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Visions Broadened in Cranford and Return to Cranford

November 9, 2010 | By

The BBC television drama, Cranford and its sequel, Return to Cranford broaden our visions about the place of men and women as distinctive entities in the world.

The BBC television drama, Cranford and its sequel, Return to Cranford (aired in U.K. by BBC One in November and December 2007, and later in U.S.A. first in May, 2008 and later in December 2009 to January 2010 by PBS)opens up a whole array of questions in our minds.

The answers to these questions eventually broaden our visions about the place of men and women as distinctive entities in the world. Directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson of Cranfordand director Simon Curtis of Return to Cranford, script writer Heidi Thomas, producer Sue Birtwistle, and creators Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin have brought to life the not-so-well-known nineteenth century English novelist, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

This television adaptation, at once, poignant and comic, is a conflation of three of Gaskell’s works: Cranford, My Lady Ludlow,and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. This BBC series does not simply render us the picture of a small community of the rural town of Cranford run by women. While it contextualizes this costume-drama in the 1840s with the Industrial Revolution hovering in the background, it poses questions about marginalization. Here we are not envisioning marginalization of women, but rather, we are transgressing to the marginalization of men. The immediate impression on watching this veritable gallery of women with very few male characters would be: does the Cranford Chronicles portray a woman oriented world where men are neither needed nor wanted? Apparently, Cranford and its sequel have a perspective of feminism where there are hardly any men in the community and the entire little nineteenth century Cheshire market town is dominated wholly by women, mostly widowed or unmarried. Naturally, the questions arising in our minds incline to the relevance and worth of marriage between men and women.

To me, these questions strike our minds initially, only to be resolved in the process of watching the teleplay. I think that both Gaskell’s perceptions as evident in her oeuvre and this television series broaden our views to an all-encompassing vision where men and marriage are welcome in this community of spinsters and widows. In the entire miniseries, the women share a camaraderie and there is also a sense of looking forward to happiness, whether in the form of small social gatherings, or sharing gossip, or being happy in others’ happiness. That is to say, even if our troupe of chattering middle-aged women remains unmarried, they enjoy seeing young women settle into marital happiness. Simon Curtis’ and Steve Hudson’s directorial forte and the outstanding acting of the entire Cranford and Return to Cranford entourage dive into these small and big truths of life with a resonance hitherto unrivalled.      

 CranfordWhat is Cranford?

Like all other adaptations, the creators of this television series have taken some aesthetic liberties by eliminating some sections and fusing disparate episodes of Gaskell’s three works. That is not part of my contention here. However, it would be interesting to begin the analysis as to whether the BBC rendering of Cranford Chronicles has any feminist message or not, with Gaskell’s own words.

The spirit of a female-ruled society is set in the opening lines of Gaskell’s novel, Cranford:

“In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties,… In short, whatever does become of the gentleman, they are not at Cranford.” (Gaskell, Elizabeth: Cranford, p5).

The spirit of the town of Cranford is described here as a women-based community where among these “Amazons” (a parallel between Cranford women and the fearless classical mythological woman warriors), men feel somewhat thwarted. There is the potential of a feminist text embedded in these opening lines. It may be that Gaskell envisioned the approaching fin-de- siecle when gender definitions will undergo changes.  At the outset, in a way, Gaskell’s Cranfordbecomes a metaphor for the New Woman. So, are her women projections of sexual equality that created so much stir in the last years of the nineteenth century? 

Gender definitions: A foreboding of the fin- de- siecle?

Taking us in to the matriarchal society of Cranford, is Gaskell anticipating the gender disorientations that took place at the onset of the twentieth century? And is this fin-de- siecle portrayed in the BBC presentation of Cranford or its sequel?

TReturn to Cranfordo answer this question, we immediately think of the backdrop of the texts that comprise the framework of the BBC Cranford series where female characters certainly outnumber the males. The rural town of Cranford in Gaskell’s novel is a fictional counterpart of her childhood memories of Knutsford (a place in Northern England where she grew up and which abounded in women folk). In My Lady Ludlow we see Hanbury Court, a mansion pervaded by the over-bearing personality of the aristocratic Lady Ludlowand in Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, we encounter several misunderstandings and confusions created primarily by women. In all the three literary pieces, women play dominant roles.

