‘Stand and Unfold Yourself.’ Opening the Tales from Shakespear by Charles and Mary Lamb.
Is this a record?
Can any of our erudite readers name a children’s book by a British author that is with us now and has been continuously in print for longer than Tales from Shakespear? So titled, they were first published nearly two hundred years ago, and although some traditional literature and some works like Little Goody Two-Shoes or Songs of Innocence have a greater longevity they do not fulfil the conditions laid down up there. The Tales are great survivors.
The history of their publication is a tale in itself,
events being set in train (though unbeknown to everyone) with the tragic death of Mary Wollstonecraft following the birth of her daughter Mary. Her husband, and Mary’s father, was the radical philosopher William Godwin, who had been a central influence on ‘the first romantics’ and who was a good friend of Charles and Mary Lamb. He was not altogether of this world though (who is?) and was hardly the chap to be single father to a new-born child and to one other little girl who had been the result of Wollstonecraft’s liaison with Gilbert Imlay.
So along comes ‘the Bad Baby’.
Perhaps flattered, and certainly seduced, by a neighbouring single mother – Mary Jane Clairmont – poor old Godwin found himself enmeshed in a second marriage (with two further children instantly attached). The new Mrs Godwin was by no means appreciated by his old friends, but – having some literary pretensions – she persuaded the philosopher to take up a business career as a publisher of children’s books and in 1805 they set up ‘The Juvenile Library’ behind the facade of their employee Thomas Hodgkins (the name of William Godwin was thought too redolent of subversion to be connected with books for youth).
In setting up their list
the Godwins relied upon themselves for some copy (William wrote as ‘Edward Baldwin’) and called also upon their literary friends. Despite antipathy towards Mary Jane, for whom they invented the sobriquet ‘the bad baby’, Charles and Mary Lamb were willing enough to try to earn some pin-money by writing for the new publisher and Charles’s picture-book version of The King and Queen of Hearts was one of the first works to appear under the Hodgkins imprint. With that done, Godwin then broached the idea of a prose retelling of some of Shakespeare’s plays and the Tales were commissioned.
Twenty stories in all
were completed and these were published in 1807 in two volumes with an engraved plate for each tale. These were probably designed by the youthful William Mulready, who worked closely and penuriously with Godwin at this time, but the optimistic idea that they were engraved by William Blake is reprobated by the Blakeans. Charles Lamb was also scathing about the fact that the pictures were probably done direct from the plays since they included images not sanctioned by the text of the Tales. It’s also worth noting that Godwin – who turns out to be one of the most imaginative and inventive of all children’s book publishers (hence his failure) – decided to issue the stories individually as picture books, each illustrated with three hand-coloured plates. Only eight of these came out however and they now figure among the rarest of all English children’s books.
‘An old literary Darby and Joan’
– taking snuff and groaning – wrote Mary about their joint labours on the twenty tales. She was the prime author, dealing with fourteen plays, while Charles tackled six tragedies. The intentions behind the venture are given in their Preface – the first half by Mary, the second by Charles – the idea being to offer children, especially girls, a way-mark to Shakespeare’s often contorted and factitious plots so that a later reading, or sight, of the real thing will allow a readier appreciation of the dramatic texts. (Such a procedure is still approved in works like Kobbe’s Opera Book.) Boys, ‘generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries’ earlier than girls, were put in charge of bringing along the Bardic education of their sisters.
Whatever amusement – or outrage
– Darby and Joan may inspire today by such explicit purposes, the classic status of their writing is still to be respected, although it is often traduced in ‘educational’ editions. They admit the inherent difficulty of abridging often complex dramatic verse into a plain prose narrative (‘faint and imperfect stamps of Shakespear’s matchless image’) but the job has rarely been bettered, though many have tried. If the Tales do not speak to readers today it may well be that we no longer desire our children to approach Shakespeare’s plays through the dignity of carefully-crafted prose, which may demand undue readerly effort. Better far to damn the dignity and reduce everything to strip cartoons, or two-page synopses, or Shakespeare Without the Boring Bits. That’s as we like it.
The illustrations are taken from the Wordsworth Classics edition (1 85326 140 8, £1.25 pbk). The cover is Titania and Bottom by Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), courtesy of the Bridgeman Art Library, and the line drawings are by Arthur Rackham. Also available is a Puffin Classics edition (0 14 036677 6, £4.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson has published an essay on Godwin’s Juvenile Library: ‘“Mister Gobwin” [sic] and “his interesting little books, adorned with beautiful copper-plates”’ Princeton University Library Chronicle LIX, 2 (Winter 1998) pp. 159-189. He is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.