It’s 1842 and Lady Ludlow is appalled to discover that a young woman applying for a position as her maid has learned to read and write. It must not be allowed, she tells her land agent, Carter.

“Dissatisfaction will result” she says “and the proper order of the world will be undone.”

Ludlow is one of many women at the heart of the BBC’s miniseries 2007 Cranford, available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library.

The series takes place in a village 12 arduous miles by coach from Manchester, England and the world around Cranford is undergoing a radical transformation, signified by the ominous announcement of the railroad coming within a mile of the town.

Unlike many BBC dramas that it resembles — such as the 1995 production of Jane Austen’s Pride and PrejudiceCranford embraces a diverse cast of characters preoccupied with more than courtship and marriage. Rather, Cranford gives equal importance to family and community relationships, while women dominate the town socially — many of them widowed or never married. Marriage is apparently a temporary condition in Cranford, and any pairings are hard won.

Adapted from novels by 19th century author Elizabeth Gaskell, the drama centres on Deborah (Eileen Atkins) and Mattie Jenkyns (Judi Dench), who are unmarried, elderly sisters living together in a modest house.

Deborah provides exacting leadership on matters of proper behaviour that impact the community. Mattie defers to Deborah, but in time finds she has to stand apart from her sister’s formidable shadow.

The two women are surrounded by a cluster of other women in similar circumstances, who provide comic relief.

While on the surface their lives seem constrained, Cranford is about empowered women who harbour no doubts about their influence and importance to their community.

“Women are like Amazons,” says a visitor. And even the conservative Lady Ludlow encourages women to cultivate an independent spirit.

Another plot revolves around the land agent, Carter, who takes Harry (Alex Etel), the 10-year-old son of a poacher, under his wing, teaching him to read and write – starting with the word “liberty.”

While all the performances are excellent, Philip Glenister as the quietly subversive Carter, and Eileen Atkins are especially memorable. Francesca Annis as the haunted Lady Ludlow is also outstanding.

The attention to period detail is exceptional, as seen in the costumes and sets, and particularly in the dialogue. Creators Sue Birtwhistle and Susie Conklin combed through archival documents from the period to replicate the language and the results are arcane, but accessible to contemporary ears.

Return to Cranford, a two-part sequel, takes place two years after Cranford and finishes the journey of the characters. It retains the high production values and quality of performances, recounting tensions between older and younger generations over the imminent arrival of the railroad. It also includes a rather forgettable romance between two new characters.

Both DVDs are available at Whitehorse Public Library.