A Girl’s Silence Is Golden; or An Old Take on “Lock Her Up!”

Children’s books can contain surprising survivals and one of the strangest I’ve seen recently  is the woman’s mouth closed with a padlock, a symbol of female self-control that is at least as old as the Middle Ages.  Rather than succumb to the temptation of idle talk, the wise wife takes the precaution of locking her lips and entrusting the key to  her husband.

It turns up in an innocent looking illustrated pamphlet published in 1770 by Francis Newbery, the nephew of John.  The story is not what we would consider a proper fairy tale, being short of marvels, but the narrator Jacky Goodchild visits Fairy Land and is taught the secrets of their power as a token of the king and queen’s esteem.   Robin Goodfellow transports him to Francis Newbery’s bookshop, so Jacky can observe how useful fairies can be to humans.

Miss Betsy Pert and her maid call at the shop, where she talks so much that she does not hear any of Mr. Alphabet’s improving conversation.  Robin Goodfellow takes matters into his own hands and if you look carefully at the illustration on the right, you will see a padlock fastened to her mouth.









The anecdote is over, but not the curious history of the circulation of the alarming and cruel image of the girl who cannot keep quiet.  Such locks were real and could be purchased from vendors who specialized in the construction of devices in wood and metal. .

The earliest example of such lock I traced back to this 1703 work, which included the section Wit’s Activity Display’d, which consisted of instructions for performing all kinds of magic tricks.  You’ll notice that the lock on Miss Pert is a simple padlock, where this one is much more elaborate and formidable looking.Ornatissimus Joculator appeared twenty years before Henry Dean’s Whole Art of Legerdemain, or Hocus Pocus (1722), where he inserted an advertisement that any of the devices  illustrated in the text could be commissioned from his shop on Little Tower Hill near Postern Row.  Dean’s handbook went through many editions, some authorized, others not, usually under variant titles.  Here is an unauthorized one from the 1740s with a particularly good title page.

Editions of the Whole Art published as late as 1783 still carried Dean’s  address on Little Tower Hill, which must have been completely out of date.

I shudder to think of parents purchasing these instruments of torture to teach their daughters a lesson.  I’d prefer to believe that they destined for the theater or the stage itinerant.   Surely eighteenth-century drama, comic operas, and pantomimes had more characters than Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute who were punished for having their loose lips securely closed…  A salutary reminder that servants, as well as wives, were supposed to keep their masters’ secrets…


Christina Rossetti’s “Nursery Rhymes”

This week we’ve paid tribute to poets of the rude and rumbustious and the sly and snide  but we’ll mark the end of Children’s Book Week with the quiet, deceptively simple verse of Christina Rossetti.  Her Sing-Song is perhaps the greatest tribute any writer has paid to the English nursery rhyme.  Almost every type of traditional children’s verse Iona and Peter Opie catalogued in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes has its counterpart in Sing-Song, but delicately transformed into something entirely original, accompanied by Arthur Hughs’ tender, sharply observed illustrations.

She makes rhymes for mothers to love their little ones:

My baby has a mottled fist;

My baby has a neck in creases;

My baby kisses and is kissed

For he’s the very thing for kisses.

She gives a mother words when cuddles are not in order– for a little while:

Seldom “can’t,”

Seldom “don’t;”

Never “shan’t,”

Never ‘won’t.”

She introduces the rigorous mysteries  of nonsense:

A city plum is not a plum;

A dumb-bell is no bell, though dumb;

A statesman’s rat is not a rat;

A sailor’s cat is not a cat;

A soldier’s frog is not a frog;

A captain’s log is not a log.

She reminds little rough hands to be gentle:

Hurt no living thing,

Ladybird, nor butterfly,

Nor moth with dusty wing,

Nor cricket chirping cheerily,

Nor grasshopper so light of leap,

Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,

Nor harmless worms that creep.

Hear what the poem sounds like read aloud.

She glories in the colors:

What is pink? a rose is pink

By the fountain’s brink.

What is red? a poppy’s red

In its barley bed.

What is blue? the sky is blue

Where the clouds float thro’.

What is white? a swan is white

Sailing in the light.

What is yellow? pears are yellow,

Rich and ripe and mellow.

Wnat is green? the grass is green,

With small flowers between.

What is violet? clouds are violet

In the summer twilight.

What is orange? why an orange,

Just an orange!

And closing with the poem  set to music and sung.