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Based on three Elizabeth Gaskell novels: Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison’s Confessions, this witty and poignant story follows the small absurdities and major tragedies in the lives of the people of Cranford during one extraordinary year. Cranford in the 1840s is a small Cheshire market town on the cusp of change. The railway is pushing its way relentlessly towards the town from northern industrial city, Manchester, bringing fears of migrant workers and the breakdown of law and order. The arrival of handsome new doctor, Frank Harrison from London causes a stir; not only because of his revolutionary medical methods, but also because of the effect he has on many of the ladies’ hearts in the town. Judi Dench plays Miss Matty Jenkyns, whose hopes and rebellious spirit are crushed when she was forced as a young woman to give up Mr Holbrook, the man she loved.
Mary Smith flees a crisis at home in Manchester to stay with two spinster sisters, Deborah Jenkyns and Matty Jenkyns, in the small, rural town of Cranford. Deborah is the dominating force in Cranford society, and the kind- hearted and eccentric Matty believes her to be the best judge in all matters. A new young doctor, Frank Harrison, is brought to Cranford to join Dr Morgan in his medical practice. Despite Dr Morgan’s talking up his protégé, the mere fact that Frank is a young bachelor and trained in London is enough to make him the talk of the town. When the town’s carpenter,Jem Hearne, has a catastrophic fall from a tree, Dr Morgan is horrified to learn that, instead of amputating the injured arm, Dr Harrison is determined to attempt new and risky surgery. Everyone gets involved in the case, and gossip and rumour spread, led by the unassailable Miss Pole. Meanwhile, Cranford’s reigning aristocrat, Lady Ludlow, who lives two miles outside Cranford at the splendid Hanbury Court, wants to turn her attention to the planning of her annual garden party with her trusted estate manager, Mr Carter. The Jenkyns are intrigued when the house across the street is let to a retired soldier, Captain Brown, his daughterJessie, and Jessie’s ailing older sister. Deborah and Matty are riveted to see that he seems acquainted with another local aristocrat, Sir Charles Maulver, who engages the Captain in an unknown business proposal.
Deborah surprises Matty by encouraging Jessie’s romance with a visiting soldier named Major Gordon. Cranford’s ladies are focused on preparing for Lady Ludlow’s Garden Party, the social event of the year. New bonnets are made by the town’s long-suffering milliner Miss Galindo, and there’s a new gown for Caroline Tomkinson, who has fallen for Dr Harrison and is eager to impress him. Dr Harrison has set his sights on Sophy Hutton, the eldest daughter of Cranford’s rector, Reverend Hutton. But Mary Smith’s stepmother Clara is determined to play matchmaker between the doctor and Mary. Forced to assume responsibility for feeding his family, 10- year-old Harry Gregson instructs his little brother Malachi how to steal milk from Mrs Forrester’s beloved cow, Bessie. Unfortunately, six-year-old Malachi forgets to close the gate and Bessie escapes. Meanwhile, Harry sets off to poach to feed the others but becomes transfixed by Lady Ludlow’s glasshouse and the exotic plants and fruits he sees there. Cold and exhausted, he falls asleep on the heated floor and is caught the following morning by Mr Carter. However, Mr Carter is so moved by Harry’s dismal poverty that he offers to pay Harry to run messages for him during the preparations for the garden party. Harry proves to be reliable, good-natured and intelligent, and Mr Carter offers to teach him to read and write. This is something to be done secretly, as he is fully aware that Lady Ludlow is passionately against educating the working classes. Matty, meanwhile, is clearly shaken when, at the party, she meets a mysterious acquaintance from her past, Thomas Holbrook. No one witnesses this meeting and Matty tells no one about it. Things start to go badly wrong at the party when Miss Pole and Mrs Forrester overhear Sir Charles’s startling news that a railway line will be built to come right into Cranford. They immediately report this to Deborah, who leads a deputation of the ladies to Captain Brown in hopes of having the rumour refuted. But Captain Brown shocks them further by telling them that not only is the rumour true, but that he will be the Head of Works. All the women are scandalized by this news, but the most stricken is Deborah, who sees Captain Brown’s secrecy as the ultimate betrayal of a friendship, and the railway as the absolute end of Cranford.
