Cranford and Everyman’s Library


by Mrs. (Elizabeth Cleghorn) Gaskell

Published in serial form Dec 1851-May 1853 in Household Words (edited by Charles Dickens)

Published in book form 1853

Read Aug 2017

Elilzabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865) (generally referred to as Mrs. Gaskell) wrote a number of novels and short stories about life in various strata of Victorian society.  She wrote a series of sketches about the inhabitants of Cranford, a small town fashioned after the Cheshire one of her childhood (where she lived with her aunt following her mother’s death).  The series was originally published in Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens between Dec 1851 and May 1853 and was then published  in book form in 1853.  The series was written while she was writing a three-volume novel Ruth which considers the story of a “fallen woman” and the concepts of sin, illegitimacy, and the question of whether the sinful can be reintegrated into society.  It’s quite interesting that she was simultaneously writing this series of sketches which focuses on the society of Cranford’s inhabitants who are primarily mature or aging women, either never married or widowed and managing to continue to conduct their lives “appropriately” despite rather small incomes.

The story is told us by Mary Smith (whose name is not provided us until very late in the book), a former resident of Cranford who now lives in a larger town with her father.  She is a frequent guest of Miss Deborah Jenkyns, who dies early in the novel, and Miss Matty, her loving sister who defers all decisions to Deborah or to “what Deborah would think” after Deborah dies.  Through the collection of sketches we learn about Miss Matty’s brother Peter, who disappeared many years ago, Miss Matty’s former admirer, Thomas Holbrook who never married after her rejection and dies after a trip he takes shortly after entertaining Miss Matty, Mary Smith and Miss Pole, another Cranford “mature” spinster, and about various customs and protocols of importance to this part of society.  We see Cranford deal with the arrival of the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson’s (essentially “top-dog” of Cranford’s society) widowed sister-in-law Lady Glenmire (“shall we use her title or not, etc”) who eventually marries Cranford’s surgeon to the initial dismay of everyone, since he is considered to be in a separate social strata from the ladies’.   Crisis comes to Miss Matty when the bank in which her small fortune is invested fails and her income is essentially eliminated.  Mary Smith helps her find a path forward, which the townfolks’ significant support is not known to her and includes Miss Matty becoming “an agent of the tea company” (she sells tea from her home).  Mary’s attempt to hail Peter back to his sister is eventually successful and Miss Matty’s life takes a turn back towards but not complete “normalcy”.

Cranford was extremely successful when published as a serial and as a book.  It was included as book number 83 in J.M. Dent’s Everyman’s Library in 1906.  It’s been adapted for television by the BBC three times (1951, 1972, 2007).  Judi Dench played Miss Matty in the 2007 version.

A few notes on the Everyman’s Library:  J. M. Dent founded the publishing firm of J.M Dent and Company in 1888 (it became J.M. Dent and Sons in 1909).  He planned, in 1904, publication of 1000 works of literature that would be affordable to all.  Per the book cover of the copy I read of Cranford:  “What Grose wrote in the Sunday Times in 1928 is even more true now that it was then:  ‘A cosmic convulsion might utterly destroy all the other printed works in the world, and still if a complete set of Everyman’s Library floated upon the waters enough would be preserved to carry on the unbroken tradition of literature.’  Raymond  Mortimer in the Sunday Times.”

By 1910 there were 500 books in the Everyman’s Library.  The title of the series was suggested by the initital head editor of the series, Ernest Rhys.  The quotation from a medival play “Everyman” was included in all Everyman Library books.  The character of Knowledge says to Everyman “Everyman, I will go with thee, and by thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side”.  The 1000th title in the series was added in 1956 and the last title was added to the original series in the early 1970’s when it was suffering substantial competition from the new “paperback book” phenomenon.  It was relaunched in 1991 via Random House and Alfred A Knauf.  Interestingly, a goal of the new series is to provide a high quality hardbound edition of the series contents.

 The Everyman’s Library edition I read was printed in 1969 and included an Introduction by Frank Swinnerton from the 1954 edition as well as the original Forward by J.M. Dent from the 1906 Everyman’s Library edition.  It also includes the Everyman quote noted above. The photo accompanying this piece shows the cover of the edition I read and enjoyed.   Interestingly, Mrs Gaskin is no longer represented in the current Everyman Library catalog.    

