Tuesday 5 November 2013
A tale of three towns
Duncombe, Cranford and Hanbury are all one, at least for the purposes of the Best Classic Television Serial Ever, the BBC's Cranford. In its wake, the three Elizabeth Gaskell novellas its clever adapters fused together with a fair amount of dramatic licence - followed by even more in the dodgier Return to Cranford Christmas specials - tend to appear together.
I'd read the lynchpin classic before, but this week I got round to Mr Harrison's Confessions and My Lady Ludlow. The doctor's story is more or less candyfloss, stiffened with some acute satire on the ladies of Duncombe/Cranford and featuring a much plainer hero than the pretty sandy gentleman in the TV series. As in the dramatisation, though, it does suddenly shock us when Little Walter dies in three pages flat halfway through the story.
That permits me a digression of the kind Mrs Gaskell so encouraged. People die frequently and suddenly before their time in her novels: that's just the way it was (and in some cases, of course, if less frequently, still is). We learn, for instance, in the last paragraph of My Lady Ludlow that young, delicate Mr Gray shuffled off his mortal coil far too soon. Which helps me find a home at last for a small gem that's haunted me over the last year - a self portrait by George Manson displayed at the National Trust property of Polesden Lacey.
Manson was 19 when he painted that little watercolour in 1869, and only 25 when his promising career was cut short by the end of a long illness. I didn't know the facts when I saw it, but I surmised with an unexpected quiver of emotion that here was a young man not long for this world. I think Mrs Gaskell would have liked the tenacious young Scot, apprenticed as a woodcutter and a fervent speaker against slavery.
But back to our novels. The tales and behaviour of Lady Ludlow are altogether richer than those of Mr Harrison, and some opportunities had to be missed in the translation to TV. It's in the book, but not in the series, that we meet Mr Gray, the stumbling, fragile progressive clergyman. His scenes with the maddeningly obdurate, reactionary Lady provide real edge-of-seat dialogue. And the wonderful thing about Gaskell's writing is that we sympathise with the convention-corseted Lady Ludlow and get to see that she's essentially a good person who may change her views over time if she comes into contact with the harbingers of change as real human beings.
Equally resistant to progress, Miss Galindo is quite a different and more entertaining person than the sober common-sense character played so beautifully by Emma Fielding. She, Imelda Staunton, Julia McKenzie and Dame Judi all touched me by their restraint when we finally caught up with the outrageous and exploitative Return. Very well, so I went with the railway story-line of the first episode, but the second was so indigestibly chocolate-boxy. And after all the attention to detail for which these BBC series are famous, why on earth did they shoot the October to December outdoor scenes with the trees still in full leaf and such very unautumnal or wintry skies?
Anyway, Gaskell's prose is a different matter altogether, and she tells such a good, clear story. I even enjoyed the huge digression of Lady Ludlow's narrative about the aristocratic lovers caught up in the French Revolution. While obviously not quite on the Hilary Mantel level, it stuck me as a good deal more truthful about those best and worst of times than the overstuffed operatic farrago of Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, which I'm having to watch as part of a mostly pleasurable reviewing trawl through the James Levine 40 Years at the Met boxes. Was having such fun with Figaro and Puccini's Trittico - and then this. Ah well, it can't all be nectar-quaffing. Now I must go off and sit through what I'm hoping against hope will be the final scene.