is now seemingly the herald of the Christmas season and by the time you get to the evening of 5th January of the following year you are probably spent-up and partied-out. In earlier days however that Twelfth Night on the 5th was the culmination of less protracted and probably intenser merriment. Cakes could be made for the occasion through which a King and Queen of the evening would be chosen and partying guests might imitate characters from pantomime or from comic picture-sheets: Alderman Gobble Guzzle, say, or Miss Tittle Tattle.
Thus it was
that Thackeray, holidaying in Italy early in 1854, was prevailed upon ‘to draw a set of Twelfth-Night characters for the amusement of our young people’. Their naming, though – King Valoroso, the Countess Gruffanuff etc – encourged him to give them a more extended life and they coalesced into the larger cast of what he referred to as ‘a nonsensical Fairy Tale with pictures’. He wrote it and designed its illustrations during February and March, 1854 (‘It is wonderful how this folly trickles from the pen’ he noted in his diary) and it was published for Christmas by George Smith as The Rose and the Ring; or, the history of Prince Giglio and Prince Bulbo, a fire-side pantomime for great and small children and attributed to Mr M .A. Titchmarsh.
of festivity and theatrical extravaganza that lie behind Thackeray’s pleasure in writing his story resulted in the first literary farce in children’s literature (although from medieval times down to the productions of Grub Street and Seven Dials’ chapbooks there had been beguiling but by no means literary delights on offer). The plot is triggered by the traditional device, best known from ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, of a grumpy godmother, the Fairy Blackstick, wishing ‘a little misfortune’ at the christening of the heirs to the kingdoms of Paflagonia and Crim Tartary. Misfortune, though, was already lying in wait for them anyway by her earlier gifts to their parents of a rose and a ring which were endowed with the magic of making their possessors beautiful and desirable to all who might behold them.
of the misfortunes that do indeed ensue are tumultuous beyond the powers of summary (several errors occur in the first edition owing to the author himself not recognising erroneous relationships). The two princes are matched against two princesses, Angelica and Rosalba (aka. the foundling Betsina), in realms that suffer from usurping monarchs; confusions arise through rose and ring falling into unworthy hands; Rosalba, a heroine throughout , is equal to bashing Prince Bulbo with a warming-pan and facing lions in Crim Tartary’s arena. Fairy Blackstick is never far off however and her magic assists the pantomine to a just conclusion, not least through some larks with a door-knocker which are the best jape in the book.
Michael Angelo Titmarsh
plays his part however as master of ceremonies. He keeps his audience in mind with occasional comment (‘I hope you do not think there was any impropriety with the Prince and Princess walking together in the palace garden…’); he draws attention to the spirited caricatures that he has drawn to accompany his text (‘Would you not fancy from this picture, that Gruffanuff must have been a person of the highest birth?’); and he augments the text itself with rhymed running-heads at the top of each page-opening as an authorial commentary: ‘Other girls, the author guesses, / Like to flirt besides princesses’. Such close integration of story and metafictional devices places The Rose and the Ring among those few children’s books, such as Kipling’s Just So Stories, that sui generis, lose flavour in any other version.
The book had a notable history
before it was ever published coming first into existence as a formal manuscript by Thackeray himself, accompanied by his own delightful pen and watercolour caricatures, undertaken for the pleasure of his daughters, Annie and Minnie, who were with him in Italy. Present also was the daughter of his American friend, William Wetmore Story, who had been ill over the festive season and at whose bedside Thackeray read the book’s episodes as they were written. The ms. was revised and augmented for publication with Thackeray drawing his illustrations in reverse on to wood blocks for the engraver. The loose sheets of the ms., some of which had disappeared, were later bound up as an album and the whole beautiful object became another children’s-book treasure at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York who produced a facsimile of it in 1947. How could the family ever have let it go?
The Rose and the Ring is published by CreateSpace Publishing 978-1-5346-3737-5.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0712357289, £25.00 hbk, is out now.