chapter  2
23 Pages

The emergence of a literary genre: Early Modern Italy to the French salon

Another was the story of ‘Cap o’ Rushes’, a Suffolk Cinderella who, having failed to express her love for her father in sufficiently ardent terms, is ejected from the family home, and must work in degrading circumstances before she is finally discovered by ‘the master’s son’. In 1871, Anna Fison married the Reverend Walter Thomas, and moved to Bangor in Wales where, as well as becoming a ‘capable coadjutrix’ of her hard-working husband (Williams n.d.: 19), she added to her considerable skills as a linguist by mastering Welsh, and composing several prize-winning Welsh-language poems. She maintained her Suffolk connections, however, and when in the late 1870s the folklorist Francis Hindes Groome started making enquiries about Suffolk storytelling for the ‘Suffolk Notes and Queries’ section of the Ipswich Journal, Walter Thomas wrote down dialect versions of ‘Tom Tit Tot’ and ‘Cap o’ Rushes’, and sent them to him. Groome was delighted with the stories, later observing that they were ‘by far the best versions of the old Folk Lore hitherto collected in England’ (Fison 1899: 5), and published them in the Ipswich Journal between 1877 and 1878 where they were read and appreciated by a select circle of the Suffolk literati. The stories then lay forgotten for a time, until, several years later, the noted Victorian folklorist Edward Clodd, whilst ‘looking over a bundle of old numbers’ of the Ipswich Journal (Clodd 1898: 8), came across them, and decided to republish ‘Tom Tit Tot’ in the eminent organ of the Folk-Lore Society of Great Britain, the Folk-Lore Journal, where they appeared in 1889 along with an essay in which Clodd argued that the motif concerning the guessing of a creature’s name in tales of the Rumpelstiltskin type is a survival of the primitive belief that knowledge of names gives power. In the Folk-Lore Journal, the story was seen by its then editor, the president of the Folk-Lore Society, Joseph Jacobs, who was, by chance, in the process of assembling his own collection of English fairy tales. Recognising, like Groome and and significance of ‘Tom Tit Tot’, down the dialect, and gave it appear in his collection English Clodd nor Jacobs were too the story, perhaps because they be a kind of

common property. Clodd had noted that the story had been sent to Groome ‘by a lady to whom they had been told in her girlhood by an old West Suffolk nurse’ (Clodd 1898: 8), and Jacobs had simply observed that the story was ‘[u]nearthed by Mr. E. Clodd from the “Suffolk Notes and Queries” of the Ipswich Journal’ (Jacobs 1890: note 1). In Joseph Jacobs’s book, however, the story was seen by Walter Thomas, and when, in 1898, Clodd republished an adapted version of his essay on ‘Tom Tit Tot’ as the book Tom Tit Tot: An Essay on Savage Philosophy in Folk-Tale, she seized the opportunity to set the record straight, and did so in the manner customary in the period, through a letter to The Times. She wrote:

Jacobs subsequently included Walter Thomas’s name in the notes of future editions of English Fairy Tales; he also makes complimentary remarks about her, under her maiden name ‘Miss Fison’, in the introductory notes to More English Fairy Tales (Jacobs 1894). Even today, is often deprived of due of this story. After Susanna of ‘Tom Tit Tot’ in her short a note appears that reads: for this story the author would folklorist Edward

Clodd’s wonderful 1898 rendition of Tom Tit Tot in Suffolk dialect’ (Clarke 2007: 62). No doubt Anna Walter Thomas is gnashing her teeth from beyond the grave. Though Walter Thomas’s indignation at having her story seized by the crowd of men that dominated the Victorian Folk-Lore Society is understandable, however, her insistence on being known as the named author of this story should also, as Neil Philip observes, ‘warn us not to regard her text as the simple, faithful transcript it appears’ (Philip 1992: 116). Quite the contrary, Walter Thomas’s artful shaping of this story suggests the operations of a sophisticated scribe, and her proficient imitation of West Suffolk dialect leads us to suspect, not a disinterested reflection of tradition, but an erudite invention of it. This view is to some extent confirmed by Walter Thomas’s later career as an accomplished imitator of Welsh dialect poetry, in which she again becomes, as Catherine Brennan has argued, an inventor of tradition, taking command and control of the languages and narratives of the Welsh people in order to assert her ‘linguistic dominance… as a member of [an English] elite’ (Brennan 2003: 193). This history of ‘Tom Tit Tot’ tells us a great deal about the

history of fairy tales more generally. Like many fairy tales, this story has a complex provenance, involving numerous mediators, and repeated transformations. In the first instance, it is attributed to an oral source, which encourages us to assume a long, but ultimately untraceable, root in popular spoken culture. Importantly, however, it is not the oral source that has survived, but a literary adaptation of it, which has been subjected to greater or lesser degrees of manipulation. What contemporary readers experience therefore is not the story in the form it may have taken in oral tradition, but the story as it has come to exist after a process of literate adaptation and appropriation. The provenance of ‘Tom Tit Tot’ also reveals how profoundly

the transmission of this narrative is determined by issues of power and access to the begins its life in the possession of is successively claimed and who gives it an authorised men who determine that it In this process, the story to the

young Anna comes to play an important symbolic role in the literary fiction: she signifies a romantic idea of the narrative’s past and embodies a notion of the story’s popularity, but she is no longer the owner of the narrative. She has become part of the idea of the story, and so, in a certain respect, an object within it. A similar process may be observed in most major European

collections of fairy tales, in which it becomes conventional to identify common sources for elaborate literary fictions: Giambattista Basile identifies a panoply of grotesque lower-class female characters as the narrators of the stories in the Lo cunto, Perrault attributes his Contes to the fancy of his son’s nurse, and the Grimms permit sufficient ambiguity in their notes and prefaces to allow the reader to believe that a proportion of their stories issue directly from peasant huts. In each case, the oral sources of the stories are conceded as a literary device in order to promote a certain set of ideas about the fiction: Basile uses his exaggeratedly comical storytellers – women with names such as ‘shitty Iacova’, ‘drooling Antonella’ and ‘snout-faced Ciulla’ (Basile 2007: 42) – to conjure the image of a bawdy street culture that can be used as a weapon against the stuffy aristocratic court; Perrault uses his son’s nurse as a mask that allows him to tell the entertaining and artless stories of the peasantry whilst simultaneously maintaining a courtier’s aloof poise; and the Grimms use the idea of peasant storytellers to give shape to a politically and socially useful concept of a durable national folk. But in all instances, the oral storyteller in these fictions is not represented for her own sake, but becomes a vehicle for the objectives of the story’s literate mediators. Though these stories may have survived for long periods of time in the mouths of poor women, therefore, they are, as we apprehend them now, the products of a middle-class appropriation of this working-class culture, and they are borne out of an attitude to that source culture that seeks to romanticise it, but simultaneously to hold it at arm’s length.