Historical Fiction in the Middle East

Dreamers of the Day

By Mary Doria Russell

Published 2008

Read July 2017

I saw this book on display in my local library.  I previously had read Russell’s first two novels,  The Sparrow and Children of God so picked this up to see what it was about.  She has an engaging starting line “My little story has become your history.  You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.” As I have been doing a little studying of Churchill this summer and since understanding a bit about the origins of the modern political geography, I checked out this historical fiction book to see what it would reveal.

The story is told by a spinster schoolteacher from Ohio.  She loses to the Great Influenza of 1919 her entire family, including sister and brother-in-law who had done missionary work in Cario, Egypt, and long-widowed and domineering mother who left her a small inheritance.   Agnes decides to these funds to book passage to Egypt in 1921 and walk where her sister and brother-in-law had walked.  She booked a room at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo, conveniently at the same time the “Cairo Conference” was to be held at that hotel.  While being denied her reservation there as they would not accept her pet dachshund as a guest she begins her encounters with Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, who were important figures at this Middle East Conference called by young Churchill to discuss the Middle East problems of the time, as well as a fictional German spy who befriends Agnes and takes care of her dog while she enjoys her interesting times with the historical figures he’s interested it tracking a bit.

Russell does a nice job of balancing the historical figures and fictional characters.   Agnes’ sister’s connections get Agnes into various actual scenes with the historical figures including Winston Churchill’s painting the pyramids and the demonstration that met Churchill and the delegation when it arrived in Jerusalem, which  T.E . Lawrence quells.  Russell has done her homework on the conference well and gives some information about the outcome of the conference, which set into motion creation of Iraq, the eventual creation of a Jewish state, and lots of turmoil that continues until today.  There is enough information about this to whet the appetite for more reading of the history.   Russell maintains nice focus on her fictional character, Agnes, and the story of her journey to become her own woman, no longer under the domineering influence of her mother and pulls off this story in an interesting and reasonably believable manner.





Twain and The Eclipse

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

By Mark Twain

Published 1889

Read September 2016

Since we’ve just (Aug 2017) experienced a dramatic eclipse of the sun by the moon, I thought it was time to write a brief post about Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”.  Please enjoy the image provided by a friend which shows the eclipse as we saw it locally with the help of leaves to cast multiple images of it on a deck surface.

When my book club decided to read this book, I was frankly not really looking forward to the experience.  I was familiar with the premise (although I realized not the whole story) and immediately recalled the eclipse segment from the Warner Brother’s “A Connecticut Rabbit in King Arthur’s Court”.  Why was this “a classic” and why were we reading it?

However, to my delight, I enjoyed listening to this book so much I listened again immediately after finishing it the first time.   The part with which I was familiar—Hank, a Connecticut Yankee in Twain’s time of the 1880’s, wakes up after a nap to find himself on the outskirts of Camelot.  He avoids being hanged as an intruder by conjuring up an eclipse of the sun (having remembered the date/time of a conveniently timed eclipse) and, after being proclaimed “The Boss” by the King, sets out to modernize Camelot with various technologies from the future.   An aspect I learned from listening— Twain totally skewers the romantic notion of Camelot and associated chivalry in a wonderfully ironic manner.  It’s well worth listening to this book as the language used by the Camelot dwellers is fabulously done and extremely entertaining when read aloud.  Hank’s wonder at the craziness of dress and customs is also quite amusing.  A favorite scene of mine recounts Hank’s incredulity that knights leave for a quest taking no food with them.  (But of course, there are no pockets in the armor that could hold even a sandwich and he even has to carry his smoking tobacco in his helmet.)  Also, a fair number of critters can get into the armor when you sleep on the ground and it’s not so easy to get them to leave….

A second aspect I learned from listening was the inability of Hank to really move the people into a more modern way of thinking and being—it would take literally centuries to get past some really awful practices (including prisoners in the dudgeon passing on to the new owner and no one remembering why they were even imprisoned).   Twain clearly had no love for the Catholic Church and shows its ability to block progress when they shut Hank down through The Interdict and associated crusade against Hank and his 54 brave soldiers.

I now fully advocate that this book is definitely “a classic”.  It remains relevant when read over a hundred years after its publication.  It is extremely humorous in a biting kind of way.   Very importantly, regardless of the age, it reminds us that technology alone is insufficient for mankind’s forward movement towards a truly just and harmonious civilization.

In this book, the eclipse enabled Hank to take a leadership role in trying to move the people of Camelot forward.   Fortunately the eclipse we experienced yesterday helped bring together the people of the US for at least a short time.  Wouldn’t it be great the eclipse can mark a new time of cooperation that can last more than a short 2 minutes?…..



