Rosamund and the Purple Jar

Rosamund and the Purple Jar exhibited 1900 Henry Tonks 1862-1937

Rosamund and the Purple Jar is a didactic story for children, written by Maria Edgeworth, first published 1796. To remind myself how old this story really is, what else was going on in the world at this time?

In 1796, Horace Walpole died. (He kind of invented the ‘Gothick’ with The Castle of Otranto.) Jane Austen turned 21. Ten Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Tahiti to try and save a population a decade after Captain Cook’s arrival had totally upset the island’s equilibrium. John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. presidential election. The first two white women to ever visit New Zealand had arrived only the previous year. Australia opened its first theatre in Sydney. Japan was fully isolated.

So this story is very old. Of course it’s overtly didactic by contemporary standards. But what are the messages? And have the messages themselves held fast?



STORY WORLD OF “ROSAMUND AND THE PURPLE JAR”

This story might take place in any number of English speaking areas. Maria Edgeworth was herself an English-Irish writer. She was born in Oxfordshire England but moved to Ireland after her mother died and her father remarried. This story is set in London, where all the best things could be found.

Most of Maria Edgeworth’s stories were domestic, taking place inside the home. This is a rare outing for a little girl character. (Of course she’s bowled over by the experience!)

The family is a nuclear family with a mother, a father, a son and a daughter. The Every Family. They are neither fabulously wealthy nor poor. We learn more about Rosamund’s family life from the other Rosamund stories: They live in a comfortable, cosy home with a fireplace to warm up and a safe garden to play in. She shares her bedroom with her sister Laura.

In this story, Rosamund will only have to wait a month for new shoes. For the standards of the day, this isn’t too bad. Many people had no shoes at all, ever. Many wore hand-me-downs. For the purposes of this story, money is not the issue. Prudence is the issue. So a not-too-rich, not-too-poor circumstance is perfect.

Conspicuously absent from Maria Edgeworth’s Rosamund stories: Toys. We might expect a seven-year-old girl to fall in love with a doll or a teddy bear, but no. She has a thing for glass. I find this adorable. I can totally imagine falling for glass products. It is therefore a massive punishment when she is not allowed to visit the Glass House. It’s almost as if the father has invented this trip and then disinvited her precisely to punish her for making the wrong choice. In this way, the story is similar to Saki’s “The Lumber-Room.” To punish a young boy, the adult caregiver decides to take the other children to the beach just so she can leave him behind. I therefore suspect this was acceptable parenting practice in the Victorian era.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “ROSAMUND AND THE PURPLE JAR”

SHORTCOMING

Rosamund is a naïf who has difficulty moderating her desires. She wants everything but must settle upon one thing. She has trouble accepting this. Later we witness her difficulty accepting the consequences of her choice.

Rosamund stands for all of us, because we all grapple with these cognitive biases:

  • We don’t always know what’s going to make us happy until after we’ve made a decision.
  • It is hard making decisions. (Decision paralysis.)
  • It is hard realising we’ve made the wrong decision. (Post buyer’s regret.)
  • We want everything but can only ever enjoy a portion of it in our lifetimes.

Rosamund is also given a shortcoming specifically punished in girl characters: She is taken-in by the prettiness of something (guided by emotion) rather than looking at its function (guided by supposed logic).

She is so enchanted by the jar that she’ll underestimate the amount of pain caused by the hole in her shoe. She also underestimates how quickly the shoes degrade after today. Worst of all, she underestimates the extent to which her father will punish her for failing to choose the shoes.

DESIRE

Rosamund wants all the pretty things. She wants the jar. She wants to admire the jar as it sits on the mantelpiece. I guess she’d like others to admire the beautiful jar as well, otherwise she wouldn’t put it pride of place in the shared living area.

OPPONENT

The mother is the stand-in opponent for an entire moral universe in which no one can have everything. The universe forces us to choose, no matter how much money we have, in fact. Simply by making one choice we cut off the life we could have had by taking the other path. This theme is often conveyed symbolically in stories using crossroads. But not in this story.

The mother is also a fairy godmother or genie-in-the-bottle archetype, granting only one wish.

PLAN

Rosamund’s executive function isn’t well-developed. She’s being dragged around these shops, full of carefully-positioned items, all of them designed to create a Gruen Transfer in the days before that particular set of marketing tactics even had a name.

The mother has a plan. She will let her daughter make her own decision and deal with the consequences.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene contains a blood substitute in the form of purple liquid that, when drained from the jar, renders the jar transparent and ordinary.

ANAGNORISIS

For Rosamund this is a complete let-down. She realises she hasn’t examined the jar properly. If she had, she might have realised the colour belongs to the liquid, not to the glass. She realises she has made the wrong decision when Maria Edgeworth includes another painful step in the story: She has been looking forward to an outing with her father and brother, but now he refuses to take her because she is ‘slip-shod’.

Rosamund is punished for two main reasons: For making the impractical choice and also for not standing by her decision. “You made your bed, now lie in it,” she is basically told.

