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

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter wrote Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle specifically to appeal to girls. She thought that Lucie’s feminine garb, with its emphasis on the lost clothing items (o, calamity!), would appeal to girls especially.

Even today, authors and publishers are creating children’s books for the gender binary* e.g. this book will appeal to boys because X; this will appeal to girls because Y.

*Gender binary is not an ideal term, though it’s used widely. We don’t live in a gender binary — that suggests two categories which are equal. We live with gender isomorphism, in which there are ‘men’ and ‘failed men’.

Potter’s concept was a hard sell — publisher Norman Warne (about to become her fiancé) couldn’t see the appeal but he must’ve conceded he wasn’t a girl himself so Beatrix would know better, and Beatrix won (as she often did).

But Beatrix was wrong about the appeal of Lucie. Everyone who sets out to write ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is always completely wrong, of course. Lucie didn’t garner much of an audience at all — everyone preferred the character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

Norman hadn’t been keen on a ‘hedgehog book’, either. He didn’t think dirty hedgehogs would appeal to kids — probably because they’re not fluffy. (The spines are modified hairs, Norman.) Perhaps it was Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle herself who paved the way for an entire raft of animal children’s books featuring non-cute creatures. Now we see reptiles, naked mole rats, fish, likeable insects and almost anything you can think of in picture books.



STORY STRUCTURE OF MRS. TIGGY WINKLE

Since Potter intended Lucie to be the main character, that’s where I’ll go with it.

SHORTCOMING

Lucie’s shortcoming is that she keeps losing things.

DESIRE

Lucie wants her handkerchief and pinnies back, which sets her out on her journey.

OPPONENT

This is a carnivalesque story, so the Opponent is replaced by a fun creature who allows the child to enter fully into a world of fantasy.

Any sense of danger comes only from the ‘hair-pins’ poking through Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s bonnet, wrong end out. This suggests she could snap at any time… though she doesn’t, of course! She’s a working class woman and remains deferential to Lucie, who comes from a middle-class household. (Back then it was very easy to tell socio-economic status from clothing.)

Although I’m sure most readers won’t bring the story of Chicken Little to front-of-mind when reading Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Chicken Little exists in a corpus of scary folk and fairy tales in which children go off looking for something, enter a wild creature’s house and come to a messy end. Goldilocks and The Three Bears is another example. So with those tales as palimpsest, there’s an ominous atmosphere to Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, despite the fact that Lucie is always very safe with the hedgehog, despite her dagger-like spines.

PLAN

There are elements of many classic tales here, not only Chicken Licken, which involves a character going from character to character asking the same question. (Also birds. Lots of birds.) In this case Lucie is looking for her handkerchief as a kind of McGuffin. (Not technically, because she does get her things back at the end.)

Jon Klassen uses a similar story structure in I Want My Hat Back.

Eventually Lucie’s plan is to follow a particular bird, who appears to be leading her somewhere — to the top of a hill where she has a revelation. See: The Symbolism of Altitude.

Potter is also making use of the Miniature in Storytelling technique, starting when it appears Lucie can drop a pebble down a chimney, even from the top of a hill. This is describing how Little-town looks tiny from the elevated vantage point, like a dollhouse. She is about to enter a world of play.

When Lucie finds the footprints she follows them, almost in spite of herself. This has the vibe of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — she eventually finds a portal — not a rabbit hole but a door straight into the hill. (Pied Piper, anyone?) The Alice imagery continues when Lucie enters the hedgehog’s house and seems to shrink, though she hasn’t literally changed size within the setting — it’s just that the ceiling is low and everything is in miniature. This is the wish fulfilment fantasy of shrinking down and entering your own dollhouse. I can imagine this appealed, though not just to girls.

BIG STRUGGLE

Although this story begins as a mythic journey, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is still a pretty standard Domestic Story, set inside the home, with female characters doing feminine things. But because this is a hedgehog washer-woman, this alone is enough to thrill the young audience of its era, and the carnivalesque ‘fun’ involves watching Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle wash clothing items belonging to a variety of woodland creatures.

When Lucie is excited to meet Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, this is a clear early example of intertextual marketing. You’ll see the same thing done today. For instance, some of the later Babymouse books make sure to mention the authors’ ‘boy book’ companion series about the amoeba.

Finally, the visit concludes when Lucie and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle sit down and drink tea.

ANAGNORISIS

In a carnivalesque story like this, the Anagnorisis phase is replaced by a stage that marks the end of fun and passage back into the real world. In this case, the stile marks the portal back into the real world.

The inevitable message: Magic must be real. If you can imagine it, perhaps it might come true. Lucie realises this, and so might the reader.

NEW SITUATION

(Now some people say that little Lucie had been asleep upon the stile—but then how could she have found three clean pocket-handkins and a pinny, pinned with a silver safety-pin?

And besides—I have seen that door into the back of the hill called Cat Bells—and besides I am very well acquainted with dear Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!)

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is an early example of what TV Tropes calls “Or Was It A Dream?” Potter is very clear about what she’s doing, with a note at the end. These days the reader is given no such hand-holding. You see an example of this trope in a picture book like The Polar Express, in which the child seems to go off on a fantasy adventure but is left with a token of proof.