Another wild coincidence. I have been reading, in odd spare moments, and thus slowly, E.A. Chadwick’s Mrs Gaskell. This is a lovely book – a bit gushing for modern taste, but linking the life to the works in a very interesting way, and written in 1910, when two of Mrs Gaskell’s daughters, and many people who had known her, were still alive. Cheese comes in à propos of Mrs Gaskell’s correspondence with William and Mary Howitt, by then published authors. She wrote to them as a fan of their books on the English countryside, and became a lifelong friend. The Howitts’ daughter Margaret relates of a duplicitous boy-servant: ‘ He surreptitiously disposed of piles of letters belonging to my mother … selling them as waste paper to a cheesemonger. The tradesman freely used the manuscripts to wrap up his Dorset butter [shades of Thomas Hardy!] and double Glos’ter, until, perceiving the signature of Charles Dickens or some other well-known autograph, he very honestly restored the residue to the lady to whom they were addressed. Amongst the salvage from this literary wreck, we have valuable communications from Mary Russell Mitford and Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell.’
Hurray for the honest cheesemonger! But this rang a faint bell, and I remembered that one of our ‘Bibliomaniac‘ annotated sale catalogues also had something to do with cheese. It turned out to be the collection of John Ratcliffe (1707–76) whose interest in book-collecting was inspired by the ‘waste’ paper he bought in to wrap cheese in his Bermondsey chandler’s shop. Prospering in his trade, he retired and began to amass a collection, which by the end contained over a hundred incunabula, including forty-eight Caxtons, and a fine selection of sixteenth-century English books.
These stories provide an interesting reverse twist on the modern fate of newspapers: ‘headlines today, fish and chip wrappings tomorrow’. One can’t help but wonder how many First Folios of Shakespeare, for example, might have survived if the cheese trade had been less good at recycling paper?