In every publisher's catalogue these days we are offered another package of literary 'classics' - either updated editions of existing paperbacks, or new editions of texts hitherto unavailable in this format. Of course, part of the drive behind this upsurge is the competitive market created by student demand; as numbers grow in higher education, and as English Literature as an academic subject increases in popularity, so publishers are ever eager to outdo each other in a cut-throat business whose largest profits come from paperback sales.
The more cynical of us may well ask what is the point of all these new editions, given that it seems student choice is made largely on the basis of cost (hence the number of texts now available for little more than the price of a pint of beer) and the general public is normally not interested in adjudicating between scholarly approaches. The fact remains, however, that any publishing venture which both alerts a wider readership to the riches of Victorian literature and encourages a more informed consumption of these works is to be welcomed. The attention which the writings of Elizabeth Gaskell are beginning to receive in this respect is particularly desirable. Until relatively recently, much of her output was virtually unattainable except in older hardbacks or library copies, and those of us who wished to include her on the university syllabus were considerably restricted for choice. In contrast, the last decade has seen a proliferation of editions of her work in a form which is both affordable and scholarly, drawing on major experts in the field to provide new, informed textual analysis. If publishers are the ultimate determinants of a writer's status, now Gaskell has truly been "canonised" along with George Eliot, Dickens and the Brontës, whose works were previously prioritised over hers by the major publishing houses.
The competitiveness of this kind of publishing is shown by the constant changes in the league tables. In their 1996 catalogue, World's Classics, for instance, boast that their editions of Sylvia's Lovers and Ruth are the only ones currently available, whereas Penguin Classics have by now produced editions of both these works, and Everyman's edition of the former is forthcoming. Perusal of the field is also now a somewhat daunting task - there are now currently in print four paperback editions of Cranford, four of Mary Barton, three of The Life of Charlotte Brontë, and four of North and South, for example, as well as mutiple editions of Gaskell's other works. All of these, with the exception of Wordsworth Classics and the Penguin Popular Classics series, which merely reproduce the text, offer a range of critical annotation and interpretation. These volumes, produced by the three major publishers mentioned above, are not intended to be definitive scholarly works, incorporating the minutiae of textual scrutiny (like the Clarendon Brontës) and yet because they are designed for the intelligent general reader as well as for the student they have to inform without stating the obvious and offer critical insights which do not seem too arcane. The problem of knowing what to include and what to exclude, as well as how not to appear too "specialised", is endemic in such editions (as the present writer can confirm) and is something which not all the examples discussed below successfully resolve.
The recent rapid increase in Gaskell paperback production, all apparently aimed at a similar audience, makes it difficult to draw clear lines of distinction between the various editions. All follow a basic pattern, including information about the author, introduction, note on the text, explanatory notes, textual variants and bibliography. Everyman in addition gives a brief chapter-by-chapter plot summary at the end of each book, and also includes a chronolgy of contemporary historical and literary events alongside details of Gaskell's life. The note format is not uniform: World's Classics and Everyman give the reference by page number and use an asterisk in the text itself to indicate notation, whereas Penguin uses the more familiar academic method of superscript numbers in the text, grouped discretely for each individual chapter. The former method may make for speedier reference, but the superscript numbering is easier to follow. With regard to the interpretative approach, too, there are few very obvious contrasts - in fact differences are just as likely to occur between editions from the same publisher as between separate series. It is also worth noting that several editors cross publishers: Angus Easson has edited texts for World's Classics and Penguin, while Alan Shelston has undertaken editorial work for all three publishers. Clearly the preoccupations and expertise of each individual scholar determine the critical angle adopted. So Andrew Sanders, much of whose work has been on the nineteenth-century historical novel, focuses on Sylvia's Lovers primarily as a retrospective narrative which explores the significance of change, whereas in her reading of the novel Shirley Foster concentrates more on the issue of gender, reflecting her current interest in feminist criticism.
