Author at Work: Mrs. Sherwood Corrects 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 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 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 make extra 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 went unsolved 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, picked up her pen to 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 the perpetrators of the crime was discovered after twenty-four years fulfilled 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 her eagerness to drive 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 was the successor of the murdered clergyman George Parker.   During his tenure in Oddingley, Butt came to realize that his parishioners had known all along the identity of the perpetrators 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.

Google Maps. (2015).

Google Maps. (2015).

To save time and money on postage, 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.  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 “The Oddingley Murders,” and an unspecified number of a 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. Houlston’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.

 

 

Blood and Thunder: A Murder most Foul Drawn by a Child

One of our newest acquisitions here at Cotsen is an example of juvenilia,or a musical, or visual art created by a child artist (we apply it to works made by children who did not grow up to be famous).  This particular piece is a cleverly illustrated French-language poster presumably created and inscribed by J. M. Legeay (Jean-Marc?) September 1896 (see final panel). The poster tells a story in pictures about a murder and what ensues after the despicable act, complete with a sobering moral.

Although this murder is resolved and justice is meted out, many mysteries surrounding the piece itself.  Where was it made?  Who made it? Why was it made?  Without further ado: Un Crime Effroyable [A terrible crime].

Un Crime Effroyable

This handmade poster in ten panels of paper with a folding cardboard border is illustrated in crayon, ink, watercolor, and pencil.   All the panels are backed on black linen cloth and is carefully designed so that it can be hung on the wall or neatly folded up.

The top two panels bear a decorative title:

(Notice the string for hanging and the torn hanging hole on the left.)

(Notice the string for hanging and the torn hanging hole on the left.)

From these physical facts we might infer that this item was diligently worked on by a young (and presumably amateur artist) with a good degree of skill.  It would have taken several hours at least to illustrate, cut, lay out, and paste down on the backing.  But we don’t get a clear indication of why he spent so much time creating it.  Legeay probably didn’t create a this story of crime and punishment just for his own amusement. Rather, it seems possible that it might have been  a school assignment, an exercise in moral education.  Let’s see what the young man learned…

Un Crime Effroyable, first panelIn this first scene there are two characters: a middle-class fop in bright yellow pants, who has just left the wine and liquor store in the background, and a small green blob in the middle distance, whom we soon learn is the malefactor.

Un Crime Effroyable, second panelHere, with no explanation, our friend with the cherubic face who is feeling no pain is stabbed by a mustachioed assailant.  But notice  how the clothes of the victim and the murderer identify their respective classes.  The bourgeois with his top hat and parasol  is cut down by a working class man in his plain green coat and matching kepi. At this point we might ask if this is an illustration of class conflict; an instance of a working-class man preying on a defenseless middle class-man by a middle-class child evincing a common bourgeois fear of  the supposedly brutal and violent lower class. Of course, the artist Legeay is just a child and foisting a propagandist motivation upon him may not be warranted.  I believe he is just reflecting the world views around him in a school assignment.

In this next scene two officers happen upon the hapless body of our victim. Notice their spurs . . . but lack of horses to use them on.

In this next scene two officers happen upon the hapless body of our victim. Notice their spurs . . . but lack of horses to use them on.

The killer smokes his victim's pipe, the scoundrel!

The killer smokes his victim’s pipe, the scoundrel!

Our murderer contently relaxes in a local café after his grisly deed, as the be-spurred officer enters. In this panel are the first clues as to the place of origin for this poster. On the door is written “Café” and “Cidre.”  “Cidre” is French for cider, specifically the kind produced in Normandy and Brittany. This familiarity with cidre might be an indication that Legeay is from one of these regions (or just a budding drunk).  But as we will see, there is other evidence that points in a very different direction.

The murderer, sandwiched between spurs, is apprehended and clearly startled.

The murderer, sandwiched between spurs, is apprehended and clearly startled.

Here our guilty man seems repentant and regretful at the Assize Court. Notice the second sign in the background: Etres Sans Frapper (enter without knocking).

Here our guilty man seems repentant and regretful at the Assize Court. Notice the second sign in the background: Etres Sans Frapper (enter without knocking).

Un Crime Effroyable, guillotine sceneIn this scene the action of the story comes to a close.  Our killer is  escorted to a smiling executioner manning the infamous guillotine.The perpetrator’s escorts are none other than our officers-in-spurs and a crucifix bearing priest. This panel, however, shows us more than just the moments leading up to our murderer’s death. Look closely at the left side of the illustration and you might just be able to make out the most puzzling feature of this item, what appears to be debossed text reading: Hollonge.

