Plot Summary: [from goodreads:] “A portrait of the residents of an English country town in the mid nineteenth century, Cranford relates the adventures of Miss Matty and Miss Deborah, two middle-aged spinster sisters striving to live with dignity in reduced circumstances. Through a series of vignettes, Elizabeth Gaskell portrays a community governed by old-fashioned habits and dominated by friendships between women. Her wry account of rural life is undercut, however, by tragedy in its depiction of such troubling events as Matty’s bankruptcy, the violent death of Captain Brown or the unwitting cruelty of Peter Jenkyns. Written with acute observation, Cranford is by turns affectionate, moving and darkly satirical.”
My Book Review: I am one of those who likes to read the book first before they watch the movie. However, there are some exceptions to the rule, especially if I think I have no interest in reading the book but might bare to find out what it’s about through watching it’s screen adaptation. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, and am inspired to go on to read the original. And that is exactly what happened with “Cranford.”
How interesting could a story be about a small town filled with elderly women? No—I’d loved Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Wives and Daughters,” (both book & film), and I’d planned to read and watch “North and South” (which I did), but Cranford looked too boring. But I was hard up for a costume drama and had heard good reviews, so I finally caved and immediately fell in love with the movie’s charm. The music, the characters, the humor… all was to be found in this beautifully directed film, starring Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins. It was completely darling* and I was converted, determined to read the book.
I realize that the film series is actually based on a collection of Mrs. Gaskell’s smaller works of literature, and I intend to go on to read Mr. Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow. But in Cranford, I enjoyed reading about the many characters portrayed on screen and all of their eccentricities and habits of living.
“’…as Deborah used to say, we have always lived genteelly, even if circumstances have compelled us to simplicity.’”
One of my favorite parts was reading about Miss Matty’s visit to an old suitor, Mr. Holbrook. The description of his favorite comfortable room is a pleasant takeaway:
“The rest of the pretty sitting-room—looking into the orchard, and all covered over with dancing tree-shadows—was filled with books. They lay on the ground, they covered the walls, they strewed the table. He was evidently half ashamed and half proud of his extravagance in this respect. They were of all kinds—poetry and wild weird tales prevailing. He evidently chose his books in accordance with his own tastes, not because such and such were classical or established favorites.”
SPOILER ALERT: It’s a shame Miss Matty never married him. END OF SPOILER. Obviously the poor lady suffered from a lot of codependence throughout her life, dependent on her parents and her strong-willed sister to make all decisions for her. She is stretched beyond her comfort zone in an early plot twist that I’ve always regretted as I loved one of the characters who dies unexpectedly.
There are some discrepancies between book and movie. And fortunately in most of them, the movie’s changed elements were for the better. For example, early on in the book the character of Captain Brown dies whereas in the movie he is a lovable, solid, male character that anchors the episodes. I was sad to be deprived of him in the book.
However, many of the book’s details (even minute ones) remained intact throughout the series, as indeed much of what makes up Cranford is the beautiful, charming, small events of life. Sucking oranges, lace, and the conservation of candles are recognized and honored. In fact, I believe I am glad I watched Cranford first before reading the book because it helped me understand some of the historical aspects that I would not have understood from just reading alone. Conversely, reading about why the ladies went to their individual rooms to eat their oranges made much more sense in the book than watching it.
I mentioned I haven’t read the other two books in the Cranford Chronicles, and since I haven’t I do not know how much of the movie was added to with other characters and plot situations. But it certainly was in keeping with the spirit of Gaskell. So much so that I can positively say I enjoyed the movie over the book. Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite movie is, my answer is “Cranford.”
*However, it can always be possible to milk too much of a good thing which is what I believed happened to the second series and I didn’t enjoy it half so much.
Have you seen/read “Cranford”? What did you think?
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