Written for children: two eighteenth-century English fairy tales. (Articles)

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Author: Gillian Avery
Date: Oct. 2002
From: Marvels & Tales(Vol. 16, Issue 2)
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,337 words

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On 30 October 1756, in one of the many letters that passed between them, Lady Ailesbury told her old friend Horace Walpole: "Missy is sitting by throwing all the ink and sand about, and tormenting me to death to read fairy tales to her" (Correspondence 37: 435). "Missy" was Caroline Campbell, then aged eight, the eldest child of Lady Ailesbury's brother, Lord William Campbell. What were the fairy tales for which Missy was clamouring? In 1756 the juvenile book trade had barely begun, and fairies were certainly not a major ingredient of traditional English tales; in these giants were more common. In a letter of 1773 Walpole, signing himself Jack the Giant-Killer, told the five-year-old Lady Anne Fitzpatrick, child of another friend, that he was sending her "the raw head and bloody bones of the only giant I have killed this season." He added that there was little news "but that Tom Hickathrift has had two children in a wood by patient Grizzel, and that Tom Thumb has betted a thousand pounds that he rides three h orses at once next Newmarket meeting" (Correspondence 32: 174). (Tom Hickathrift, whose strength was herculean, numbered giant-killing among his accomplishments.) This summary is an apt conflation of chapbook titles, and gives some indication of popular themes, but a five-year-old is hardly likely to have appreciated that.

Nor did chapbooks usually come the way of young ladies like Caroline Campbell or Anne Fitzpatrick. This article will look at the fairy stories that were available--at that time mostly French--and then at two short tales, one of them written by Walpole himself for Caroline Campbell, and the other the earliest known English literary fairy tale, also written with particular children in mind. The contrast is dramatic. The first must surely be the most extraordinary nursery tale ever written, surreal in its nonsense, containing not only infantile coarse pleasantry, but also sophisticated sexual innuendo. The second, by Jane Johnson (1706-59) is a mother's extempore story, wholly child-orientated, benign and happy But both draw on French sources; neither on English folktales.

Since the 1690s there had been many French literary fairy tales for adult readers. There were also two early writers for the young. The churchman Fenelon (1651-1715), tutor to Louis XIV's grandson and heir, had included tales in which magic played a part in his Recueil des fables composees pour l'education de feu Monseigneur le duc de Bourgogne, posthumously published in 1718. With a parallel (and very florid) English translation, (1) these were published in London in 1729 as Twenty Seven Moral Tales and Fables [...] invented (for the Education of a Prince) by the late celebrated Archbishop of Cambray, author of Telemachus [...]. The compilation was designed "for the Use of Schools, and the early Improvement of Young Gentlemen and Ladies in Virtue and Good Manners, as well as the Beauties of the French Tongue," and dedicated by the translator to the eight-year-old Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, third son of George II. The content must...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A94332465