Nursery Crime! Sparrow Tells All about Cock Robin Murder!

Cock Robin, the tale of a murder without a motive  is one of the most famous English nursery rhymes and its text has been a showcase for many gifted artists.  Some very fine watercolors for the illustrations to a John Harris Cock Robin were up for grabs at the Sotheby’s New York December on-line auction of artwork for children’s books.  Harris, the successor to the Newbery firm, was a pioneering picture book publisher and the Cock Robin in the celebrated Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction series of the 1820s, is one of the most famous. The drawings in the Sotheby’s sale were not for this edition, but even so I was concerned they would catch more eyes than mine.  With a trove of nearly three hundred drawings for Harris children’s books in Cotsen, I was very keen to add them to the collection.  Cotsen turned out to be the only bidder, so the six drawings are safe in Firestone, thanks to the generous support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library.

After unpacking them, I went to the vault to reconfirm the attribution and discovered instead that the drawings were “not as described,” which is code in the  antiquarian book trade for “wrongly cataloged.”   The drawings were too lovely to return (to the right is the one of the pipe-puffing owl tolling the bell), so the only alternative was to cross my fingers and go in search of the book they did illustrate.  The mystery was unraveled quickly, thanks to three gems from the collection of Marjorie Moon, author of the Harris bibliography.

The drawings are for an 1808 Harris pamphlet that survives in just four copies:  The Tragi-comic History of the Burial of Cock Robin; with the Lamentation of Jenny Wren; the Sparrow’s Apprehension; and the Cuckoo’s Punishment.  The title page spread  is on the right below and the drawing for the frontispiece on the left.  Look closely and you’ll see that the engraver of the frontispiece edited out the blood pooling underneath the robin in the watercolor.

 

 

 

 

When I started matching up drawings with the passages they represent, it became clear that the Tragi-comic History was faithful in its fashion to both of the traditional nursery rhymes about the robin’s death and its marriage to the wren.  Take a second look at the title page spread.   The frontispiece depicts the grieving widow Jenny Wren, which is a departure from the death and burial of Cock Rbin where the wrens are the pall bearers and the dove chief mourner as the robin’s “love.”  On the other hand, Jenny’s role in the Tragi-comic History is consistent with the title page declaration that the pamphlet is a sequel to the Harris’s 1806 gay two-part retelling of the rhyme about the union of the robin and wren, The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren.

The Tragi-comic History  departs from the prequel by the third stanza, when the birds “lug in” the sparrow to be punished for “his sin.”  Notice how the owl secures the cord around the sparrow’s neck with a stout staff.  (What bird has concealed itself in the hollow tree trunk to the right?)  Stanza four reveals that the author of TheTragi-comic History conflated the traditional rhyme of Cock Robin’s death and burial with the Harris retelling of the marriage and, more importantly, devised a water-tight alibi for the sparrow’s crime that exonerates him of accidental manslaughter.

The sparrow pleads for mercy, saying he has been unable to eat since “shooting in defence / Of Jenny Wren, Bob’s wife, / He’d sav’d her innocence, / But robb’d his friend of life.”  In order to understand exactly what happened, we have to backtrack to The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner.  Here is  Robin, sporting a very jaunty plumed hat, walking his blushing bride to church.

The happy couple exchange vows with Parson Rook presiding.

Friends of all species bring dainties to the feast and dog Tray’s offering is a bone with plenty of good meat for the picking.

The cuckoo, that “wicked elf,” disrupts the festivities by trying to tumble the bride.

Still inflamed by “her charms” in The Tragi-Comic History, the cuckoo had the audacity to visit Jenny in the nest and try to “seize a kiss” when he knew her husband was away.  Seeing the wren in distress, the sparrow, “aimed at Wantonness,/ But hit Fidelity,”   being a bad shot. Now that the birds know the whole story,  “on the culprit they fell,/ With talons, wings, and beaks,/ and drubb’d him very well,/ With scratches, slaps, and pecks.”  The climax of the poem (and prelude to the robin’s funeral) is the invention of The Tragi-comic History’s author.

A word about the artist is in order.  The drawings are attributed to Irish-born Victorian painter William Mulready(1786-1863).  In the nineteen teens, he was studying at the Royal Academy and partly support his young family of three children by designing illustrations for the children’s publishers Harris and William Godwin.  The drawings for The Tragi-comic History are in the same style as Mulready’s better-known ones for another fanciful poem about partying animals, William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and Grasshopper’s Feast (1806).

Back to our story… After the sparrow is pardoned, the swallow delivers to every bird an invitation to the “obsequies of their dear worthy friend.”  Unfortunately, only one of the three illustrations for the burial are here: the one of the owl ringing the bell (shown above).  The invitation scene and the one of the robin’s body being borne to the grave with the jay, magpie, dove, and pigeon flying over it with the pall are missing.

The grieving widow returns to her “uncheering home” only to find herself subject to the unwelcome attentions of yet another suitor, this time the “vain and smart” Goldfinch all in scarlet and gold  (he had been attentive during the wedding).  Jenny Wren being no Lydia Bennett, neither his bold uniform nor his “sweet love-tales…could not gain her heart.”  

Thank heavens in the little republic of children’s literature, it is possible with some close reading to establish the facts and nothing but the facts about this famous nursery crime…

 

 

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 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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Cotsen 40111

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.