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Collecting Rare Books and First Editions: Cranford. By Mrs Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

One of the most popular Victorian novels I try to keep in stock is Cranford, by Mrs.Gaskell (1810 - 1865). A gentle insight into life in mid nineteenth century England, specifically Knutsford in Cheshire, it is as popular today as it was when it first appeared over 150 years ago.

Published on 28 June 2011

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By Paul Foster


One of the most popular Victorian novels I try to keep in stock is Cranford, by Mrs. Gaskell (1810 - 1865). A gentle insight into life in mid nineteenth century England, specifically Knutsford in Cheshire, it is as popular today as it was when it first appeared over 150 years ago.

Cranford was first published in book form in 1853, by Chapman & Hall of London. The work had originally been published as a series of stories in various issues of Household Words magazine between 13th December 1851 and 21st May 1853. Household Words was a popular journal started under the editorship of Charles Dickens in 1850. Mrs Gaskell was a favourite of Dickens and a regular contributor, including the story Lizzie Leigh which was serialised in the first issues of March and April 1850.

The collection of these pieces into one novel was originally published anonymously, the title page just listing it as "by the Author of Mary Barton," "Ruth," &c." . A small book (I have recently sold a copy of this first edition. It measured just 6.9 x 4.5 inches), it was issued in an attractive green cloth binding with gilt lettering and blocking on the spine. The boards were decorated with a decorative "Blind" block. This is the term used to descibe a stamped impression without any gilt, or any other colouring, used to accent the design. It is an attractive little book, although copies in this original cloth binding are rarely found in good condition. Most copies that do turn up in the cloth have had repairs and restoration of some sort. More often than not the book has been rebound, as in the case of the copy I have at the moment, in leather. The two major collectors of 19th century fiction, Michael Sadleir and Robert Lee Wolf, both spent many years assembling large and impressive libraries of Victorian period novels and published detailed catalogues of their collections. Both collected Mrs. Gaskell but only Sadleir owned a copy of Cranford in first edition and his copy had restoration to the endpapers.

So, the first edition is a scarce book, genuinly rare in fine original condition. What are the alternatives for collectors?

There are many illustrated editions that can be found quite easily and for considerably less money that the 1853 first edition. The first illustrated edition was published in 1864 by Smith, Elder and featured a decorative title page and just two engraved plates by George Du Maurier.

By far the most popular editions were published featuring illustrations by Hugh Thomson in 1891 (Macmillan & Company), and Charles E. Brock in 1898 (Service and Paton). This Brock edition featured only 16 line drawings. The complete Brock edition was issued in 1904 with 25 plates, all in colour, by J. M. Dent.

Both these editions are beautifully illustrated by two of the major book artists in England at the end of the 19th century and were re-printed many times making copies affordable and readily available. The publishers made these editions available in delux bindings of cloth (and in the case of the 1904 Brock edition a full extra gilt-tooled vellum binding) with highly decorative covers to compliment the beautiful illustrations within. Many more were rebound in attractive leather bindings which make great gifts. For many, a wonderfully illustrated copy of a favourite book in a fine leather binding is irresistible.

Of the 20th century illustrated editions, my favourite is the one issued with fine wood engravings by Joan Hassall, published by George Harrap & Co. in 1940. Unfortunately most of this edition was destroyed by German bombs, while awaiting distribution in the publishers warehouse, during the Blitz. Luckily the plates survived and the book was reprinted after the war.

Various television adaptations, in 1951, 1972 and most recently in 2007, starring Dame Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon, have brought the characters to life for new generations, and in turn led to increased demand for the books. Television is often cited as a reason for the decline of literacy but as a bookseller I have noticed that a good film or TV adaptation can actually increase the readership for an author or particular title. In fact, there are several book dealers who make a good living specialising in selling books that have been televised or filmed.

The collecting tip was published on the Paul Foster Books Blog, it is presented here by permission of the author.

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