Over her long career, Mary Martha Sherwood typically wrote for four or five hours each day. Although she is best known for two of her novels for children–The History of Little Henry and His Bearer (1814) and The History of the Fairchild Family (1818)–she also produced penny pamphlets, adaptations of eighteenth-century children’s classics like Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, and textbooks for use in the school she and her husband ran for after their return from India in 1818. Even with the income from the school, the Sherwood family was strapped for cash, so she turned out around a hundred tracts over the next twelve years to generate more money.
The Cotsen Children’s Library has a fascinating manuscript from this period of her life: the annotated proofs for a tract about a notorious murder that had taken place in the tiny village of Oddingley, Worcestershire on Midsummer’s Day 1806 that was not solved until 1830.
The lurid story was a quintessential English crime set in a beautiful, remote village seething with class resentment. The cast of characters included a grasping vicar, a shady man of all work, some disgruntled farmers, and the dapper old soldier who was the local magistrate. Add two brutal killings and a shallow grave in a ramshackle barn and voila, a perfect candidate for Masterpiece Mystery…
When the murdered murderer’s body was finally found, Mrs. Sherwood, a Worcestershire native herself, was moved to pick up her pen and write about this real-life crime. The why is more complicated than it might first appear. To a devout Evangelical Christian like Sherwood, the way in which the perpetrators of the crime was discovered after twenty-four years was a fulfillment of Isaiah XXIX.15, “ Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark, and they say, “Who seeth us? Who knoweth us?”
A personal connection to the sordid affair may also explain the urgency of driving home the lesson that “no man can conceal what Providence willeth to bring to the light.” Her brother John Marten Butt was drawn into the case as Oddingley’s pastor: he had succeeded the murdered clergyman George Parker. During his tenure in Oddingley, Butt had come to realize that his parishioners had known the identity of the perpetrators all along and felt no remorse at their never having been brought to justice. The villagers’ attitudes so profoundly disturbed Butt that he eventually left his living for another.
Mrs. Sherwood must have written the text almost immediately after the January trial. On February 18, 1830, her publisher, Edward Houlston, mailed the proof of the tract now in the Cotsen collection to her in Worcester from Wellington, Salop (Shropshire), about forty five miles away.
To save time and money, he wrote her a letter, asking how many copies she wanted and if he might enclose copies in her parcel for delivery to the Worcester booksellers to save on postage. In the closing, he asked if she could write six more tracts for the new series at her earliest convenience, adding that two would suffice at present.
After making changes on pages 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 16, and 18, Mrs. Sherwood wrote her reply to Houlston on the blank side of the sheet.
She said, “I had written a letter to you which I shall not send requesting you to be very quick in sending ‘The Oddingley Murder’ as people know I have written it and are enquiring for it.” She directed him to send her four copies of the French-language translation of Little Henry and His Bearer, six of “The Mourning Queen,” a dozen copies of “The Oddingley Murders” and an unspecified number of the new tract for the booksellers. She closed (a bit tartly) with “I will write some tracts when I can find time—but time is a very scarce commodity.”
The sheet was folded up for a second time and mailed to Houlston on February the 20th. Presumably it retraveled those forty-five miles to Wellington within twenty-four hours. The speed of the British postal service during the nineteenth century is well known, but this corrected proof is testimony to its efficiency. Of course, the service then was slow compared to what we have come to take for granted via the Internet, but this annotated proof is a vivid reminder that Mrs. Sherwood could never have written as much as she did without a superb communications infrastructure.
And thanks to our paper conservator, Ted Stanley, for restoring the proof of this tract, which was found in rather parlous condition in the Wall of Books some months ago.