Miss Jean

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

By Muriel Spark

Published serially in The New Yorker 1961

Published in book form 1961

Read August 2017

I am likely not alone in immediately thinking of Maggie Smith and Rod McKuen’s Oscar-nominated song “Jean” when I hear the title “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” despite having never read the book nor seen the 1969 movie until this summer (2017).  I have now corrected both lapses and can report that both the book and movie are worthy of individual or paired consideration.

The short novel makes extensive use of flash-forward as well as some flash-back.  Through these devices we learn the story of the “Brodie set” as they become called, starting in 1931 at age ten and having their first year of Junior School with Miss Jean Brodie, their subsequent years as they progress through the Marcia Blaine School, a conservative girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland, while continuing a close special relationship with Miss Brodie through their tenure, and for some of the characters, a bit about their lives after school.  The story also traces the story of Miss Jean Brodie—her unorthodox teaching approach, her fight with Miss Macky, the headmistress, to stay there vs leaving for a more “appropriate” school for Miss Brodie’s method, the renunciation of her love for Mr. Lloyd, the married art teacher (and his love for her), her love affair with Mr. Lowther, the singing master, and her eventual betrayal and dismissal from Marcia Blaine for her fascist views.

Narration, giving us only the girls’ perspectives, alternates with occasional dialog providing the reader’s only opportunity to hear Miss Brodie’s voice.  As such, we only know Miss Jean Brodie through her comments to her girls.  She is quite insistent she is “in her prime” and that she is totally committed to “her girls”.  She loves the art teacher and even shares a kiss but avoids more interactions because he is married.  She carries on a love affair with the singing master seemingly to heal her heart.   She also has some views, desires, and takes some actions that are less easy to understand—her appreciation of fascist rulers, her clear desire that Rose be her proxy as lover of Mr. Lloyd, and her strong suggestions to a new student that she run away to fight for Franco in Spain.  We can’t know what propels her to have fascist leanings or why she would find a love affair between Rose and Mr. Lloyd something for which to wish.  We do, however, learn that her effect on Sandy was far from what she intended.  Not only is Sandy the Brodie set member with whom Mr. Lloyd has an affair, Sandy also chooses to put a stop to Miss Brodie.

It was interesting to view the movie to see how the structure of the novel would be handled.  The story is told in a more “straight-line” approach.  The “Brodie set” is reduced in number by blending some of their stories together.  Sandy remains a distinct and pivotal character.  The betrayal is handled differently and Miss Brodie actually interacts with her betrayer providing a useful climax for the movie.

I think this would be a great book for a book discussion—there are so many unanswered questions about the characters and the setting of the story—1930’s Edinburgh—enabling many rich discussions.

Tess the Pure

Tess of the d’Urbervilles:  A Pure Woman Faithfully presented by Thomas Hardy

Published 1891 (serialized in The Graphic); 1892 (book form)

Read:  Sept 2016; May 2017

This book shows up as # 26 on the Big Read, a survey conducted by the BBC in 2003 to identify the nation’s 200 best loved novels of all times.  It has certainly captured a place in my heart as a best loved novel.  I’ve read it twice and anticipate I will again sometime in the future.   Why this reaction?

Caution—spoiler alert—I will reveal aspects of the plot you may not wish to learn here but which do help me describe my loving view of this book.

Tess is an absolutely marvelous character. She survives one blow after another with unrelenting courage and grace.  She is sent by her family to seek favor from rich Mrs d’Urberville, whom her lazy father learns is a distant relative. Her mother dresses her up for the journey in a way to attract the attention of Alec, Mrs. d’Urberville’s son.   Attracted he is to Tess.  She fend off his unwanted attention for several months but he seduces/rapes Tess with no offer of marriage.  She returns to her village after making clear to him she does not care for him, was blinded by him and realizes how wicked he is.  She bears his child and baptizes him herself just before he dies as an infant.  Tess chooses to leave the family to start anew at a dairy farm some distance from her home.  She meets Clare, a son of a rector and who is learning the dairy trade, and comes to love him deeply but chastely. She puts off marriage proposals from him repeatedly because of her past but eventually gives into his pleas to be his wife.   Her new husband rejects her ferociously during dinner on the night of their wedding because she tells him of the situation with Alec –just after he admits he is not a virgin himself.  Rejected by Clare, who takes off for Brazil, and again all alone, she takes a series of farm positions to support herself and eventually returns home to take care directly of her family when she learns her mother is ill and her father abruptly dies instead.  She repeatedly rejects Alec over the course of the novel as she encounters him, telling him she does not love him and loves another. She eventually decides Clare will never return to her and gives into to Alec’s offer to take care of her and her family only when her mother and siblings are literally out on the street with no means to acquire a roof over their head.  Of course Clare finally comes to his senses, too late, and finds Tess, unfortunately living as Alec’s mistress.  Tess’s one act of vengeance against Alec provides Tess and Clare a few weeks of bliss until she is captured by authorities to stand trial for her crime and we all lose Tess.

