Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 24, 2010

Details that Sweep You to Cranford or Other Places

My husband and I enjoyed watching Cranford and Return to Cranford, a PBS Masterpiece classic about an English village in the 1840s, just before trains came in and changed the village’s way of life. We loved the DVD with Judi Dench and other wonderful actors showing lives that are often hard, with barriers thrown up by class and medical help being uncertain, but are sweetened by a sense of community that’s not sentimentalized: gossip is a hazard as well as a comfort and many of the friendships are less than dependable. The series was based on three novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, whose writing Charles Dickens admired as she admired his.

After the show we watched the special features in which the actors gushed about the attention lavished on costumes and set. Several spoke about how the period underwear, corsets and vests, made them stand and talk in character. Costumers pored over fashion plates and took pains to get every button and bit of lace correct. A calligrapher trained some in penmanship their character might use, and a specialist in accents made sure everyone sounded just different enough from each other. Set designers made certain that every table in every cottage or mansion reflected its owner, and period doorknobs were scraped and polished to look properly worn. Did I notice the doorknobs? No. But the actors loved not only that the designers made them look good, but such details helped them get into the feeling of their character.

Now it’s back to writing. I’ll be looking at my own doorknobs and tabletops a little more closely. It’s one way into the characters who touch them. And a place, too, may speak, after we take time to look closely and find words for the wood and grass and particular color of the sky.



  1. I missed the series, but I love Mrs Gaskell. In her novels she discussed labor issues, the problem of masters raping their maids and then tossing them if they got pregnant, dysfunctional families, and a lot of other non-Victorian issues.
    I read Cranford a long time ago and loved it.

  2. I like that phrase “non-Victorian.” I think the people who originated the series truly loved Gaskell’s fiction, too, and tried to be true to its spirit. I guess I should read some now!

  3. Jeannine, I’ve just read the Amazon excerpt from Borrowed Names, and I can say for a fact that you *do* make places speak. And sewing boxes and writing desks, too.
    And no doubt doorknobs as well.
    I’ve read a fair amount about Laura’s life, and Rose’s. But your poems put me inside those lives in a whole new way. I can’t wait for the rest of the book!

  4. Amy, thank you so much!

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