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Saturday, May 3

Cranford Episode One: Mrs. Elton Sez...

Gentle Readers… Cranford arrives... and a contest begins!

Cranford, episode one, the PBS mini-series of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel premiers tonight on PBS at 9:00 pm. It received rave reviews when in aired last fall in the UK, so we are quite excited to meet Misses Matty (Judi Dench) and Deborah (Eileen Atkins) and the other ladies of the charming English
village of Cranford. The delight will be the pleasure of their company for the next three Sundays (May 4th, 11th and 18th), and to have the distinct honor of author Diana Birchall’s contribution as she channels Jane Austen’s infamous gad-about and all around busy-body Mrs. Elton from the novel Emma. Readers will remember Mrs. Elton’s recent visit when she reviewed the PBS airing of the adaptation of Emma last March on Austenprose, and her hilarious book, Mrs. Elton in America

Diana Birchall’s introduction…

Oh, my poor head. It is that infernal Mrs. Elton trying to get out again. It's like having a woodpecker rapping on your skull from the inside. Why can't I be the medium of channeling one of Jane Austen's nicer characters? Lizzy, say, or Anne, or my dear Mr. Tilney. But no. To have this woman's caw sounding in my ears is no pleasure, I can tell you. Still, it might be worse; I might be afflicted with Mr. Collins.

I saw the first hour of the new Cranford at a screening the other evening, and sure enough, I was awakened that very night by that inimitable indignant voice. Mrs. Elton, resident still of Highbury, demands to tell the world what she thinks of Cranford. I had better let her do so, or the woman will drive me mad. Some might say she has done so already. Well, here's Augusta Herself, I wish you joy of her.

Mrs Elton has her say…

Good heaven! It is a fine thing to be back at home in Highbury again. You would not think, that at our age, Mr. E and I would fly about so much as we do, but I assure you it is so. We have been to Cranford, which you must know is in the very vicinity of Manchester, and that is almost as dire-sounding a place as Birmingham.

It is very far to go for an exploring-party, but we cannot always be visiting Selina, and places about Bristol; and so we went to the Peak, on a party of pleasure, which was very delightful. On our journey home however our carriage broke down, and it was fortunate that I realized we were within half a dozen miles of Cranford, where Mr. E has some connections; and I told him to send the man to my Lady Ludlow forthwith, and beg her for some assistance.

That is, we have only seen my Lady Ludlow the once, at her great barracks of a place, when last we were visiting Cranford, some five and twenty years ago, but we have heard of her for ever in letters from Miss Matty and Miss Deborah. They are some sort of cousins to my dear Mr. E, though really we see them very seldom, for they are not quite the style of people we would care to have visit us in Highbury, though very good sort of folk I have no doubt.

It was growing rather late, and rather dark, and so we were glad when the man returned at last with some sort of – conveyance, I suppose it must be called, that I believe the people of Cranford hire about among themselves; I should have been ashamed to have been seen in such a horrid old coach, only for the extreme exigency. As we drove into Cranford, it was still light enough to see; and then I remembered what a squalid little place it always was, and still is. Indeed, I would not have believed it; it has not changed one iota this quarter of a century, and is positively primitive, not to say vulgar. But that is an epithet that belongs more to the people than the buildings.

It was, however, perfectly indispensible, in these circumstances, that we visit poor Miss Matty and Miss Deborah; and there they sat in their sad little house, lit by only two candles, and those not even made out of wax. Only think! When I was first married, in 1815 as was (though I have heard that some people do believe that the events of Emma occurred in 1808; they may talk about "internal evidence" all they like, but I assure you that is quite a wrong notion), we had wax-candles in every room of the vicarage. It was quite a paradise of light! Nowadays, of course, we use the most up-to-date methods, and have gas-lamps throughout; but I do not believe they have a single gas-lamp in Cranford to this day, in the year of our Lord and our good Queen, 1851: Was there ever such a village!