We so want Tess to find happiness so due her.  I anticipate I’m not alone in reading the novel for the second time hoping this during the second read even though I know it won’t happen.  I also anticipate I’ll read the book again with this same hope.

But is this just another romantic novel?  Why such devotion to it from myself and others?  I suggest there are a number of reasons

First, Hardy clearly loves Tess.  Hardy describes her as a Pure Woman which is a very apt description.  She stays Pure of heart throughout.  She rises above the models her parents provide her and continually seeks to live purely with limited wants for herself.  She seeks to repair damage to her family’s income by going to the cousins  d’Urberville, after an accident that happens while she is trying to literally feed the family  (while her parents lay home in bed with hang-overs) results in loss of their horse, a key component of her father’s meager haggling trade.  She doesn’t take the path suggested by her mother to trick Alec into marriage nor to keep quiet about her past to Clare.  She repeatedly reject’s Alec’s pursuit of her, even after he learns she bore his son, because she does not love him and believes him a bad person.  She remains true to Clare and never asks for anything from her parents or his parent despite her increasingly desperate position as she is eking out a living as a farm hand versus using Clare’s money he gives her when he leaves.    She in fact sends a sizable fraction of Clare’s money to her family to pay for a new roof for their rented house.  She continuously did the right thing.  Only when she has exhausted all efforts to find shelter for her mother and siblings and she has lost all hope of seeing Clare again does she acquiesce to Alec’s pursuit.  Her only act of vengeance is to clear the barrier to Clare—the fact that her “husband” Alec remains living.

Second, Hardy reveals the impact of then current standards on women.  Although Clare isn’t Pure, his wife must be.  It’s not clear whether Tess’s impure relations with Alec continued after the initial seduction or not.  Members of my book club were divided in their interpretations of Hardy’s ambiguous narration on this point.  Was Clare’s rejection of Tess purely because of a single rape resulting in a born son or was it because she remained “married” to Alec—she indicates she remained “dazed” by him for a little while (three weeks passed between the seduction of which we’re made aware and her departure from the farm)– so she could never marry another?  Regardless, it was clear that their marriage could not be consummated nor continued and they were both doomed to never marry again after taking their own vows.  Clare even toys with the idea of taking one of the other milk maids, from the dairy at which he met Tess, as a mistress for his farm in Brazil.  He rejects the notion when the girl indicates it would be impossible for her own great love of Clare to surpass the love Tess felt for him.

Third, Hardy paints us a picture of rural England at the time.  The dairy farm at which Tess and Clare meet is idyllic – beautiful pastures, milk maids finding their assigned cows in the pasture to milk them, lovely starry nights and misty mornings during which Tess and Clare find each other.  The situation is far less glamourous at the rougher farm Tess eventually stays for the contracted period when hired by the farm owner so she could afford shelter during the winter.  Tess’s hard work at this dreadful place includes feeding a dangerous threshing machine which demands to be fed through the night so that it can move on to the next farm as quickly as possible.  Hardy gives the impression both that manual farm work was difficult and provided a fairly desperate living for those bound to a farmer from season to season, and as well an impression that automation was going to disrupt the idyllic pastoral life of the English countryside.  This theme remains relevant today.  We view food production as a noble vocation and mourn the loss of the family farm while the reality of unreliable and small income from farms combined with the hard physical labor of farming, unattractive to US citizens, has led to an increasing fraction of farm labor being conducted by immigrants from Latin America.  (And the cows are no longer grazing in the fields with milk-maids coming to them or bringing them in for their milking , but rather standing in barn stalls round the clock.)

So through the tragic story of a Pure Woman who we love as much as Hardy does, Hardy provides us a picture of England at the beginning of much change brought by the industrial revolution impacting both how livings are made and how lives are led.   We see that life wasn’t simple and easy then and realize that it probably never was nor will be.  However, it’s possible to live a Pure life amidst this difficulty and remain above the fray.