A striking feature of Cranford, both in the novel and the teleplay, is the omniscient presence of Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon). Mary, young and unmarried is the narrator of the story and she is shown as the aspiring writer in the BBC Return to Cranford who, at that point of human history, thwarts marriage in preference to a literary career. Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench), an aged spinster, finds it hard to believe that Miss Mary rejects her would-be-husband in quest of her own dreams. This is certainly a boldly ambitious gesture for any woman of that period of time. Watching this, Elaine Showalter’s essay entitled Odd Woman comes to mind:

Fin-de-siecle feminists interpreted the statistics of female oddness very differently. They used the surplus of unmarried women to prove that women’s traditional roles were outmoded and that social policies which denied them higher education, alternative roles, professional opportunities, and votes were self-defeating and cruel.” (Showalter, Elaine: Sexual Anarchy, p20).

In some such obvious ways, the BBC television drama, just like Gaskell’s works abounding in women characters, gives us inklings of a gendered imagination. However, as the directors walk us through this entire palimpsest narrative till the end of Return to Cranford, werealize that as the audience, we hear more than we know. As we regale upon this lovely tapestry of the ensemble of women, our visions crystallize into something more coalescing. These women are not reluctant to accept the “other” sex in their community.

When the young Dr. Frank Harrison (Simon Woods) arrives in Cranford, the women are overtly excited. He is, after all, an unmarried and eligible bachelor! The dramatic bravura and aplomb abounding in Miss Octavia Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) reactions to the young physician’s arrival does make us feel the obvious absence of men in the Cranfordian community of women.  Mrs. Forrester, (Julia Mckenzie), Miss Matty (Judi Dench), Mrs. Jamieson (Barbara Flynn) are all so exhilarated at this new ‘news’ in town. It is during moments like these that make us rethink as to whether there is indeed any outright feminist perspective in the television adaptation. Had men not been important to the women of Cranford, would they welcome the non-Amazons (shall we call the men non Amazons?) with such open arms? Watching both Cranfordand Return to Cranford, one not only enjoys the ravishing humour, but also, feels the underlying pathos in their lives. We clearly hear the accents of fun and activity in Miss Octavia Pole’s descriptions of any news in the town. But isn’t she also a woman with unfulfilled dreams of love for a man?

Romance, Marriage and Motherhood:

Return to CranfordThe BBC dramatization of the Gaskell classics provides several dramatic moments betraying a woman’s longing for love and marriage. When the long-lost Peter Jenkyns (Martin Shaw in Cranford and Nicholas Le Prevost in Return to Cranford), Miss Matty’s brother suddenly returns to his home town in Cranford from India, and talks to Miss Pole, she betrays the feelings of her sad spinsterhood and a hidden desire to be married. All she can tell Peter is that she is still ‘Miss’ Pole and not a ‘Mrs.’ something. At this point, the viewer’s mind fathoms that, Miss Pole is not asserting her self identification as a single woman, but, actually revealing her unfulfilled wishes of being identified as somebody’s wife.

Again, one cannot ignore the hilarious concoctions in the episode where the aged and widowed Mrs. Rose (Lesley Manville) is led to believe by Miss Pole and Mrs. Forrester that Dr. Harrison is in love with her. Miss Pole makes wrong conclusions about Dr. Harrison’s (who, in her own words, is not more than thirty years of age) attitude towards Mrs. Rose (who is actually looked upon as a motherly person by Dr. Harrison). Seeing the sewing table given by Dr. Harrison to Mrs. Rose, Miss Pole’s instinctive deduction is that it is a gesture as good as a “betrothal”.

Beneath the humour of such a deduction, there is a clear indication of our “Amazons” yearning to have husbands.

Sophy Hutton’s (Kimberley Nixon) marriage with Dr. Harrison reiterates the motif of love and marriage. On the occasion of Sophy’s wedding, Miss Matty presents her the muslin for her bridal gown that Peter had bought for her. The old Miss Matty’s dreams of marriage have died with the passing away of Mr. Holbrook (Michael Gambon). However, with a munificent heart and happy for Sophy’s promising life to come, Miss Matty willingly gives away something that could have transformed her life into a cherishing dream! The Cranford women are therefore capable of giving in spite of all the want and lack in their own lives. This is symptomatic of  a synergistic vision where the unfulfilled desires of some sad soul attains happiness in that same dream being fulfilled in somebody else’s life. Here we see something larger-than-life and with all its domesticity, the scope of the dramatic adaptation of Gaskell’s novellas is broadened. The audience here transcends the boundaries of any genre, and the seemingly feminist presentation here suggests crossing the borders of self-searching.

