The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

The BBC is offering a few wonderful Gaskell treats to UK viewers and listeners at the moment, with works featured in TV cultural documentaries, plus readings and dramatisations on the radio. Watch and listen online or search for them on the BBC Iplayer and BBC Sounds apps. 

We start with Mary Barton, Gaskell’s first novel and a powerful portrayal of appalling conditions endured by millworkers in Manchester. Episode 3 of Novels that Shaped our World, The Class Ceiling (BBC2) looks the social divides as portrayed in literature. 

Class is present from the time the very first novels in English appeared. This episode begins with one of the most famous portrayals of the fate of the poor and the destitute – Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, published in 1837. The ‘Condition of England’ novel, by writers such as Dickens, Disraeli and Elizabeth Gaskell, whose Mary Barton is set in industrial Manchester, drew attention to and invoked pity for the lives lived by the have-nots in a ‘two-nation’ society. But, though sympathetic, they fell short of offering support for the aims of working-class movements. By the turn of the next century, though, these had grown in strength. Novels like Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, published in 1914, pressed not just for reform, but for socialism to take root.

You can watch the episode (and others in the series) here, available until the end of May 2022. 

Next comes North and South in the series Art That Made Us (episode 6) (BBC2)

The 19th century saw a decisive shift in power from the countryside to the cities. With the industrial revolution transforming the British Isles, a divide opened up between the urban and the rural, forcing artists to respond to the upheaval to lives and the landscape. Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson reflects on the inspiration of JMW Turner, arguably the first environmental artist, and we encounter Penry Williams’s attempt to capture the beauty of industry with paintings like Cyfarthfa Ironworks Interior at Night. 

Some artists attempt to capture the poverty and squalor caused by the rapid urbanisation around them. Actress Maxine Peake reads from Elizabeth Gaskell’s campaigning novel North and South, architect Fiona Sinclair assesses Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s architecture for the people of Glasgow, and artist Jeremy Deller explores William Morris’s drive to bring nature back into Victorian homes through his hand-crafted wallpaper designs. 

This series is available for ten months (from May 2022). Watch it here.

Meanwhile in Radio Land…

Francine Stock is joined by historian Amanda Vickery and Gaskell Society Vice-President Jenny Uglow to discuss Elizabeth Gaskell in the series Great Lives. Jenny’s biography of Elizabeth Gaskell is an absolutely wonderful read and we thoroughly recommend it. 

Listen to Great Lives here. 

You’ll also find a serialisation of Cranford, read by Carolyn Pickles. This is available for over a year. 

There’s a dramatisation of Wives and Daughters here.  With nine, hour-long episodes, it’s an absolute treat.

Even better? If you’re a UK TV licence holder, all of this is free! 

Linsey Parkinson