And Miss Matty and Miss Deborah – I never was so shocked in my life. I remembered them to have been, never pretty girls, but Matty was rather sweet, and Deborah rather handsome; and now they are hideous, quite hideous. Thank heaven! I have preserved better than they; but then, married women you know, have comforts, which single women have not, and it was perfectly plain to see that spinsterhood has taken its toll on these sweet sisters.

I did wish my Lady Ludlow would have been to home, as her dwelling would have been so much more suitable for us in every way, for even such a temporary sojourn; it is larger even, I believe, than Maple Grove. However, great people have their whims, and she might not remember us, or as seems likelier, even be dead. Mrs. Gaskell's story My Lady Ludlow was written in 1857, you know, much after Cranford, and it tells about times past, when the lady was already quite an old woman, so I do not know what she is doing in that modern stereopticon story; but I will not cavil now. Well, well, there was nothing to do but to make ourselves content where we were, as I am sure I have always a great talent for doing, even in the very heart of Cranford. Mr. Elton was uncomfortable enough, as it was perfectly plain that the ladies did not at all care to have a man in the house, but however they disliked his sex, he is a relation, and they could hardly turn him out so late at night.

To return to this stereopticon affair. It is a great invention, to be sure, a new kind of photography, I collect, that permits pictures to positively move, in a most uncanny fashion; and the photographers quite rightly have taken all of Miss Jane Austen’s books and done full justice to them before making any attempts upon the works of Mrs. Gaskell, who is much inferior, as I can say without any prejudice at all. It is quite a miracle, to be sure; yet it is also positively amazing how many mistakes have been made in the course of this prodigious entertainment. For one, it said that the events in Cranford transpired in 1840, which every body knows not to be true; and for another, it has a most mysterious propensity for placing people from other – worlds, I was going to say, but perhaps more properly books, all together in a miserable confusion. Just as ranks and circles, lines and spheres, ought not to be confounded, people from one place and class ought not to be mixed. Lady Ludlow is only one example. It is quite wrong. Can you imagine what would happen if people created by Miss Jane Austen, say, were to meet with those who were the invention of Mrs. Gaskell? Heaven above! If would be bad enough if Mr. Darcy were to sit on the same Magistrates court with Mr. Knightley, or if Emma Woodhouse and Fanny Price were to be bosom friends. No, no, such half and half doings can never prosper, I assure you.

You may then ask, what am I, Mrs. Elton, who flourished in Highbury in 1815, doing in Cranford at the middle of the century? That is easy to answer. Although Miss Jane Austen did not survive, I have, and at this time am barely fifty, or at least not much more than sixty, and quite as vigorous and fresh as a woman half my age, I do assure you. Mr. E keeps well too, and now that our children are grown and all in their different places (our oldest, Philip Augustus, has gone to America and is a Congressman, you know, and a very great defender of the Indians), we have recaptured all our early passion for exploring. You must not think us the sort of provincial folk who never stir from their park, like Mrs. Knightley, or indeed, these poor good Jenkyns sisters.

I will have a great deal to say about my visit to Cranford, in ensuing visits, and not all of it complimentary, you may depend upon that; but you only hear truth from me. I never compliment, as every one knows. I have already told you how I was first struck with the appearance of poor Miss Matty and Miss Deborah; so that I was quite ashamed to be seen beside them, as even my second-best traveling gown was made of silk, and I had a very fine pelisse with sable upon it, which I saw them noticing, poor things. They tried to look disapproving, with meaningful looks, but I could not be taken in; what could they have felt but envy? I am sure they do not see such a dress from one year to the next; their own gowns were positively rusty.

And the food that was spread upon the table, my dear! It was so scanty, that I honestly was afraid they were starving themselves to give us tea; I would send them some vegetables from the vicarage garden if only it was not such a very great distance away. There were so many signs of their poverty altogether, I was quite uncomfortable. Not only did they speak incessantly of “elegant economy,” but I can swear I heard the words “Cheshire is cheaper.” Exactly so! as my caro sposo would say. I really think I need say no more of these people’s gentility. There was not even a scrap of ice upon the table; I remember making quite a fuss about ice in the card-parties at Highbury when I was first transplanted there as a bride, but more than thirty years later, these poor people have nothing but the pitifulest old ice house across the village square, shared in common with every body else in the place – more of your leveling notions. It is all of a piece with the gas-lamps.

