Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Collector's Edition

I got home last night, following three days of acting as ringmaster for the Annual Conference, and my husband pointed to my reading chair and said, "A book came for you". "It did?" was my befuddled response, trying to think what I might have ordered when I still had to finish Mark of the Lion for my library book group's discussion in two days. I opened up the plastic and bubble wrapped package to discover a beautiful collector's edition of Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford.

This volume had a red cover with a black box on the spine with the book's title in gold. It was safely ensconced inside a slipcase of bright contrasting blue. I coo-ed over the thing and sighed happily. It is both a good book and a lovely one, a joy to read. The bookseller had been entirely accurate in describing its condition. I was a lucky woman. Had I the energy, I would have done one of those goalpost happy dances that football players do after a touchdown.

Back when I was eleven and reading Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl, I had come across the sentence. "How does the new book come on?" asked Polly, sucking her orange in public with a composure which would have scandalized the good ladies of "Cranford." It took me years to discover that it was a literary allusion to this book which I could only find published in the form of an Oxford Classic paperback. I had chortled enough over it to know that I wanted it in hardcover (since those last longer) but I couldn't find one until I learned that at some point the Folio Society had sponsored a collector's edition. Real-life distractions kept me from tracking one down until recently. With the attention given recently to the BBC dramatisation with Judy Dench (and which will be shown in the States in May), I wanted to re-read the original. Don't you know, Alibris serendipitously had a few listed and I picked the best of the lot. Beautiful and with an Introduction written by Susan Hill.

If you are unfamiliar with Cranford, it is a series of loosely connected episodic tales of an English town primarily largely populated by women. It is a small community of middle-aged and elderly women who react to change, usually with some trepidation. They adhere to the idea that there are set and proper ways of conducting daily tasks and that one is poorly served by disruption of the tidy patterns of life, reflective of English attitudes in the transition between agrarian and industrial eras. Miss Mattie and Miss Deborah welcome a young single relative, Mary Smith, into their home and it is through Mary's gentle observation that we see the nature of this society. Cranford is both humorous about and forgiving of the narrowness of the small village, illuminating the emotional bond in the community. A modern literary analogy might be the town of Mitford, created by Jan Karon. Mitford is the home of exiles (retirees, the truly elderly, foster children, etc.) from our own fast-paced society and Cranford seems to me to be something of a precursor to that community. It too has that sense of superfluous citizens being set aside or apart.

More on this later. I do still need to finish the book for tomorrow night's book discussion. Meanwhile, Sharon at ExLibris, Melanie at Indextrious Reader, and Tara at Books and Cooks also have read and blogged about the book/dramatisation recently.