Rosamund’s Dilemma: A Purple Jar or A Pair of Shoes?

Celebrated children’s book author and novelist Maria Edgeworth is the young lady with the long curls and pretty hat at the left of Adam Buck’s famous group portrait of Richard Edgeworth and nine of his twenty-two children.

Maria Edgeworth’s most famous (or infamous) short story  is “The Purple Jar,” the first in the series of the Rosamund stories, which began appearing in The Parent’s Assistant (1796).   Why has this story overshadowed all the others showing how that lively little seven-year-old girl developed into an intelligent,thoughtful, and engaging young woman?  Possibly because so many readers have  been somewhat taken aback by the behavior of  Rosamund’s mother on the shopping trip in London.  During an awkward moment with her daughter, she might have exercised her authority gently to avoid an unpleasant outcome, but instead she chose to treat it as a teachable moment and let things take their course.

Rosamund might have seen a display something like this when she went to the apothecary shop with her mother. Plate 6 from General Knowledge made Easy, or the Child’s First Step to Mechanics, Mineralogy, Agriculture, Sculpture… (London: D. Carvalho, ca. 1830) Cotsen 26558.

When Rosamund and her mother visit the apothecary’s shop, the little girl is captivated by a jar she wrongly assumes to be made of  deep purple glass.  She begs her mother to buy it for her, but her mother sensibly explains why she will not.   When it is clear that Rosamund is unlikely to change her mind, her mother gives her the choice of the jar or a new pair of shoes, but not both.  After some more thought, Rosamund decides she will take  the jar. When the precious jar is delivered to the house, Rosamund discovers almost immediately that the luscious color comes from the nasty-smelling liquid it contains.  Once the liquid has been poured out, there is nothing left but an ordinary clear glass container.  Her mother holds her to her decision and will neither return the jar nor purchase the new shoes for another four weeks.

Of course Rosamund should not have ignored the evidence from her senses that her shoes were completely worn out.  Stones were getting in through the tattered soles, which made walking even a short distance rather painful.  But her lively imagination presented such a glorious image of that purple jar filled with flowers placed on the mantel that she ignored her mother’s caution to inspect the jar, just in case it was not what it seemed.  Possession of the jar, Rosamund had convinced herself, would bring her a  degree of happiness that no pair of shoes could.

Rosamund’s second fatal mistake is the more intriguing of the two because it involved a different kind of intelligence.  Like a fairy, her mother promised to grant her one wish and one wish only.   Rosamund should have realized (maybe) that she was in exactly same situation as a heroine in a fairy tale.  Of course, no fairy is not obliged to sit down and review the pros and cons of a wish on offer to the chosen one, so Rosamund should have been more cautious before she leapt.  By choosing the purple jar instead of the shoes, Rosamund ended up with the equivalent of a sausage hanging where her nose should be, just like the silly wife in  Charles’ Perrault’s “The Three Wishes,” but without the luxury of one more wish to put things to rights again.

Be careful what you wish for–you might get a sausage that is two yards long attached to your face… French popular print of Charles Perrault, “Les souhaits ridicules” [The ridicious wishes.”

What Rosamund grasps during a month of stumbling around in down-at-the-heel shoes, is  how difficult it is to anticipate where you may need to go.  Her shoes were so disgraceful that her father left her at home while the rest of the family visited a glass house, which she very much wanted to see.    No shoes, no outing.    Rosamund’s journey in “The Purple Jar” was not as long as Dorothy’s on the Yellow Brick Road, but it was no less arduous for having taken place inside of her head, being the first step on the road to maturity.  While Rosamund wants to be a sensible, intelligent and independent person, she also senses that it would be good to hold on to the capacity for magical thinking that got her in trouble in the first place: “Oh mamma, how I wish that I had chosen the shoes–they would have been of so much more use to me than that jar: however, I am sure–no not quite sure, but I hope, I shall be wiser another time.”

A pair of girl’s shoes ca. 1790 in the collection of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The soles are not very thick, so it’s easy to imagine that they would wear thin with use. Once they got well-worn and stretched out, they look as if they would fall off the feet very easily, there being no straps.

“The Purple Jar” looks like a realistic story in easy language for young children.   The way Edgeworth skillfully weaves fairy tale elements into an ordinary incident underscores its importance in her life.   It’s implies that there is no learning without the curiosity,  imagination, or fear of making mistakes.

A artfully arranged collection of colored glass can be dazzling, so Rosamund can be forgiven for being seduced by the display in the apothecary shop…

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mitzi Myers, who loved and understood Rosamund perhaps better than anyone except Edgeworth herself.

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