This is a lesson quite often doled out to girls and young women in stories. Take “The Frog Princess” as the O.G. fairytale example. The Frog Princess also chose a pretty thing (her golden ball returned to her) in exchange for her body and her life. Yet the message in almost all the versions of this disturbing fairytale is the same as presented in this one: “You made your decision, girl. Now deal with the consequences. You may never change your mind, even if you realise the entirety of the consequences of your decision become apparent only after you have made it.”

Notice the link between this message and rape culture. “You went to his flat/to the alleyway/to the pub with him. What did you think would happen next?”

The idea that one decision leads fatally into an entire raft of unintended consequences requires intense scrutiny.

The Kovacs song is a contemporary Just Desserts story, complete with the gender flip. This time a woman dishes out punishment. With Angela Carter-esque feminism, the female victim is ‘hairy on the inside’ (turns into a wolf) and murders the man who tries to harm her. Where do these violent woman revenge stories come from? This anger?

Well, there’s a very long history of “Rosamund and the Purple Jar” brand of ideology, of course. There’s a lot to make up for.

NEW SITUATION

Using Rosamund as proxy, the reader is supposed to have learned to examine goods properly before buying them, to make a practical decision over an emotional one, and to listen to your mother’s guidance when offered obliquely.

Here’s what I also took away from this story:

Girls should be roundly punished for wanting more beauty in their lives. But fathers who refuse to take their daughters out on a trip to a wonderful ‘glass house’ (perhaps this one?) because she’ll embarrass him due to her poor-condition footwear receive no such judgement. People will think poorly of the father, for failing to provide his daughter with good shoes. An image-based decision if ever there was one.

In other words, men can make decisions based on appearance and their decision is considered reasonable. When girls use the same metrics to make their decisions they are regarded shallow and silly and deserve punishment. In this case, Rosamund’s punishment comes both from ‘the universe’, with the consequence of a sore foot, but it also comes from the father, who shuns her.

TAKEAWAY MESSAGES

Here are the parenting ideologies Maria Edgeworth was known for:

  • Let children use their own reasoning to govern themselves.
  • Let children make their own decisions.
  • Open children up to experiences so they learn wisdom.
  • Let children suffer the consequences of their actions. It may be painful, but the long-term rewards will be worth it.
  • Offer children freedom by holding back with our own adult opinions. (Ironic, given the overt didacticism of Edgeworth’s actual stories.)
  • She didn’t like toys for kids. Highly coloured miniature versions of real things were all bells and whistles so far as Edgeworth was concerned. Children should learn to appreciate the ‘real’ world around them.

I don’t know about you, but these child-rearing tactics sound pretty modern to me. In fact, that last one, about the toys, could be switched out for ‘electronic devices’.

What about the messages of “Rosamund and the Purple Jar”? There’s a nasty flip-side to all of this ‘let her make her bed and lie in it’, but it’s not limited to didactic tales from the 1700s. Many contemporary girl characters in middle grade fiction are punished for their choice of pretty accoutrements. The sexism of this is offset somewhat by the fact that the main, viewpoint character is generally a feisty girl these days. But I have already written extensively about that.

Some commentators have read “Rosamund and the Purple Jar” as a tale about menstruation (even before the widespread use of menstrual cups). I feel this is a stretch. Rosamund is only seven years old. But if this is about menstruation, what is said, exactly? I can only guess it’s this: Don’t be too quick to grow into pretty ladies, little girls, because the reality of womanhood will disappoint. Womanhood is all about wearing a mask. Underneath, we’re all just ordinary. We are all debased, leaky vessels who make meaty humans, underneath those pretty clothes, those jewels, those cosmetics.

“Rosamund and the Purple Jar” as a parable about capitalist consumerism is perhaps more obvious.

Header painting: Rosamund and the Purple Jar exhibited 1900, by Henry Tonks

The Chicken Book by Garth Williams

The Chicken Book cover

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at a story so simple you’d wonder how it could include all seven steps. Yet it does, between words and pictures. Today’s picture book is The Chicken Book by Garth Williams, first published in 1946.

This makes The Chicken Book an example of literature which emerged between the first and second golden ages of children’s literature, when the publishing industry very much took a back seat to other world events. Namely, Garth Williams wrote and illustrated The Chicken Book at the end of the second World War.

The ideology of this story is more typical of the pre-war period. Child characters from the first golden age were self-sufficient, free-range and healthy and robust. The chicks (child stand ins) are not like that at first, but are chided accordingly and end up self-sufficient by the end. It’s basically a celebration of Puritan work ethic. During the wars, there was no room for anyone to take it easy. It was all hands to the pump. Women were seconded to do ‘men’s jobs’ (and didn’t easily retire to the home once the war was over, either.) With mothers out working in bullet factories and whatnot, the war era child was required to pull their own weight within the family. These chicks are wartime chicks.

Garth Williams is a standout illustrator of American children’s books. He illustrated Little House on the Prairie and Charlotte’s Web, so his work is still widely seen. His father was a cartoonist and his mother was a landscape painter, so it’s no surprise he combined those interests and ended up in children’s books. He also studied architecture, and brought his drafting skills into his illustrative work. The Chicken Book is one of his first works from a prolific career, and the first as both writer and illustrator.

