People who, like myself, had never heard of author Elizabeth Gaskell or Cranford have quite a treat waiting for them upon their first viewing of the new television mini-series based upon her work. People who were already fans of the Victorian-era writer will, I think, be immensely pleased at the cinematically “elegant economy” with which BBC has delineated the subtle strokes of Gaskell’s pen.
To the citizens of Cranford, a fictional town based upon the real village of Knutsford in Cheshire, England, “elegant economy” is as much a way of life as how and when to pay a social call, and whether or not a cow is essential but a "gig" (dandified carriage) is vulgar.
The arbitress of propriety in this bucolic town is Miss Deborah Jenkyns (Dame Eileen Atkins of Cold Comfort Farm and Gosford Park). The elder sister of Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns, Miss Deborah has never forgotten the lessons she learned as the daughter of the village rector. The ladies of a certain age whose social set dominates Cranford mores and customs all look to Miss Deborah for her superior wisdom. Whether to burn one candle or two and how many days before one returns a social call are serious questions, and their apt resolution is a solemn matter in Cranford.
Matty Jenkyns (Dame Judi Dench) is all too content to defer to her sister on every matter of import. And so it went without question that she had to dissuade her sole suitor and co-exists with Miss Deborah as spinsters in their autumn years. The women of Cranford assist townsfolk and each other in any way possible, however, so no one need feel at the mercy of life. The ladies of Cranford - genteel of lineage if lacking material wealth - have mercy stockpiled. We see several times in the story that in the direst of times they have kindness to spare.
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her novels during the Victorian age. Women in those days were often seen as inferior creatures lacking a male’s rational sensibility and also his superior physical strength. Class distinctions were severe in that time as well. One born into poverty had a very small chance of changing their fate in their lifetime. It was in this setting Gaskell, the daughter and later a wife of Unitarian ministers, set about threading her novels with the notion of social change and ‘equality for all’ the same way the ladies of Cranford might work at needlepoint quietly by candlelight. Or - perhaps - the way the silent order of nuns in France might work a piece of lace.