August 8, 1999
Will Molly be as big as Mr Darcy? The team who made Pride and Prejudice into
the hottest BBC drama for years are now filming a novel by Mrs. Gaskell.
David Gritten goes on set to investigate
FOR more than a century, Elizabeth Gaskell has ranked firmly in the second
division of English Victorian novelists, her reputation eclipsed by Dickens,
Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes. But this is all about to change.
Next year will certainly see a re-evaluation of Mrs. Gaskell, as well as a
dramatic upswing in her popularity with the reading public.
That much is guaranteed by a four-part BBC adaptation of her last,
incomplete novel, Wives and Daughters. It is no routine costume drama, for
its creative team is led by the producer Sue Birtwistle and scriptwriter
Andrew Davies, who made Austen's Pride and Prejudice a national phenomenon
and a huge international seller for the BBC.
Wives and Daughters is the first series since Pride and Prejudice on which
Birtwistle and Davies have collaborated. It stems from the BBC's eagerness
to find another classic drama with comparable appeal; thus the Corporation
told the pair they could bestow the television treatment on any book they
Mrs. Gaskell may not seem the most obvious choice for Birtwistle and Davies,
but the work of most leading 19th-century novelists has been heavily
plundered for film and television. For example, all Jane Austen's six major
novels were adapted for the screen in the last five years.
And Birtwistle and Davies genuinely deem Wives and Daughters to be a
neglected masterpiece. "It's strong, direct and passionate," said
Birtwistle, supervising shooting in the tranquil village of Marshfield, near
Bath, which stands in for Gaskell's fictional Hollingford (itself based on
Knutsford, Cheshire, where she grew up). "I think it's her best book."
It certainly has the elements necessary for a popular classic television
drama. A middle-England novel first published in 18 monthly episodes in The
Cornhill Magazine, starting in 1864, it is actually set some 40 years
earlier, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Its heroine, Molly Gibson (played by Justine Waddell), has been brought up
her widower father (Bill Paterson), Hollingford's doctor. But when Molly is
17 he marries a meddling, absurd woman (Francesca Annis) with a beautiful
daughter, Cynthia (Keeley Hawes). Much of the plot centres around the girls'
romances, and their dealings with the local squire's sons; the seemingly
brilliant, dazzling Osborne Hamley (Tom Hollander) and his quieter, solid
brother Roger (Anthony Howell).
Wives and Daughters is strongly autobiographical. Elizabeth Cleghorn
Stevenson was born in 1810; her mother died the next year. Raised in
Knutsford by an aunt, the child lived briefly with her father and stepmother
before his death. Loss plagued her life; after she married a Unitarian
minister, William Gaskell, and settled in Manchester, their first child was
born dead. Their only son died of scarlet fever as a baby.
YET Gaskell was also a cosmopolitan woman who often visited the Continent.
She hobnobbed with literary figures such as Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte and
Dickens, who asked her to write for his periodical Household Words. Mrs.
Gaskell also befriended Charles Darwin, on whom Roger Hamley of Wives and
Daughters is clearly based.
"She was enormously popular in her lifetime," says Jo Pryke, who edits the
Gaskell Society Journal, "but then there was a dip in her popularity. She
was regarded as 'sweet little Mrs Gaskell' until the 1960s, when Marxist
critics reclaimed her as a writer of industrial novels. And more recently
feminists have taken her up. She was a devoted wife and mother but she
wasn't just sweet and submissive. She was psychologically acute, and Molly
Gibson is a strong, independent young woman."
Yet Mrs. Gaskell has never been regarded as part of the Eng. Lit. canon and
rarely appears on schools' reading lists. Tellingly, though Sue Birtwistle
grew up near Knutsford, she did not read Mrs. Gaskell until she was 20.
"I think she was dismissed or overlooked by F. R. Leavis," said Davies, "and
it was he who determined what passed for advanced intellectual taste in
those days. But the quality of writing in Wives and Daughters stunned me.
It's beyond everything else she did, and way up there with George Eliot in
its authoritative feeling of what it's like to be alive for a wide range of
Like Birtwistle, Davies was no Mrs. Gaskell expert until five years ago, when
members of the Gaskell Society urged him to read Wives and Daughters with a
view to adapting it. "I'd read North and South and heard Cranford on the
radio. I assumed she was about a lot of old ladies gossiping, like Cranford,
or social conscience books like North and South - a bit obvious and not at all
Meanwhile the Gaskell Society, though it lags behind the influential Jane
Austen Society in numbers, is gathering momentum. It boasts almost 800
members world-wide and has a website meticulously maintained by a Japanese
academic, Mitsuharu Matsuoka of Nagoya University.
Society members were flushed with excitement recently by the discovery of
six letters written by Gaskell to her children's nurse. The letters deal
with mainly domestic matters - including a scandal about her pregnant but
unwed cook. The Society paid pounds 2,000 to prevent them being auctioned;
they will reside in Manchester's John Rylands Library.
"One of the keys to Gaskell's appeal today is that she was Unitarian," says
Jo Pryke. "Unitarians were not only real movers and shakers in 19th-century
England, they were also pragmatic and non-judgmental. It shows in the letter
about the cook. Gaskell makes no judgments about her behaviour. She was just
sorry to lose her."
On set, Justine Waddell and Keeley Hawes, looking fetching in long
Regency-era dresses, sit on a bench beside a shady arbour in the garden of
an imposing Georgian manor-house. They are discussing affairs of the heart.
It's an archetypal scene from a BBC costume drama, exquisite-looking and
But there's trouble in paradise, or at least in this stately recreation of
it. Planes continually pass overhead, infuriating the sound-man. Two wood
pigeons in an oak tree insist on cooing each time the actresses start
speaking. Crew members clap wooden boards together, scaring the birds away.
Even BBC classic serials, it appears, can only take so much reality.
The atmosphere on set is cheerful and open; visiting journalists may chat to
whomever they wish. But one aspect of Wives and Daughters remains hush-hush:
the ending, unresolved because of Mrs. Gaskell's death. The book breaks off
in its 60th chapter, and its dramatic arc suggests she may have had only one
more chapter left.
"It's so clearly signalled that a happy ending is in store and Molly gets
her just rewards," said Davies. "But I think we've managed to give it a
little twist which is perhaps pleasing and a bit unconventional." "We had
quite a debate about it," added Birtwistle enigmatically. "It was clear what
Gaskell wanted to happen. We've had to come up with the 'how'."
Not even the Gaskell Society purists seem to mind the liberties Davies has
taken. "A major BBC prime-time serial is welcome," says Jo Pryke. "People
have been unbelievably patronising about Gaskell over the years. So we're
(Submitted by Tara)