Having disclaimed marked differences, it may seem pointless to attempt to negotiate between the available offerings. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to outline some of the main characteristics of each publisher's series. Penguin have been particularly expansive in this area. They have retained some Gaskell texts originally produced in their English Library series, but have now begun to re-issue in two formats: the more familiar works such as Mary Barton and North and South in the extremely cheap Popular Classics, which are unannotated, though contain brief introductions; and Penguin Classics, which have more extensive introductions, explanatory notes, and other critical apparatus. Within the last year or so five of these new editions have appeared: Mary Barton, edited by Macdonald Daly; North and South, edited by Patricia Ingham; Ruth, edited by Angus Easson; Sylvia's Lovers, edited by Shirley Foster; and Wives and Daughters, edited by Pam Morris. This expansion is obviously perceived as part of a major marketing strategy designed to widen the Penguin readership, both academic and non-academic. Stephen Hare's introduction to the glossy Penguin Classics catalogue for 1996, which celebrates fifty years of the series, details the aims of the original volumes and places current developments within this context. Although, as he indicates, the series began with "readable and attractive" translations from the classics, in 1966 the Penguin English Library was launched, "aiming to provide a lively critical and historical introduction...such notes as are needed to clarify the text...[and] an authoritative text". These aims were enlarged on in a letter of March 1962, quoted by Hare:
The account goes on to explain how the creation of one single merged Penguin Classics library in 1986 replaced the original English Library with "new versions with up-to-date critical apparatus and freshly and accurately edited texts", versions which are presumably considered accessible and welcoming to a range of readers, yet also critically "modern".
In a recent Sunday Telegraph review of these developments, however, David Sexton attacks these versions as "abominable, amounting to little less than a betrayal of the first principles of the list". He cites as evidence the difference between Trevor Blount's 1966 edition of David Copperfield and Jeremy Tambling's 1996 one, the former representing a humanitarian and enthusiastic, if somewhat unprofessional-seeming, approach to the novel, the latter annihilating all the book's imaginative vitality with jargon-ridden contemporary critical platitudes and "stupidities". This article, of course, says as much about its author's conservatism as about the editorial shifts which it purports to discuss (and it makes no attempt to examine the critical apparatus), and changes in Dickens criticism may not be applicable to Gaskell. But in considering the ways in which Gaskell herself has been served by the recent Penguin Classics editions of her works, it may be useful similarly to compare the 'old' and the 'new' version of one of her most widely-read novels, Mary Barton, as a representative example.
Stephen Gill's 1970 edition, as well as the usual critical apparatus of Bibliography, Note on the Text, brief information about the author, and the Notes themselves (scholarly and informative, especially on the socio-historical background), contains two appendices, one on the outline plan for the novel and the other reproducing a poem by Gaskell and her husband, plus a twenty-page introduction. This last focuses on Gaskell mainly from a socio-historical perspective, contextualising her novel with reference to writers such as Carlyle, Disraeli and Dickens, and discussing her "realism", especially her "fidelity to feelings". Though it attempts to consider the weaknesses of the work as an example of "social purpose" fiction, it offers little revisionary critical insight and is unannotated. In contrast, Macdonald Daly's 1996 edition, as well as containing a full explanatory Note on the Text and very detailed and well-referenced notes relaying much socio-historical information (there is, however, no mention of Angus Easson's recent Ryburn edition, which is strange), offers a provocative and sometimes aggressive introduction which makes few concessions to a 'general' reader. It does not engage exclusively (or excludingly) with highly theorised contemporary critical discourse - the occasional use of terminology such as "deconstruct", "overdetermined" or "interpellates" is not problematic. But it is a very patently ideologically constructed critique, which not only takes up a politically challenging approach to the novel but also sometimes skews its textual readings to that end. Building on the insightful Marxist tradition of critics such as Raymond Williams and John Lucas (neither of whom is actually mentioned), it flavours its often perceptive commentary with an infuriatingly self-righteous tone towards both Gaskell and her assumed readership today: she is accused of complicity with the very values she appears to be deconstructing - a strategy of neutralisation which Daly calls a "programme of the capitalist-oriented bourgeois intelligentsia" and which, he suggests, may account for "why [the novel] remains a staple element of English Literature syllabuses a century and a half later"(xix). Smug jibes like this are compounded by obviously biased judgments. Gaskell's mediating authorial interpolations are dismissed as "trite, typically pious discourse" (xiii), while the fact that many of her readers would have been women, able to take no more subversive and radical action than to implement the Christian charity which she recommends - and of which Daly is so contemptuous - is ignored. For all this, the introduction is stimulating and carefully researched (it makes much useful reference to Engels, for instance), and no reader of it will be able subsequently to approach the novel with indifference. The pity is, really, that Daly seems to take so little pleasure in his chosen text.
It would be wrong to suggest that such a strongly personalised approach is characteristic of all the new Penguins. Other editors either present a less penetratingly argued thesis - like Patricia Ingham whose treatment of North and South neither works well as a general entry into the work nor adequately substantiates its over-easy conflation of class and gender and its extravagant feminist claims (Margaret Hale, for instance, is turned into a belligerent agitator, whose "desire for power" and "relentless determination" to have her own way allow her to submit to Thornton only "when she has reduced him to a state in which she can, through her collaborator, Higgins, control his actions as an employer"); or intelligently implement a more traditional approach - like Pam Morris, whose introduction to Wives and Daughters admirably combines background information with a perceptive and suggestive discussion of the novel as both a feminist and imperialist text.
