It’s hard to accuse television of being an instrument of dumbing down when it stimulates thousands of people to seek out the works of a substantial but neglected 19th century author.
You think such an achievement is beyond television? It actually happened recently in Britain. In November, a four-part BBC costume drama adapted from the obscure 1864 novel “Wives and Daughters,” by Elizabeth Gaskell, won high audience ratings and spurred large numbers of viewers to read the original. Overlooked for a century, Mrs. Gaskell, as she is known in Britain, has finally achieved something akin to widespread acclaim.
All this is the work of the widely criticized medium of television. Yet “Wives and Daughters,” it must be stressed, is not exactly run-of-the-mill programming. It comes from producer Sue Birtwistle and writer Andrew Davies, adapters of another 19th century costume drama, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” which in 1995 became a phenomenon in Britain and a huge international seller for the BBC, landing in the U.S. on A&E; in 1996.
“Wives and Daughters,” which premieres on BBC America today and moves to PBS some months later, is the first Davies-Birtwistle collaboration since “Pride and Prejudice.” It stemmed from the BBC’s eagerness to find another classic drama with comparable appeal; the BBC effectively told the duo they could adapt any book they wished.
Gaskell may not seem the most obvious author to have chosen; her reputation has long been eclipsed in Britain by Austen, Dickens, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. But the work of most leading 19th century novelists has been heavily plundered by film and television. For example, all six Austen novels have been adapted for the screen in the last five years.
And Birtwistle and Davies genuinely regard “Wives and Daughters” as a masterpiece. “It’s strong, direct and passionate,” says Birtwistle. “I think it’s her best book.” Certainly it has the necessary elements for a popular classic TV drama.
First published in 18 monthly episodes of the Cornhill Magazine, starting in 1864, it is set some 40 years earlier, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The setting is Hollingford, a small fictional town in the middle of England, closely based on Knutsford, Cheshire, Gaskell’s hometown.
Its heroine, Molly Gibson (played by Justine Waddell), has been raised by her widower father (Bill Paterson), Hollingford’s doctor. When she is 17, he meets and marries a ridiculous, meddling woman (Francesca Annis) with a beautiful daughter, Cynthia (Keeley Hawes).
Much of the plot revolves around Molly’s and Cynthia’s romances and their dealings with the local squire (Michael Gambon) and his sons--the seemingly brilliant, dazzling Osborne Hamley (Tom Hollander) and his quieter, solid brother, scientist Roger Hamley (Anthony Howell). All this occurs in a town where few romances remain secret and gossiping tongues wag.
A Character Evolved From Darwin, a Friend
The novel has roots in its author’s life. Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born in 1810; her mother died the next year. Raised in Knutsford by an aunt, she lived briefly with her father and stepmother before his death.
Loss plagued her life. After she married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister from Manchester, their first child was stillborn. Though they had four daughters, their only son died of scarlet fever as a baby.
Yet Gaskell was also a cosmopolitan woman who frequently traveled abroad. She knew such literary figures as Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens, who asked her to write for his periodical, “Household Words.” She also befriended Charles Darwin, on whom Roger Hamley of “Wives and Daughters” is clearly based.
Tellingly, though Birtwistle grew up near Knutsford, she read no Gaskell novels until she was 20; few British schools include her on reading lists.
And Davies was no Gaskell expert until five years ago, when, after the success of “Pride and Prejudice,” members of the Gaskell Society (a group devoted to the author and her works) urged him to read “Wives and Daughters” and consider adapting it for TV.
“I’d read ‘North and South’ and heard ‘Cranford’ on the radio,” said Davies. “I assumed Mrs. Gaskell was about a lot of old ladies gossiping, like in ‘Cranford,’ or social conscience books like ‘North and South,’ a bit obvious and not at all intriguing.
“But the quality of ‘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 people. Nothing’s forced about her writing. She has great confidence to write about what are pretty ordinary lives in some cases.”
One intriguing factor about “Wives and Daughters” is that it is incomplete; it breaks off in its 60th chapter, though the story’s dramatic arc suggests only one more chapter remained. Gaskell died before she could finish it. The central romance in the story is thus primed to happen but never actually occurs. In adapting, Davies had to imagine how Gaskell might have resolved the story.
“It’s clear what she wanted to happen,” said Birtwistle. “I don’t think anyone could dispute that. But she hasn’t told us how she’d have brought it about. That’s incredibly frustrating. Still, the way it’s adapted, viewers may guess what will happen but not how.”
“It’s clearly signaled a happy ending is in store, and Molly gets her just rewards,” said Davies. “But I think we’ve managed to give [the ending] a little twist which is perhaps pleasing and a bit unconventional.”
It worked for British TV viewers. Though “Wives and Daughters” was scheduled against a heavily hyped costume drama on the rival ITV channel, an adaptation of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” it triumphed in the ratings, averaging 9.4 million viewers for each episode, a healthy figure for this genre.
The other twist in this saga is that a new generation of readers suddenly discovered Gaskell. Penguin Books has kept her works in print, but the popularity of the BBC’s “Wives and Daughters” boosted sales of the novel dramatically. It had previously sold about 3,000 copies a year in Britain, but after the BBC series began, it became a best-selling title, with sales of more than 30,000 within three weeks.
A Penguin spokesperson confirmed that other Gaskell novels, including “North and South” and “Cranford,” had also enjoyed increased sales since November.
“Wives and Daughters,” then, is another Birtwistle-Davies triumph, if on a smaller scale than “Pride and Prejudice.”
Their creative partnership goes back many years; Davies was Birtwistle’s tutor in English literature when she studied drama in college at Coventry. “He said he always dreamed one of his students would eventually commission him and keep him in work for the rest of his life,” said Birtwistle, smiling. “It may yet happen.”
* “Wives and Daughters,” episodes one and two can be seen Saturday at 5 and 10 p.m. respectively on BBC America, which is available on cable systems, Dish Network and DirectTV. Episode three premieres Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. with a repeat at 10 p.m.; episode four will be shown on Aug. 26, also at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. All four episodes will be shown back to back Sept. 2.