Curator’s Choice: Mrs. Sherwood Corrects the Proofs of “The Oddingley Murder”

oddingley murder

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.

sherwood front

Frontispiece, Mrs. Sherwood and Her Books for Children, M. Nancy Cutt (London, Oxford University Press, 1974) Cotsen PR5449.S4 Z63

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.

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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 were 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 came to realize that his parishioners had known the identity of the perpetrators all along and even worse, felt no remorse at their never having been brought to justice.  The villagers’ attitudes so profoundly disturbed Butt that he eventually left his post 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.

Google Maps. (2015).

Google Maps. (2015).

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.

Houlsten's letter to Sherwood

Mr. Houlston’s letter to Mrs. Sherwood

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.

Page 6, with Mrs. Sherwood's corrections

Page 6, with Mrs. Sherwood’s corrections

Page 10 with Mrs. Sherwood's corrections

Page 10, with Mrs. Sherwood’s corrections

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.”

On back of proof, Mrs. Sherwood's response to Mr. Houlston.

On back of proof, Mrs. Sherwood’s response to Mr. Houlston.

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.

Mr. Houlton's address.

Mr. Houlton’s address.

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.

 

 

Fantasia on the Theme of Christmas Book Shopping Starring John Newbery

The Christmas season is most wonderful time of the year to pay tribute to the children’s bookseller and this one starts with..

John Newbery
who made a fortune selling Dr. James’ fever powder,
a patent medicine to which references were
strategically planted in his juvenile books.

One of Newbery’s diabolically clever publishing projects for the children’s market was to create a series of books that were suitable for purchase as presents for  any major holiday, whether Christmas, New Year’s, Twelfth Night, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Whitsuntide.   Could this series been the answer to the prayers of every brother, sister, papa, mama, uncle, aunt, godfather and godmother who needed a present at the last minute?   Thanks to Newbery, the philanthropic bookseller of St. Paul’s Church-Yard, perukes, product placement, and plum pudding go together like Macy’s, Santa, and Sedaris.

Digression on Critics which is optional Reading

Children’s literature critics have declared themselves shocked, shocked, at the unmistakable stench of commercial instincts burbling up in Newbery juveniles, even though it ought to be as plain as the nose on Rudolph’s muzzle that there would be no children’s literature as we know it if John Newbery had not created needs that could only be gratified on his premises.

A handful of modern writers have taken it upon themselves to explain to children the debt of gratitude they owe Mr. Newbery as the namesake of the American Library Association’s annual award for the best American work written for children.  There is Josephine Blackstock’s Songs of Sixpence: A Story about John Newbery (1955) and Russell Roberts’ John Newbery and the Story of the Newbery Medal (2003).  The latest entry in the field is Shirley Granahan’s John Newbery: The Father of Children’s Literature (2009).

For some reason, John Newbery (of whom no portraits survive) always bears a striking resemblance to Ben Franklin. Front board,  Songs of Sixpence: A Story about John Newbery (New York: Follett, 1955), (Private collection)

Quite by accident, I discovered in the Cotsen stacks what appears to be the earliest children’s book about John Newbery: A Book for Jennifer (1940) by Alice Dalgleish, founding editor of Scribner & Sons Children’s Book Division and author of well-regarded historical novels for children.  It was illustrated by Katharine Milhous, who is perhaps best known for the murals she painted for the Pennsylvania WPA and The Egg Tree, the picture book about Pennsylvania Dutch Easter traditions that won the 1950 Caldecott Medal.

If you are familiar with the dark urban landscape of Leon Garfield’s historical fiction set in the eighteenth century, the recreation of Dr. Johnson’s London by Dalgleish and Milhous in A Book for Jennifer is a bit prim and dull.   Milhous’s full-page color plates are paired with the line art based on cuts in eighteenth-century children’s books from the collection of Wilbur Macy Stone, which Dalgleish consulted so that her readers would have some idea of what Jennifer’s books actually looked like.

 A Digression which only Antiquarians and Bibliophiles  may Appreciate…

Dalgleish did not give credits to the actual sources of the illustrations she used, but I can vouch that only one or two were reproduced from actual Newbery titles.  There is one howler: the cut that is identified as a picture of John Newbery’s store front is actually an early nineteenth-century one, the Juvenile Library of William Godwin, which can be identified by the sculpture of Aesop over the door.

True to the spirit of her subject, Dalgleish has repackaged the Newbery myth of enlightened entrepreneurship as a Christmas book for American youngsters about a little girl named Jennifer getting not one, but two Newbery books as presents.  With that snow coming down, shouldn’t someone break into a song?

Plate facing page 3, (New York : Scribner, 1941), A Book for Jennifer, (Cotsen 7267)

Page 2, (New York : Scribner, 1941), A Book for Jennifer, (Cotsen 7267)

Here is the scene where Jennifer’s doting godmother gives her a copy of The Important Pocket-Book.   Her godmother is about to leave for America and she would like Jennifer to track her good and bad deeds and present the diary for inspection upon her return to England.  Jennifer looks underwhelmed by this thoughtful and useful gift, which was an actual Newbery publication that is now of legendary rarity.

Plate facing page 12

Pages 11, A Book for Jennifer

When Jennifer falls ill on Christmas day, her two brothers are driven down to Newbery’s shop to find something to cheer her up while confined to quarters until the plum pudding is ready for flaming.  Tempted by John-the-Giant-Killer’s Food for the Mind, a collection of riddles which the boys mistake for a version of the famous gory English folk tale, they think better of their first choice and unselfishly select The History of Goody Two-Shoes as perfect for girls, who should not be upset by anything too stimulating (apparently they missed the bit where that the heroine’s father dies because he didn’t get a dose of Dr. James’ Fever Powder in time).  Newbery himself makes a cameo appearance.

Plate facing page 26

Page 25, A Book for Jennifer

“Quaint” was the verdict of the anonymous reviewer in Kirkus.

A final Digression for Christmas Shoppers that should not be Skipped

I would be doing my gentle readers a disservice if this tribute to the great-grandaddy of  children’s booksellers did not close with a puff for three marvelous independent booksellers in the Princeton area, who could give the old man some stiff competition.  To wit…

 

The Bear and the Books on Broad Street in Hopewell has over 4000 titles lovingly and knowledgably selected by Bobbie Fishman, who was the long-time children’s book buyer at Micawber’s and Labyrinth before going out on her own.

 

Jazam’s on Palmer Square has a small but choice selection of books—many signed by the authors or illustrators—complementing with all the wonderful toys and games.  

 

Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street has a cozy nook in the back with everything from board books to YA fiction.  Buyer Annie Farrell has real bookish creds as the daughter of librarian and a rare books curator and a mother of two.

 

Yes, it’s supposed to be more convenient  and cheaper to order from Amazon, but why not visit stores where people who are passionate about children’s literature want to put the best of the best in hands of their customers’ children?   In Princeton we are really lucky to have easy access a truly priceless resource, great children’s booksellers…