As winter approaches, Cranford is beset by sorrows and struggles to re-gain its confidence. When Dr Harrison’s housekeeper, Mrs Rose, discovers a leg of mutton has been stolen from by the kitchen window on the very same night that MrJohnson, the owner of the town’s most important store, is mugged, the ladies decide that a crime wave has hit Cranford. MrJohnson, meanwhile, becomes convinced thatJob Gregson, the local ne’er-do-well, must be his attacker and Job is arrested.Job’s son Harry decides to make a confession to Mr Carter of his own part in the poaching to save his father from transportation and has to bear the acute disappointment in him that Mr Carter feels. Mr Carter pleads Job’s case with Lady Ludlow, saying that without her interference Job will be found guilty and the Gregson family will starve. Lady Ludlow is immovable; the Gregsons are not her responsibility. Christmas arrives and Cranford huddles together to celebrate, though the town has been so buffeted by events that it feels strangely unsure of itself. An invitation for Matty arrives from Mr Holbrook, asking her to visit him on his farm. Miss Pole and Mary urge her to accept and they accompany her on what turns out to be a delightful – and hopeful – day for Matty. Meanwhile, Dr Harrison confides in his medical school friend Jack Marshland about his love for Sophy. Jack encourages him to send her some Valentine flowers. ButJack, a perpetual prankster, has set up some mischief by sending a Valentine card to Caroline Tomkinson as if from Dr Harrison, hinting at marriage. Caroline is ecstatic and eagerly awaits Dr Harrison’s proposal.
Matty suffers great disappointment and, in a nostalgic mood one evening, decides to confide in Mary about Mr Holbrook and how things were put asunder by a trick played by her younger brother, Peter, who then ran away in disgrace to India and has not been seen since. The mention of India prompts Mary to write to Major Gordon to tell him thatJessie regrets her decision not to marry him, since her father is now so busy at the railway works he really has no need for her. Dr Harrison visits the Rectory and formally asks the Reverend Hutton for permission to court Sophy. He promises he will propose as soon as he is able to provide a home for her. At an auction, Dr Harrison bids for a small table. When he gets it home, he discovers it is a sewing table, so suggests his housekeeper Mrs Rose might like to use it. To Miss Pole and Mrs Forrester, this is tantamount to a proposal. Gullible Mrs Rose believes them and allows them to dye the grey out of her hair. They convince her that Dr Harrison will propose on May Day. Miss Tomkinson, meanwhile, becomes concerned by Caroline’s fretful waiting for Dr Harrison to proclaim his love, and decides to draw him out on the matter. Finally, preparations for May Day excite everyone in the town. Everyone has high expectations of the day. Dr Harrison looks forward to the first time he will be able to be with Sophy openly as a couple. The whole town gathers on the Heath.
Jem and Martha marry, and live as lodgers in Matty’s house – a source of joy for Matty. Meanwhile, Miss Pole invites the ladies of the town to a secret meeting to discuss Matty’s crisis. United in their love for Matty, they decide to secretly share part of their own incomes with her. Mary is recruited to devise a means of getting this to Matty without her knowing where the money came from. Dr Harrison, on the other hand, is shunned by the town – no patients will come to him now that he has been exposed as a philanderer. Dr Morgan suggests he must move on to start afresh somewhere he is not known. Mr Carter is horrified to discover that Lady Ludlow has secretly mortgaged her estate to raise money for her son’s villa in Italy. He confronts her and there is a heated exchange. Mr Carter despairs of what to do, because he knows what pain such an unfathomable mortgage has cost her personally. Sophy returns to Cranford ill, but is diagnosed by Dr Morgan as simply being heart- broken. He assures Reverend Hutton that, with time and love from her family, she will recover. But by the time Jack Marshland arrives in town to help clear Dr Harrison’s name, Sophy’s condition has worsened and is recognised as typhoid fever. He enlists Mrs Rose’s help in treating her, while Dr Harrison is physically barred from either seeing Sophy or assisting. Mr Carter visits Captain Brown at the railway works in a desperate attempt to see if he can raise capital for Lady Ludlow’s mortgage by selling timber or tools. While he is there, disaster strikes and the injured are taken to Dr Harrison’s for emergency treatment. As Sophy’s condition deteriorates, her young sisters defy their father and run to ask Dr Harrison to help. But has the call come too late?