I am a friend of Tabley House as well as being a volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, so you can imagine my great delight to read an article by Sarah Webb in the (highly recommended) Tabley Friends Newsletter for September 2021, where Sarah discusses Margaret Leicester Warren’s reading list for 1860 – the year a thirteen year old Margaret read Cranford. For readers not familiar with her, Margaret was the daughter of the second Lord de Tabley, George Leicester Warren, and in 1860 was living with her family in the grand Palladian style mansion, Tabley House, which is just outside Knutsford.
Elizabeth Gaskell knew Tabley House, but she was more familiar with Tabley Old Hall, which had been built on an island in Nether Tabley Mere by John de Leyester around 1380. When Tabley House was completed in 1769 and the Leicester Warren family had moved into their grand new mansion, they continued their stewardship of Tabley Old Hall: the furniture remained in situ and the chapel was still used for family worship.
A day out to Tabley Old Hall was a regular excursion for a young Elizabeth Gaskell and her friends when she was living in Knutsford as a girl and young woman. In May 1838, she retrospectively describes one of these trips in a letter written to Mary and William Howitt . The rather self consciously literary style of the letter suggests she wrote the account with an eye to its publication in their ‘Howitts Journal’!
‘ Near the little clean kindly country town, where, as I said before, I was brought up, there was an old house with a moat within a park called Old Tabley, formerly the dwelling place of Sir Peter Leycestor, the historian of Cheshire. ( ) Here on summer mornings did we often come, a merry young party, on donkey, pony, or even in a cart with sacks swung across – each with our favourite book, some with sketch-books, and one or two baskets filled with eatables. Here we rambled, lounged and meditated.’
There are thirteen books on Margaret’s 1860 reading list, though Sarah suggests this would only have been a selection of her reading material for the year. She uses a five point scale to rate each book, from no stars to the accolade of four.
The list below details the books on the list, with authors and publication dates where I’ve been able to find them. I must mention here a wonderful website At the Circulating Library which is a database of Victorian fiction from 1837 to 1901, and has provided much of this information. If you’re looking for a fascinating literary rabbit hole to disappear down…
- The Daisy Chain, Charlotte M Yonge (1856)
- Play and Earnest, Florence Wilford (1860)
- The Bayeux Tapestry
- The Curate of Cumberworth and the Vicar of Roost, Francis Edward Paget (1859)
- Ungava, RM Ballantyne (1857)
- Aunt Judy’s Tales, Mrs Alfred Gatty (1859)
- Sydney Stuart, Catherine Bell Douglas (1856)
- The Fairy Bower, Harriet Mezley (1841)
- Leonard and Dennis or the soldier’s life, Edward Munro (1855)
- Laura and Ellen
- Poplar House Academy, Anne Manning (1859)
- Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)
- Holmby House, GJ Whyte Melville (1860)
Only two books are given four stars: Charlotte M Yonge’s The Daisy Chain and GT Whyte Melville’s Holmby House. Three unfortunates rate nul points: RM Ballantyne’s Ungava, a tale of Esquimaux Land; Catherine Bell Douglas’s Sydney Stuart; and a book called Laura and Ellen which appears to have sunk without trace as I can find no further information about it!
And what about Cranford? It’s well down the leader board with only one star, the same rating as a book about the Bayeux Tapestry! Perhaps the story of the elegant efficiency of our older Amazons in a small provincial town didn’t appeal to Margaret? I don’t think it would have appealed to me at thirteen. And I think the one star review would have made Elizabeth Gaskell laugh!
I’m fascinated by the list for many reasons. Margaret was reading books hot off the press. At least five of the books on the list were published in 1859 or 1860 and so buying newly published books was something she and her family could both afford and considered important. Many of the authors have disappeared from our literary landscape – who was GJ Whyte Melville who wrote her highly commended Holmby House? Before reading Margaret’s list I’d never heard of him. (He was a Scottish novelist who took a break from writing in the mid 1850s to serve as an officer of the Turkish Irregular Cavalry in the Crimea…) Wikipedia lists ninety titles against RM Ballantyne’s name and I’ve only ever heard of and read The Coral Island! The no star rating for Ungava doesn’t make me want to rush to Abebooks to find it. Musing further – how many of our current popular and favourite novelists will still be read in 2192? What determines literary immortality?
Cranford is one of the earlier published books Margaret read in 1860. The eight chapters collected together into one volume by Chapman & Hall in 1853, were written as short episodic stories for publication in Charles Dickens’ Household Words between December 13, 1851 (Our Society at Cranford) and May 21, 1853 ( A Happy Return to Cranford). They were hugely popular. Elizabeth Gaskell herself identifies Cranford as her favourite of her own books. Writing to John Ruskin in February 1865, she says:
‘I am so pleased you like it. It is the only one of my own books that I can read again and again; – but whenever I am ailing or ill, I take ‘Cranford’ and – I was going to say, enjoy it! (but that would not be pretty!) laugh over it afresh!‘
Let’s hope Margaret tried it again when she was older!
Very many thanks to Sarah Webb from Tabley House for inspiring this blog and for all her generous support in its compilation. Our current exhibition about Cranford is open at the House – do enjoy it when you next visit! The image at the top of this blog is of a first edition of Cranford which after many years of wandering has returned to Plymouth Grove – do search it out when you come to the House.