Provided here are two closer images of the text (one vertical, one horizontal):

closer image of the text, vertical

closer image of the text, horizontalThis text could be a hand-written inscription or  a trade mark on the paper itself. It seems unlikely that it is the debossed trade mark of a paper manufacturer named Hollonge, because the mark does not appear on any other panel of the poster and no such company was turned up in my research. So it might be an inscription. But who wrote it and why? What does it mean?

“Hollonge” might be a corruption of  “Hollogne,”  or short hand for the town of Grâce-Hollogne in the Ardennes.   But Grâce-Hollogne, it turns out, is located not in France, but in Belgium. Bu tif the poster is from Belgium, why the text is written in French?  The Ardennes is located in the province of Liège in the region known as Wallonia and Walloons are French speakers.  So perhaps Legeay was a Walloon.

The word “Hollonge”  seems to have been etched by a tool. It is composed of recessed markings and some of the strokes appear too thick to have been written by pencil or pen. However it was made, it appears to have been a mistake:if the word is supposed to be “Hollogne,” it is spelled wrong. Furthermore the final character “e” also resembles an “l”. Maybe Legeay wrote “Hollonge”  by mistake, which is  possible because he made spelling errors elsewhere.  But why would Legeay write the place of origin on his own work? Surely he knew (and doesn’t need to share) where he lived and where he made the poster. Though the erroneous word is an inscription, it probably isn’t Legeay’s.

It’s more reasonable to assume that the inscription was written by a later owner of the work, perhaps a collector of juvenilia or an antiquarian bookseller. This owner was probably French, considering that “Hollogne” is written with two l’s  rather than with one, which is the Wallonian spelling. The word might have been erased because of the spelling error or because the attempt to place the origin of the work in Hollogne was unfounded.

With the limited evidence we have, all I can do is offer a few guesses about this work’s place of origin. Does the mention of “cidré” point towards Normandy or Brittany or does “Hollonge” point to Belgium?   We would need more information to make this call.

But what we can be more certain of is that Legeay is probably a middle-class boy, that he was a better illustrator than he was a speller. This brings us to the final panel:

The tricolour banner, using the three colors of the French flag, directs the possible origin of the work back towards France; or at least informs us that Legeay is a Francophile.

The tricolour banner, using the three colors of the French flag, directs the possible origin of the work back towards France; or at least informs us that Legeay is a Francophile.

In the bottom right hand corner of the work we get our autograph: J M Legeay. Considering that the "m" is so diminutive, it might denote the second half of a hyphened name. A common name of this form, was (and still is) Jean-Marc. "Sep R/96" I take, for obvious reasons, to represent the month of Septembre (September) and the year 1896.

In the bottom right hand corner of the work we get our autograph: J M Legeay. Considering that the “m” is so diminutive, it might denote the second half of a hyphened name. A common name of this form, was (and still is) Jean-Marc. “Sep R/96” I take, for obvious reasons, to represent the month of Septembre (September) and the year 1896.

This final panel delivers the coup de grâce of the piece, a moral from our insightful creator that caps off the story: “N’assasinez point et vous n’serez point gigotiné” [Don’t murder and you won’t get the guillotine]. Pointedly, young Legeay has spelled two words wrong: “assasinez” is missing a the second double ess (“assassinez”) and the spelling of that last word, “gigotiné,”  instead of the Francophone “guillotine.” Legeay was much more careless with the text than with his illustrations. I don’t think the boy was as motivated to draw out the moral lesson as in illustrating violence (probably to the chagrin of his teacher).

But let’s return to that very odd word “gigotiné.” It might be indicative of more  a child’s bad spelling. Using “gigotiné” might prove that Legeay was cleverer than he appears. “Gigotiné,” if spelled this way on purpose, has a double meaning. Not only does it denote the guillotine, it also associates another word with that infernal machine: “gigotin,” a prepared leg of lamb. Coupled with this association, “gigotiné” reminds us of the outcome of the guillotine.. It’s tongue and cheek, of course, and  probably not meant to be taken too seriously. It was probably a common euphemism; not something Legeay came up with himself.

I can't help but wonder if this piece was ever hung, and where it might have been displayed. Would Legeay's parents have let that proud child hang this in their living room?

I can’t help but wonder if this piece was ever hung, and where it might have been displayed. Would Legeay’s parents have let that proud child hang this in their living room?

This gory but humorous poster is still shrouded in mystery.  I’ve tried my best to explain who might have made this work and why they might have made it, but my interpretation of this child’s work should be taken with a grain of salt.  Though this poster begs more questions than it provides answers, it is nevertheless a bracing look into how a child represented with gusto gory murders and swift guillotines.