I am totally charmed by the Masterpiece Classic presentation of Cranford which began last Sunday. Episode two continues again tonight May 11th on PBS at 9:00pm, and concludes next Sunday May 18th. Three weeks living the simple life with the company of the ladies and gentlemen of Cranford, ahhh… such a respite indeed. You can review the cast of characters here.
We are honored once again by a review by Mrs. Elton, that pretentious matron of Highbury society who invaded Emma Woodhouse’s world and her patience; brought to us by that obliging Diana Birchall. Even though we always enjoy Mrs. Elton's forthright opinions, which she gives so freely as she continues her views on the mini-series Cranford, they are a bit like watching a train wreck. You should look away, - but are compelled to observe!
You can catch the first installment of her three part Cranford contributions here to catch up if need be, and read her previous review of Emma during The Complete Jane Austen series last March on Austenprose. Check out Diana Birchall’s recently released book, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma if you want to read a clever bit of writing to complement Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice.
Diana Birchall’s introduction …
I’ve just returned from a family visit to New York, which is in many ways the exact opposite of Cranford. Cranford is small, while New York is, well, not. Cranford is only struggling into the industrial age and is appalled at the very idea of trains; New York embraces trains, planes, and enough machines to make an all-night clangor that Cranford could scarcely conceive. I suppose the whole of Cranford would fit handily into a single apartment building, but think what would be lost – the visiting, the social round, the sharing of troubles, the excitement over little bits of news. In New York people hardly know who their next door neighbors are. Cranfordian news items would fall far below the radar and even the most bizarre phenomena of Cranford would barely cause a stir: if you saw a cow in pajamas on Forty-second Street you would think it was only a publicity stunt and would simply walk around it. Wouldn’t you?
I walked in Central Park which was in full flower with magnolias, cherry blossoms, bluebells and tulips. Would the Cranford ladies have approved of that? No, I think they would be stunned by the colorful crowds, the cross town buses, the skyscrapers, visible even in the park; and only in the heart of the Ramble might they imagine themselves, for a moment, at home. If you’d like to read about my trip and see my pictures, they’re on my blog: lightbrightand sparkling.
But lo! What light from yonder window breaks? It is a movie camera, and Mrs. Elton is the star. My head begins to pain me...she is waving and gesticulating wildly, demanding to be heard...
Well, really, if I must say something, I should be allowed to tell you that I have seen more of Cranford, and I cannot approve of it at all. It grows vulgarer and vulgarer, and where it shall end, Heaven only knows. Only compare the place to Highbury, the charming village to which I was transplanted, so many years ago, and you will understand. First, it is an indisputed fact that Cranford is in the north, quite far north, indeed so close to Manchester as to be hardly genteel. Highbury, and Highbury alone, is in the most elegant situation that could possibly be. That is – Maple Grove to be sure is in a better one, but Highbury is still much more the thing than Cranford.
And only think: nearly every one who lives in Cranford is a single woman! Now, that is very sad; I am sure I should have been ashamed of being always a spinster, but if such a calamity had befallen Jane or me - dear Jane Fairfax, now Mrs. Churchill of Enscombe, which to be sure is in Yorkshire, but that is a very different part of the north, and not to be confused with the want of gentility of such a place as Manchester. Jane tells me that Yorkshire is very genteel indeed, she quite raves about the place, where no vulgarity is allowed. But what was I saying? Oh yes, only that if my dear caro sposo had not made me an offer, and I had remained unwed, (though to be sure I was in no wise wanting for offers), I should never have conducted myself as those ladies of Cranford do. Running through the streets, shouting about matters that had better be kept quiet, old ladies in ruffles, like mutton dressed as lamb; and then, in private, practicing such vulgar economy! Really, it is too bad to have a whole town full of old ladies, and then to show them as being so silly. It does them an injury. I was going to say that the very superior Jane Austen would never create or countenance such a thing, but I have just remembered that she did create Miss Bates, which seems very surprising of her. For what is Cranford but a town absolutely full of Miss Bateses? Now, that is my idea of a very sad place.
And Cranford is sad, do you not agree? Do not we all? The pitiful makeshifts of the people to live – only one burned-down candle in some of those rickety houses, if you will believe me, and the clothes – well! They say it is 1842, but I am sure I was wearing such bonnets and pelisses in Highbury as long ago as 1815. Very pitiful doings, upon my word.