Overall, it is perhaps tempting to argue that Penguin offers the most scholarly and revisionist editions of Gaskell, but this would be to devalue the others. Everyman has made a very creditable inroad into the Gaskell paperback market with its new and annotated editions which are gradually replacing the old Everymans, texts which though containing brief introductions were unedited. There are four currently available works: Mary Barton, edited by Alan Shelston; North and South, edited by Jenny Uglow, with notes by Graham Handley; The Life of Charlotte Brontë, with an introducton by Jenny Uglow and other critical apparatus by Graham Handley; and Cranford and Mr Harrison's Confessions, edited by Graham Handley. Basically these follow the usual editorial patterns, with the additions outlined above. Also specific to Everyman is the section on "Elizabeth Gaskell and her Critics" which summarises reviews of each work from its first appearance up to the present day. This has the value of foregrounding pioneering studies which have introduced new directions in Gaskell criticism. Alan Shelston's account of Mary Barton is particularly useful in this respect, noting as it does the importance of Marxist-oriented approaches such as Raymond Williams's and John Lucas's, and the inauguration of feminist criticism of Gaskell in the late 1980's with Patsy Stoneman's Key Women Writers volume. In some editions, however - most notably Graham Handley's pieces for Cranford and The Life of Charlotte Brontë - this becomes little more than a series of long quotations, inadequately contextualised and hence not alerting readers to overall critical trends and developments. The shorter space allotted to introductions, too (about half that of Penguins) means that points raised are often compressed; Jenny Uglow's discussion of North and South, for example, fails to explore the fascinating suggestion that the novel's excitement derives from its representation of "the sheer seductiveness of power, whether sexual or social" (xxiv).
Turning finally to the World's Classics editions, it is worth observing that this publisher still offers the only near comprehensive list of Gaskell's short stories, which are notably absent from other lists. Separate volumes include Cousin Phillis and Other Tales, A Dark Night's Work and Other Stories, The Moorland Cottage and Other Stories, and My Lady Ludlow and Other Stories. The recent remaindering of Alan Sutton's two volumes, Lois the Witch and Other Stories and The Manchester Marriage, leaves World's Classics as the sole repository of this considerable segment of Gaskell's output, except for "Mr Harrison's Confessions" in the Everyman Cranford volume. On the other hand, World's Classics seem less eager than other publishers to revise their existing editions of the major works, most of which first appeared in paperback in the early to mid 1980's (a replacement for the old pocket-sized hardback editions and complementing the Oxford Paperback series which was gradually phased out); while these are in many ways perfectly satisfactory, they are of course not up-to-date with secondary material, nor, in some cases, do their introductions engage with recent developments in crititcal theory. A new addition to the list, however, is Angus Easson's The Life of Charlotte Brontë, which, since it is based on the revised Third Edition, usefully complements the new Everyman which reproduces the First Edition. It is also to be assumed that other re-issues are in the pipeline, since certainly one other text, North and South, is currently being prepared for publication.
These editions tend to fall between Penguin and Everyman in their overall level of approach; their notes are on the whole more extensive and more scholarly than those of Everyman editions, but their introductions are similarly shorter than Penguin's and hence unable to offer such a detailed analysis of each work. Some of these introductions, too, as has already been suggested, tend to be intellectually somewhat cautious, offering historical and background information, rather than challenging new readings, and relying on traditional evaluations of Gaskell's "deeply-felt moral convictions" and her ability to make "us" feel the "real" world. Easson's 1987 introduction to Wives and Daughters well illustrates this tendency: in an edition which is eminently scholarly and very carefully researched, it offers an unprobing and cosy discussion of the novel which treats character as a known quantity rather than a fictional construct, and in its examination fails to take account of wider questions of identity, sexuality and gender roles, and narrative strategies. But then, if the overall aim is to attract readers to Gaskell, they must not be presented with an intellectually alien and hostile critical viewpoint; this danger has already been seen in Daly's editorial work, as well as in Sexton's assessment of Tambling's miscalculation of his audience.
So, the delights of Gaskell, already well known to her afficianados, are, one hopes, now reaching an ever-widening public, and all the publishers concerned are to be congratulated on their enterprise, even if their prime motivation is commercial. No doubt the next step will be TV and film adaptations of her work - and then who knows how many new editions will appear?