the workers and love between the classes; and Mary Barton, also set in Manchester, which dealt (rather scandalously at the time) with prostitution and poverty. Gaskell wrote Cranford in the early 1850s; it first appeared in serial format in Household Words. Set in a small northern town, the story on the surface seems to tell of not very much; it simply follows the lives of the mainly spinster women of the upper middle classes of the town, most of whom exist in genteel poverty.

Critics have always thought that the novel was an exercise in nostalgia, a romanticised and comical portrait of a small town idyll in which eccentric middle-aged women fuss over their lace and gossip. Although Gaskell writes with great affection for the town and her characters (apparently ‘Cranford’ is based on the town in which Gaskell spent much of her childhood), Cranford is certainly neither a comedy nor a nostalgia trip.

The novel is concerned with the position of women in upper middle-class society, bound by class and family duties to their home, and made to subordinate their own happiness to higher concerns. Mrs Gaskell evokes the claustrophobia of the rigidly bound small country town that exists in a broader society that is rapidly changing and modernising, leaving the spinsters of Cranford already anachronistic in their own time. She paints a vivid picture of the way in which the women struggle to keep their own self-respect and ‘position’ in the village through many pathetic strategies and maintain a middle-class life in a situation of poverty, when many could only afford to keep one candle burning of an evening (yet always kept two candles on the mantelpiece so that visitors should not know). It is also frequently very funny; Gaskell has such a light but sure touch that she never ridicules her characters.

A new adaptation of Cranford is currently showing on the BBC. The novel fares considerably better than other recent literary turkeys. The irritating and anachronistic film of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley is only topped in the turkey stakes by the truly awful film version of Mansfield Park produced in 1999. I have yet to recover from the scenes in which Edmond discovers a sketch of his father, Sir Thomas Bertram (played by Harold Pinter!), receiving a blow job from one of his sugar plantation slaves, or the explicit sexual attraction between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford (need I add that these things are not to be found in the book?). Other TV adaptations have not plumbed the depths of such sheer idiocy. Instead they have been chiefly remarkable for their dullness and failure to capture the wit and life of the characters. In the recent ITV adaptation of Mansfield Park, Billie Piper showed her character’s inner vivacity by running around a lot.

The BBC’s Cranford is not dull. In fact, it is enjoyable and sometimes even moving. Miss Jessica’s sister dies while their father is away from home, leaving the problem of who is to follow the coffin to the graveyard (women simply did not do this): these scenes are extremely well done and true to the spirit of the book. As is the depiction of Miss Matty’s brief reunion with the man that she had loved and hoped to marry when she was young (but could not marry because of his lower class). The acting in Cranford is good, all things considered. As ever, some contemporary actors ‘doing’ period drama tend to start mugging their way towards caricature (don’t get me started on Jane Austen adaptations); Imelda Staunton is often less than subtle. Honourable mentions must go to Judi Dench, and also to Eileen Atkins as the formidable Miss Deborah Jenkins, whose distaste at being presented with a novel by Dickens (Miss Jenkins being a great follower of Dr Johnson only) was a brilliant piece of acting. Unfortunately, the younger actors playing Dr Harrison and Miss Hutton (whose acting style rests rather heavily on raising her eyebrows and pouting) seem incapable of acting their parts naturally and ‘say’ their lines rather than speaking them to each other.

A minor complaint is that the comic episodes and the lingering shots of rural idyllic life (for example the ‘May Day’ celebrations) tend to take precedence over an engagement with the more serious themes of the work. But what is most problematic is that for some reason the adapters have decided to merge together three stories from Gaskell. Cranford serves as the main framework, with My Lady Ludlow and Dr Harrison’s Confessions in addition. I am sure that the other two novellas are very good (if the rest of Gaskell’s writing is anything to go by); indeed from what we see of them they also seem to deal with very interesting and important contemporary themes. Yet the mixing together of three stories is done somewhat awkwardly: while some plot lines are quite well ‘merged’, other scenes (for example, most of the scenes which are taken from My Lady Ludlow) are just plonked in. Why did they bother?

One reason must be a fundamental lack of engagement with the novel itself. There is nothing lacking in Cranford at all. It is an intense and poignant novel, with Gaskell’s restricted canvas only making the story stronger. Rather, it is the adapters who must lack imagination and sympathy. Part of this is possibly to do with something that seems to dog most contemporary adaptations: an inability to think historically, to understand the time in its own terms, and people’s problems in their own terms, like the slow suffocation of the middle-class women, the sacrifice of love for duty and so on. Another factor seems to be the adapters’ lack of faith in the audience: there seems to be an assumption that we have difficulty in understanding things that are not directly ‘relevant’ to us. So rather than relying on the true pathos of Cranford to do its work, the programme makers have felt the need to add more and more to the story, in case one novel is not enough.

Yet contrary to these widespread contemporary assumptions, Gaskell is still in print and read today, so writers and producers should have confidence that the audience can enjoy a book written 150 years ago. Moreover, despite the many differences between her time and ours, Victorian novels are, I would suggest, essentially modern novels, in terms of the inner lives of the individual and the representation of feeling and thought, and the development of character and plot (compared to, for example, late eighteenth-century novels such as those by Francis Burney and Samuel Richardson, which are to the modern reader far more alien and archaic, not only in language but in plot and motivation).

In the novels of the nineteenth century, we find writers who deal with social themes; we see essentially modern men and women (acting under entirely different social constraints, of course) who are self-aware of themselves as active subjects; and there is an assumption of internal life and feeling that is modern and familiar to the contemporary reader. The women in Cranford, although described as Amazons, are to a large extent powerless. In the end, their lives are not entirely their own to dispose of. They wait upon their family, society and men to change their lives and give them a chance to live; indeed, for many women marriage was the only chance to have some kind of independent adult life. The women feel it and know it, and that is why we feel the pain of Miss Jessica when she gives up her chance to get married in order to stay and look after her father in his old age.

What underpins the weakness of many TV adaptations is the seeming lack of nerve of TV channels. Rather than make new drama, BBC and ITV seem to prefer to trawl the classics and endlessly remake Jane Austen and the Brontes (and Gaskell), commissioning ‘safe’ period drama rather than risking new work. Yet at the same time, they do not really want to do the old works justice, preferring a lightweight and soft-focus re-telling that ends up losing much of what makes the originals remain in print so long after their publication.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in European Union studies and International Relations at the University of Westminster.

The final episode of Cranford will air on Sunday 16 December on BBC One.

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