Escape to the Past

One of the things I have loved best about this festive season is the new two part drama Cranford that was on BBC1 the last couple of weeks. I was totally hooked on the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskill's wonderful books when it first aired about a year ago and could hardly wait for their return. The series has such charm and gentle humour and watching it is like boarding a time machine and escaping into the past. I revel in the clothes, the lace and frills and bonnets. The customs, the curtseying, bowing, the simple good manners.

Cranford was filmed in the village of Lacock in Wiltshire. Lacock is a National Trust Village and has hardly changed for more than 200 years. Perfect for filming this series which is set in the 1830's and 40's. When Elizabeth Gaskill wrote Cranford in 1851 she was already describing a way of life that was fast disappearing. The world of her childhood which I suspect she viewed with the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia. Her books were immediately successful, striking a chord that chimes with us still - the longing for something lost.

But was life ever really that idyllic? People turn to the past for comfort when the present becomes overwhelmingly uncertain. And you can track a rise in popularity of this kind of escapism that corresponds to times of great uncertainty... during war time, during periods of great upheaval or speedy advancements in science. Cranford depicts the imminent arrival of the railway and the threat of the great unknown terrors of the outside world arriving right in the middle of the little town. Life will never be the same again and of course many people inthe town are fearful of what the future will bring. The books highlight the way of life that will be lost and when later generations read the books they hunger for a return to the old ways. But of course the old ways are gone and cannot be revived.

Life is a bit like that just now. With all the wars in the world, the religious tensions and the threat of terrorism, global warming, peak oil and over-population - we are living our lives with such a backdrop of uncertainty that the idea of living a more simple life, of returning to the values of our parents and grandparents begins to look very attractive indeed.

Gardening, Sewing, Knitting, Baking.. all of these pastimes are experiencing a surge in popularity. And when it comes to the allotment even the uncertainties of mother nature are more predictable than what we might hear when we turn on the news. I have to hold up my hand to escaping in this way.

But my point is this... we are not the first generation to seek a way back to what we perceive as more stable times. The simple life that we attribute to people in the past simply did not exist. Like us, they were caught up in their own worries and anxieties about the world and the future for their children and the day to day difficulties of coping with illness, poverty, war (war like poverty has always been with us) etc....

There has never been a better time to be alive than right now. We are able to cure more diseases than ever before in history. For most of the world life expectancy is on the up. Certainly in the developed world fewer babies die than in times past. And for large parts of the world the plight of women has never been better. Women are no longer the property of their father's and husband's. For most of us we can wear what we like, follow our career choices howsoever we choose, make relationships with whomever..... Yes... not all of us have these luxuries - I do know that there are places in the world where these things that I take for granted are only the stuff of dreams. If you look at the ordinary people of Afghanistan you will see a more simple way of life, a virtual medieval way of life, but you could never wish to change places with them. Because theirs is the reality of what life used to be like, not our rose tinted view, which we all prefer.

I am so lucky to be here, right now, this is an amazing world that I live in....

.......where I can cherry pick the best bits of the past and yet still have access to modern hospitals, schooling, music whenever I choose, bright light in the depth of a winter night, communication with my daughter in Japan and my other daughter in Spain and entertainment at the flick of a switch on my television. Where my Christmas pudding took only 9 minutes in the microwave instead of 4 hours steaming on the stove top (and tasted better than a traditional pudding too! Next post.. recipes, I promise!) I am indeed the most fortunate of women!


  1. Briliant post Jane! Brilliant. xx

  2. What a wonderful post, a joy to read, thank you for this. I haven't read the books or seen the tv programme, but this has inspired me to take a look.

    I can never understand the desire to yearn for the past, although I sometimes revisit my own past in my head. We are what we are, here and now. Take a glimpse back by all means, but today is the best day of my life.


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