The ladies of Cranford do have some notions of decorum and gentility, I grant, though they are so very countrified and live such a retired life as to be quite out of the fashionable world. I do believe that the vulgarity shown in that regrettable stereopticon play can be laid almost entirely at the door, not of the ladies or even poor Mrs. Gaskell, but of the photographer himself. I am sure he was not a gentleman, for he insisted upon us watching a medical operation (Mr. E would never allow me to see such a thing). There was also such a vile business made about the cat and the boot; and to think of having Miss Matty say that a cow is quite a daughter to her!

Surely, to speak of the barnyard is the province of farmers, not gentlewomen. I was never in any party where ladies spoke in such a way. Those who say that the Victorian age is a more prudish one than what preceded it are quite mistaken. Miss Jane Austen does not even once mention a cat in a single one of her books; and I am sorry to be forced to the conclusion that Mrs. Gaskell is the vulgarest of the two. And I am a judge. I always had a natural inclination in that way even as a young woman, and now, as I am quite the first lady in society in Highbury (except, perhaps, for Mrs. Knightley, whose adherents are perfectly deluded), I am abundantly qualified for the office of pointing out the deficiencies of Cranford.

Quite another matter from the elegancies of life in either Cranford or Highbury, is this stereopticon play. It will be natural for me to give my strictures and opinions on these proceedings as they are unfolded, as I have now endured a – Skreening, they call it, of the first part of the business. The occasion, I must confess, opened with some éclat. I was invited – for who could think of leaving me out – to a little party that was held in late April in a ballroom, a very large ballroom indeed. This ballroom, or perhaps stadium, quite resembled Astley’s, I thought, though without the horses, and was in a very fine modern building called the Directors Guild, in the Far Western American city of Los Angeles. A Picture-Palace, I am told such places used to be called. The people who came (and very oddly they were dressed, too; the ladies nearly all in breeches, and with their hair so short, so oddly coloured, my dear! How you would have stared).

We were given quite elegant viands, prawns, and potato-pancakes, and Italian meats – most elegant, and the place was lighted up so brilliantly, it must have cost a vast sum in gas-lamps. Well: they showed a part of this Cranford play, up on an immensely large wall hanging, and the audience liked it vastly, they made very little attempt to conceal their rather indecorous laughter, at the Cranford people’s quaint doings, which I thought quite rude. I do not believe I have ever seen so many people all together in my entire life, but most remarkable was what happened at the end. Chairs were placed upon the stage, and who should walk out and sit in them but the very actresses we had seen on the Skreen but moments ago! They seated themselves, and spoke with great condescension and cordiality, for full an hour; and the audience were very cordial to them in return, though to be sure, they acted very well, only too well, so that it made one about what their reputations could be.

I do not know exactly, but I suspect a great deal. Jane Tranter, head of BBC Fiction, spoke, and the Director, Simon Curtis, and the Writers and Creators, Heidi Thomas, Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin (such outlandish names!) were also present; but one person was not, and that is Mrs. Gaskell, which is perhaps not to be lamented, as I do not know if she could have borne to hear her name bandied about publicly in this immodest and vulgar fashion. It did very well in this Far Western setting however, which was vulgarity personified. I was much diverted to see how much younger the actresses looked in their strange costumes – the ordinary clothes they had worn in the play were modester, but it must be admitted, made them appear much older. Miss Eileen Atkins in particular, was quite animated and youthfully pretty, though she had been quite dour and pinched as Miss Deborah; and Miss Imelda Staunton was jocular, while Miss Judi Dench seemed very familiar with Miss Atkins, as they spoke of being acting together as sisters for the first time fifty years ago, in 1958, which made me laugh as of course that is a good hundred years in my future.

