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 the series showing how a lively 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,  an ordinary clear glass container remains.  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 on the mantel that she ignored her mother’s suggestion to inspect the jar, just in case it was not what it seemed.  Possession of the jar, Rosamund 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 and o course, no fairy is not obliged to sit down and review the pros and cons of a wish on offer. Another reason why Rosamund should have been more cautious before she leapt.  By choosing the purple jar instead of the shoes, she 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 realizes during her month of stumbling around in down-at-the-heel shoes, is how difficult it is to anticipate where you will 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, a sight 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 wanted to be a sensible, intelligent and independent person, she also sensed 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 nothing more than a realistic story in easy language for young children.   Yet the way Edgeworth skillfully weaves fairy tale elements into an everyday incident underscores its importance in her life.   It implies that there is no learning without curiosity, imagination, or chance 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.

The Good Slave and Her Master: Object Lessons for 1790s England

In January I followed the controversy that erupted shortly after the publication of Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington, prompting Scholastic Press to recall it.  Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the picture book is a tribute to the slave Hercules, a highly skilled chef belonging to Washington, whom Ganeshram imagines happily baking a cake for his master’s birthday dinner.  When it became obvious that Cotsen was not going to be able to acquire a copy of the book through the usual channels, Freeman Ng, author and children’s book blogger, was kind enough to donate his copy to the collection.

After reading A Birthday Cake, I went looking in children’s books of the 1790s  for Black characters who were servants in private families (that’s the period when Hercules was working in Philadelphia).  If any Black domestic slaves did appear in children’s books, I was curious to see how were their circumstances, both physical and mental, were depicted.  Were they presented in sufficient detail for us to see if they were aware of their condition?  And how were their relationships with their masters portrayed?

Some quick and clever searching turned up a handful of interesting stories. Perhaps I should not have been surprised at my success.  Didn’t Lucy Aikin, the niece of Mrs. Barbauld,  boycott sugar as a girl out of anti-slavery sentiment?   The lawyer Thomas Day pointedly attacked the institution of slavery in his famous novel for children, The History of Sandford and Merton (1784-1789), whose narrative focuses on the reclamation of the spoiled son of a Jamaica plantation owner.   During the same period, one of the first slave narratives, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1772) went through nine editions and was translated into Dutch, German, and Russian.

One unknown writer who tried to argue children out of their lack of respect for the victims of the transatlantic business of slavery, was a Miss Mitchell.  Her story “Goodness not confined to Complexion or Form,” was published in Tales of Instruction and Amusement (London: E. Newbery, 1795).  Miss Mitchell published another three children’s books under her married name, Mrs. Ives Mitchell Hurry.   In the Guardian of Education‘s review of Tales, Mrs. Trimmer noted that Mitchell probably wrote it for her pupils, a Miss Harrison and her younger sister A. B. Harrison.  The dedication, which is signed from Copford Hall, the beautiful country manor of the Fiske-Harrison family in Essex, suggests that Mitchell might have been governess to the two daughters of John Haynes Harrison and his wife Sarah Fiske Thomas.

The most interesting character in Hurry Mitchell’s  “Goodness not confined to Complexion or Form” is the father Mr. Murray, who owns a plantation in Jamaica.  At the beginning of the story, the family has just begun living in England so the children can receive a better education than was possible in the Caribbean.  He has also brought over several black servants, including a little girl named Janet, whose parents had been in his service for years.  On their deathbeds, Mr. Murray promised them that Janet would have a friend in him for as long as he lived.

Janet is supposed to be more companion than servant, but the children Dorothy, Arnold, and Sophia frequently tease and bully her without provocation. As the children of a Caribbean plantation owner (albeit an “enlightened” one), they regard Janet as nothing more than a house slave.   After observing his children’s cruelty to Janet, Mr. Murray decides to punish them for making Janet’s unhappy situation more unbearable.   First he asks them to explain how they can justify treating the generous and affectionate Janet so cruelly and then picks holes in their logic.  Next he reveals that Janet is of much higher rank than the children as the granddaughter of a king, who lost a war against a neighbor and was sold to European traders (a scenario with a basis in historical fact).  Mr. Murray makes  Dorothy, Arnold, and Sophia apologize to Janet one by one, before announcing that they must participate in a week-long educational experiment designed to show  them a thing or two about about their supposed superiority to Janet..

From our standpoint, many critical issues have been left unaddressed in “Goodness.”  Perhaps the most glaring contradiction is Mr. Murray himself, held up as a “moral” Jamaica planter, who champions the interests of slaves when nobly born, but never questions the institution. Then there is Janet herself, more a cipher than a fully realized character.  On the one hand, she has been given a girl’s name instead of one for a dog (many Black boys in children’s fiction are named Caesar or Pompey), Hurry Mitchell never lets Janet speak for herself.  Everything the reader knows about her comes from Mr. Murray.  Janet is easily frightened, reacting more like startled animal than the granddaughter of a king.   Yet Ives Hurry Mitchell insists that the reader, like the Murray children, acknowledge Janet’s humanity: there is no question that it is right for Dorothy, Arnold, and Sophia to be made to suffer for their treatment of Janet and that by suffering, they will change for the better.   So here is the story…

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woman and a sister