I’m a newcomer to the world of Elizabeth Gaskell, an author who wrote during the Victorian era and who is not as well-known as Jane Austen, but nonetheless produced stories I’ve enjoyed every bit as much. My recent indulgence was in the film version of her short stories based on a small village called Cranford. The movie took three of her stories and wove them together to give us a whole that I found delightful.
There are two elderly sisters, Deborah and Mattie Jenkyns. They have lived their lives according to a strict moral code, mostly determined and enforced by Deborah, who can’t imagine behaving in any manner deemed even remotely unsuitable. When a friend of the family, young Mary Smith, writes to the sisters and asks if she might come stay for a while, they feel it their Christian duty to take her in. They are, of course, glad to see her, but their feelings of satisfaction, having done their duty, override any personal joy they might feel.
At the same time, a new doctor comes to town. In a village where hardly anyone ever moves in or moves out, this is quite the development. The residents have been used to their old doctor, but he is becoming overwhelmed in his practice and hopes that the new man, Dr. Harrison, will take off some of the pressure. The coming of this new doctor also adds a new element to the day-to-day doings of the town—he’s young and there are several young ladies (and not so young ladies) who would like to catch his eye.
We also meet Mr. Carter, foreman of a large estate owned by Lady Ludlow, who watches over every development with an eagle eye. She has her feet firmly planted in the past, does not believe in education for the lower classes, and thwarts every attempt Mr. Carter makes to create a better life for their tenants.
As these stories move forward, we have moments of hysterical comedy as we see a precious lace collar get swallowed by a cat (and the efforts made to retrieve said item), moments of romance as we see every woman in town chase Dr. Harrison while he chases the only woman he could really love, and moments of poignancy as characters die and others are born. The acting is fabulous, the writing superb, and the story is one that will remain with me for a long time. I heartily recommend “Cranford” to anyone who is looking for an excellent period-piece story, as well as Gaskell’s other works, but we’ll talk about those another day.
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