One thing I was surprised to hear Miss Deborah say, was, that a woman is not the equal of a man, but always his superior. That is a more dangerously revolutionary view than I can readily comprehend, having always shown my conjugal obedience to my dear Mr. E; but I always stand up for women myself, and Cranford is a society of women – Amazons, Mrs. Gaskell calls them. But I am sure she is being ironic. I dote upon irony, but I would not trade my position as a married woman, for any thing.

Oh! What a nuisance. Mrs. Diana Birchall wishes to get some rest. I suppose I shall have to be shut up again in her ridiculous head, but I trust she will allow me to deliver my opinions of farther episodes of this peculiar stereoptican that is portraying Cranford and its residents, in part, as it were, and through a glass darkly.

Yours very sincerely

Augusta Elton

CONTEST: Thank you very much Mrs. Elton. We look forward what you have to say about episode two of Cranford on Sunday next, May 11th. at 9:00 pm on Masterpiece Classic. We would love to read your opinion of Cranford, and if you leave a comment between May 4th and May 18th, your name will be entered in a drawing on May 19th for a free copy of Diana Birchall’s book Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma. Good luck to one and all!

Posted by Laurel Ann, Austenprose & Ms. Place, Jane Austen’s World


Merti said...

Thank you for including the image of that cow. It had me laughing all over again. This scene and the Cat scene were my favorites. I can't wait for the second Episode.

Laurel Ann said...

Hi Merti, these were some of my favorite scenes also. Quite humorous and unexpected! I am delighted with Cranford. The production quality is excellent, the acting superb and the plot delightful! It appears that Masterpiece has left the best of the season for the last! I look forward to the next two episodes.

Cheers, Laurel Ann

Regency Lady said...

I am rather new to blogging and am so delighted to have found such a wonderful place to visit and do much Regency reading.

I do try and keep up with the Masterpiece Theater showings of such wonderful films and am glad you have posted about Cranford for I found it to be quite entertaining as well.

I'm off to delve into some more of your wonderful posts!

luthien-84 said...

I love your comments about Episode 1 of Cranford. I especially loved the cat and the lace as I found it very funny and amusing. Looking forward to your review on the coming episode and the next.

Felicia said...

I enjoyed the first part tremendously. I am also reading the book at the same time. But I must say seeing the clothed cow and the ladies "sucking" the oranges on the screen was just hilarious! I can't wait for the next two episodes!

lila said...

I'm so enjoying this series from Masterpiece! Thanks for sharing all of this wonderful background and information!

Dina said...

Thank you for probivding that link to watch it.

I liked the 2 men carrying the woman in the carriage or trying too.

I enjoyed it alot. :)

fati said...

Each week I look forward to Masterpiece presentations and now am enjoying Cranford. The characters are splendid and the scenary is lovely. The first third made me tear and this second third made me smile because of its beauty. Overall the presentation was quite comical, with the clothed cow and Caroline determined to secure Doctor Harrison.

Katie said...

I absolutely love this series! I didn't catch the first episode, bit was able to watch it online, and I made sure to watch part two this last weekend! I love how it can be so funny at some minutes, and then make me want to cry the next. I just loved the old spinster ladies, especially the cat part...hillarious! Though I never expected for there to be so much tragedy. Still, I am looking forward to the next segment!

Karen in Maryland said...

Oh this is fun indeed. The cow really cracked me up, and Mrs. Elton comments are laugh out loud funny.

Robin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robin said...

Oh my, how embarassing! I realized in re-watching Cranford that Heidi Thomas wrote the screenplay and not Andrew Davies to whom I gave credit in my previous post. My apology for the mistake. Cranford was the best that Masterpiece Classic offered this season.

Anonymous said...

There is an astonishingly incorrect notion presented in this review as to what a "stereopticon" is. Archaic, quaint, and faux-period as the term may sound, as used here it is incorrect. Even as a homemade anachronism - and misspelled as "stereoptiCAN" it's not wise to think nouns are what you want them to be. Oh, and each episode of "Cranford" had me laughing, worrying, and weeping. Wonderful stuff; well adapted and very real - people DO behave like this.

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RosieP said...

I believe that "CRANFORD" was set between 1842 to 1843.