But now I see that I am to be taken up, and given a new hat: Mrs. Birchall has explained to me that I am to become a movie critic. I am not quite certain exactly what she means by it, but I should hope that with my resources, I ought to be able to give my opinion decidedly, which is all that I think is meant. Yes, I see how it is, I shall never have a disengaged moment! It is quite tiresome to be so popular, when my natural inclination is all for quiet. As there is positively no escape, however, I will proceed to tell you what I think of this odd – very odd – stereopticon showing of Cranford, without feigning an approval which I do not feel.
Well! For one thing, I do believe there are too many people in Cranford. Miss Jane Austen always said that three or four families in a country village was the very number to be working with, and I assure you Cranford has a great many more than that. Indeed, there are whole families coming in from other books, and really this does not do. Why, there are screaming poaching boys running all over Cranford, and my Lady Ludlow is set down in a vastly grand mansion – bigger even than Maple Grove, which is the perfect size for taste (I never could bear with ostentation) - right within the village of Cranford itself, which is perfectly monstrous. And then my lady, wandering about in costume of the late 1780s at latest, has she been conjured up by one of those time travel machines invented by Mr. Jules Verne, early in the new century? It is odd, very odd indeed.
But many other things meet with my dislike. You must know they do. I cannot approve of so many people dying continually; I am sure Highbury is a far healthier spot than Cranford, for Cranford is a veritable charnel-house. Our Miss Bates lived to a very old age, you know, and Mr. Woodhouse did the same; and every one was so well in Highbury that good Dr. Perry had very little to do. But Cranford, now! Mercy! I should be quite afraid to go there, such a dying place as it is. Poor Cousin Deborah, falling down dead like that; and then not even being accorded the proper respect. Far more time was devoted to the death of that wretched child - what was his name?
It is all Victorian Sentimentality, I call it, which is a very nasty business indeed. And whatever you may say of these moderns, they do not deal with Victorian Sentimentality at all well. They are so coarsened in the twenty-first century, that they have no idea of the tender emotions, and act them very awkwardly. I am sure Miss Jane Austen would not have liked it. She had a very good taste. She wrote whole books about the odiousness of Sentimentality - of course, she called it Sensibility, which is a far better word. But she would never have permitted her characters to indulge in such fits of lugubrious weeping as they do in Cranford; I declare I hardly knew where to look. I have heard people say that it is all very touching, and moving, and all that, but I should be ashamed. You never see me crying in public, or indeed in any other place.
Perhaps it is this over-sensibility that produces the decided longeurs that are invading the endless vignettes of this second episode of the stereopticon. It does not seem like Cranford to me. If you are acquainted with the people of Cranford, if you have read Mrs. Gaskell's excellent tale, you will know that there ought not to be a boy learning to read, or a young doctor, in it at all; and you would be sadly bewildered. And if you did not know Cranford, then I should think you would find it difficult to tell who everyone is. And the acting - to be sure, I like a play as well as any one; and there is some here that is very fine, as fine as any thing we saw on the London stage, when Mrs. Siddons was en fleur. Miss Judi Dench and Miss Eileen Atkins, are incomparable. But - how can I explain my meaning, in words you will understand? Let me consult Mrs. Birchall, my cicerone in this odd world - well, she assures me that the word I want is uneven. For I do think that the little blonde girl weeping over her brother and making cow's eyes at the doctor, is as odious an Actress as I ever saw in my life; and that clever boy with the trembling lip is not much better. I have always thought that children should be seen, and not heard, and I am sure Miss Jane Austen thinks so.
And what do these stereopticon makers have against the Irish, calumniating them as they do? I am sure that the Irish people I know are as elegant as any one. Did not Miss Fairfax's great friend Miss Campbell go to live in Ireland, when she married Mr. Dixon? She cannot say enough good about the country. And I particularly remember, long ago, in that pic-nic on Box Hill, there was an Irish car party, very civil behaved. So I can't understand it.
Well, well, next week we will discover how it all turns out. But I am sure there will be much weeping and sensibility and being satiric at the expense of poor old ladies; and I shall not like it at all.
Very Sincerely Yours,
CONTEST: Thank you very much Mrs. Elton, ahem, we would like to remind our gentle readers to enter our contest for a free copy of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma by contributing a comment between May 4th and May 18th. A name will be drawn from the comments, and a new copy mailed to the lucky winner. You can also check out Ms. Birchall's book Mrs. Elton in America to follow her exploits in another continent. Good luck to one and all.
Posted by Laurel Ann, Austenprose & Ms. Place, Jane Austen's World