All these episodes signify that marriage is not defied, but whole heartedly embraced by this matriarchal society.

Even motherhood is very willingly accepted in this apparent realm of man-less women. Perhaps the most poignant moment of a woman’s longing for motherhood is when Miss Matty who has always loved and wanted to marry Mr. Holbrook tells Miss Mary about her frequent dreams of a little girl coming to her wanting to be kissed just as real babies do to their mothers. This moment, wrought with deep emotional rhythms, is powerfully done by Dame Judie Dench. In the BBC presentation, (just as in Gaskell’s novel), this moment in Cranfordreaches one of its highpoints of drama: “…I was always so fond of little children—the shyest babies would stretch out their little arms to come to me; …” “… do you know, I dream sometimes that I have a little child– always the same– a little girl of about two years old; she never grows older, though I have dreamt about her for many years… she comes to me when she is very sorry or very glad, and I have awakened with the clasp of her dear little arms round my neck.” (Gaskell Elizabeth, Cranford pp 125,126).These words in the novel by Miss Matty are expressed by actress Judi Dench with great assuredness and authenticity. In her voice we hear the accents of a real woman verbalizing her innermost longings: longings that are timeless and universal.

Gaskell’s novel here surpasses her initial vision of Cranford “Amazons” to voice a more universal desire of women. Just like Gaskell’s novel, the BBC series too here amalgamates visions of feminism with familial yearnings of marriage and motherhood.

Men within the inner circle:

Both in the novel and the television performance, for circumstantial reasons, (be it the wars with France or because of premature deaths due to rural labor, as mentioned by Sue Birtwistle in an interview), men are almost always absent among the Cranfordians, but the women do not reject them as outsiders. Instead, men are easily assimilated into the inner circle of the women. Even as we see Mary Smith in the BBC presentation rejecting a marriage proposal, women here do not assert themselves as the only entities in their world. Men are appreciated and even looked upon as good advisors. Captain Brown, who dies early in the novel, (the role played by Jim Carter), for instance, is present throughout the BBC series. He not only advises Miss Matty during her financial distress, but also, actively participates in bringing the railways to Cranford.

 New Beginnings

The director’s (Simon Curtis) classic touch comes at the end in Return to Cranford when Ms. Matty’s maid Martha’s (Claudie Blakley) husband, Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) comes back to Cranford with his motherless little daughter. Miss Matty looks after the child and certainly has something to look forward to. We cannot miss the poetic message here: life means continuity and this child is emblematic of this continuity. Miss Matty’s surrogate motherhood will be the reward and the nurturer of this perpetuation of life.

Such is the true spirit of Cranford and Return to Cranford. It is a close interweave of men and women, friendship and love, romance and marriage. Even though this nineteenth century small rural town initially deceives us into a world apparently rid of men and marriage, the women themselves give us the feeling that life is an all-inclusive bond between both man and woman. The creators of this television adaptation of Gaskell’s works furnish our imagination with a world accommodating desires, dreams and friendships.  Marginalization is not the motif in here. Rather, this saga of assimilation, telling us the feelings of a world, though physically and historically remote, is, in the final analysis, a world of all times.


Gaskell, Elizabeth: “Our Society”: Cranford (Penguin Books, U.K.,2008; pp 5-15)

Gaskell, Elizabeth: “Samuel Brown”: Cranford (Penguin Books, U.K.,2008; pp 121-131)

Showalter, Elaine: ‘Odd Women”: Sexual Anarchy (Penguin Books, U.S.A., 1990; p 19-37)

An online interview with Sue Birtwistle

Creative Writing

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Srirupa Dhar lives in U.S.A. She has pursued advanced studies in English literature both in India and the U.S. In India she has had teaching experience. Presently, she is an amateur writer and pursues her passions of reading and writing.
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