Recently my wife and I finished watching our 40th and final episode of the BBC television series, Lark Rise to Candleford, which ended its hugely popular original run on the BBC earlier this year, and is now going like rented hotcakes on Netflix. Lark Rise, loosely based upon Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, is set in the 1890s and centers on a young woman, Laura Timmins (Olivia Hallinan) from the Oxfordshire hamlet of Lark Rise who moves to the nearby market town of Candleford to work for her cousin, Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha), the town’s postmistress. But the series is much more of an ensemble piece, featuring a large and engaging cast of characters from both Lark Rise and Candleford. The stories are warm, comical, romantic, and at times surprisingly poignant about what is lost and what is gained in modernity’s progress away from the small, local virtues of rural life. Lark Rise is just about as satisfying a melodrama as one could wish for.
Which raises the question: why would one wish for a melodrama in the first place? Aren’t melodramas the marshmallows of the world of story—almost painful in their sugary sweetness, and utterly void of all nutritional value?
Melodrama is a definition with no precisely fixed meaning, but the kind of definition found on Wikipedia is fair enough: a melodrama is a story which exaggerates plot and character in order to appeal to the emotions. The exaggeration can take many forms: contrived plots, emotionally explosive romantic triangles, broad comic characters, and thrilling dramatic twists. All of which are on display in Lark Rise—in each 50-minute episode.
But I am loathe to dismiss Lark Rise, and melodrama in general, as no more than a silly, guilt-inducing pleasure—a marshmallow that might better have been exchanged for a lean chicken breast and two veg. When it comes to melodrama, I am in agreement with T.S. Eliot, who, in an essay on two of the greatest melodramatic novelists, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, wrote:
You cannot define Drama and Melodrama so that they shall be reciprocally exclusive; great drama has something melodramatic in it, and the best melodrama partakes of the greatness of drama….It is possible that the artist can be too conscious of his “art.”…We cannot afford to forget that the first—and not one of the least difficult—requirements of either prose or verse is that it should be interesting (T.S. Eliot, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” in Selected Essays, New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1950, pp. 417-18).
And the same holds true of movies and television shows. What Eliot is saying is that what we enjoy in the best melodramas are qualities inherent to great drama itself. To want one’s nerves rattled, to want one’s comedy laugh-out-loud, to want one’s love stories full of pain and anguish but still, by series end, to culminate in a marriage—these are the natural wants of the human being seeking a story, not the low, vulgar tastes of the marshmallow-glutted crowd that doesn’t know any better.
What I like especially in Eliot’s point is the way it blurs the distinction between “high” and “low”—or “popular”—culture. The best drama—Dickens’ Bleak House, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, James Joyce’s Ulysses—is full of the exaggeration of plot and character that tugs melodramatically upon the emotions. There is perhaps no more melodramatic writer in the English language than Shakespeare (for sheer implausibility, there’s nothing like the heartstring-yanking Act V of The Winter’s Tale). But this is what we want from stories, and if we can’t find it in the works that so-called “high” culture has on offer (and increasingly, we can’t), then we will go looking for it elsewhere. In the same essay alluded to above, Eliot makes this point:
Those who have lived before such terms as “high-brow fiction,” “thrillers” and “detective fiction” were invented realize that melodrama is perennial and that the craving for it is perennial and must be satisfied. If we cannot get this satisfaction out of what the publishers present as “literature,” then we will read—with less and less pretence of concealment—what we call “thrillers.” But in the golden age of melodramatic fiction [Eliot is thinking of the literature of the mid 19th-century] there was no such distinction. The best novels were thrilling; the distinction of genre between such-and-such a profound “psychological” novel of today and such-and-such a masterly “detective” novel of today is greater than the distinction of genre between Wuthering Heights, or even The Mill on the Floss, and East Lynne, the last of which “achieved an enormous and instantaneous success, and was translated into every know language, including Parsee and Hindustani (Eliot, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” 409-10).
East Lynne, by the way, was a sensational novel published in 1861 by Ellen Wood, a novel replete with all manner of outrageously melodramatic devices….
So am I saying that there is no difference between East Lynne and Bleak House? Or between Bleak House and King Lear? Are there no such things as dramatic marshmallows? Of course there are. You find them every afternoon in the soap operas that ceaselessly bubble up on network television. The point is not that there is no such thing as sappy, corny, campy storytelling. The point is that what we are looking for, even in the clumsiest melodramas, are essentially the same qualities, far more artfully presented, in the greatest drama. I would not say that Lark Rise to Candleford achieves that height of which Eliot speaks, where melodrama becomes great drama. But that it is a very fine melodrama, one that here and there achieves greatness, I am sure.
And so I recommend it to you.