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.