The less we know about the man himself, the better we can enjoy his legacy. There is a surprising number of people who’ve made outstanding work for children yet in their personal lives were hardly upstanding citizens. Obituaries contain the glowing bits, so here’s a link to that, from 1996.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHICKEN BOOK

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

There is an entire brood of main characters in this picture book, but they are all identical. They are siblings and they look the same. They behave the same. For story purposes, this book has one main character — a chicken.

The other question to ask here: What is wrong with them?

They’re a bit lazy, or haven’t yet learned to do for themselves.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

They all want food. Sure, they each want something slightly different — one even wants a piece of gravel for some reason. But basically they want something to peck and munch.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

If The Chicken Book were a longer story an outside opponent would be necessary, but this is one of those super short narratives which gets away with ‘the main character is their own biggest enemy’.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Since these chicks are by their nature passive, they have no plan. That’s the entire problem. They literally just stand there and do nothing.

When your main character has no plan, someone else in the story has to make a plan for them. (It’s the mother who makes the plan.)

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

Because Garth Williams places his ‘camera’ near the ground, when the mother hen turns up she’s formidable. When she tells the chicks to go ahead and scratch it feels like a telling off — at least, that’s how it felt as child reader. The Big Battle is the mother glaring at the chicks while standing over them.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When the chicks scratch they immediately find their hearts’ desire.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

This phase is omitted from the story because we can extrapolate on our own: We know that the chicks will keep scratching and finding good things to eat.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST THE CHICKEN BOOK

After The Fall is another example of a main character whose biggest opponent is themselves, although in Dan Santat’s book, Humpty’s anxiety is almost turned into a separate entity.

England’s Enid Blyton is an example of a children’s author who was writing and publishing prolifically all through this world war period of the 20th century. Notably, Enid Blyton makes no direct reference to war, anywhere. For her, writing was an escape, and her stories provided an escape for her young readers equally. In The Chicken Book, America’s Garth Williams has created a utopian version of an American farm, in which food is plentiful if only you know how to look for it.

You might also compare the original printing with a later one from the 1970s, in which printing technologies now allowed mass printing of highly coloured double spreads. My version, printed in the 1970s, is the full-coloured version. Printing technologies have made further advances since then.

with an odd little shrug

The Chicken Book with an odd little shrug

The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker (1982)

The Do-something Day is one of those didactic stories in which the parental figures are too busy working to play with their precious little children. In such stories, the child usually goes out and has their own adventure, or an elderly neighbour/grandparent steps in to fill the psychological need, which is loneliness/boredom. And that’s what happens here.

The Do-Something Day by Joe Lasker cover

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE DO-SOMETHING DAY

SHORTCOMING

The Do-Something Day staircase

 

DESIRE

Bernie wants to make the most of the great weather outside.

OPPONENT

His family are too busy to spend time with him, absorbed in their own work and play.

PLAN

Bernie got mad. “No one needs me. I’ll run away!”

He left the house and went down the street.

The plot relies on mythic structure as Bernie leaves home and encounters a variety of people along the way. This is a very Sesame Street sort of neighbourhood — the old-fashioned view of a capitalist utopia in fact, with a friendly neighbourhood mechanic, a Mr Dimple who runs the delicatessen, Bertha who owns a bakery and so on. Each of these friendly adults with endless patience and time on their hands lets Bernie ‘help’ them with their work. Bertie collects talismans on the way (a map, a salami, a sour pickle, warm rye bread. This lends the story a distinctly fairy tale feel. Eventually he meets a horse and cart, which puts me in mind of a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk.

The Do Something Day horse and cart_700x595

The running away scene is already the start of other famous tales such as The Three Little Pigs (who are pushed out of home due to economic constraints rather than leaving of their own volition, but still).

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle in The Do-something Day is entirely psychological. At each stop we hear Bernie’s sob story about how everyone is too busy for him. The gifts he receives culminate until eventually he is given a dog.

Don’t you love it how white boys in storybooks so easily acquire dogs… a pet which takes a lot of work, a lot of money and a suitable home with consenting adults? How many kids think they can bring home strays just because they’ve seen that so many times in picture books? And how many adults? (Quite a few, according to my mother, who worked for some years at the SPCA.)

ANAGNORISIS

The Do Something Day street scene_700x624

Bernie has his anagnorisis when he sits down to rest.

They all needed me and wanted my help, thought Bernie with satisfaction. He looked at his things and had an idea. He got up and started walking home.

NEW SITUATION

Obviously, the family have been worried about him, having undergone their own anagnorises about the importance of attending to the needs of the youngest member of the family:

His mother, father, and brother were on the porch waiting for him. Slowly he walked up the steps and said, “I ran away.”

Bernie gives the talismans to each member of the family. The map goes to the father, of course (since women can’t read maps). The food goes to the  mother (because women are in charge of the day-to-day feeding of the family).

His mother smiled. “We need help from one another, Bernie. But we really need you to love.” And she gave him a great big hug.