January 30, 2013, by Kathryn Steenson

Children’s Stories from Special Collections

To mark The Society of Storytelling’s annual National Storytelling Week from the 26th January, we’re highlighting some of the wonderful children’s stories held in our collections.

It may seem strange for a University to have books of fairy tales, but one of our major holdings is the Briggs Collection of children’s educational games and literature from the mid 16th century-c.1850. Although the first collections of fairy tales began to appear in print in the 17th century, they had existed in oral tradition for considerably longer.

Red Riding HoodThis beautifully illustrated version of ‘The True Story of Little Red Riding Hood, Her Grandmamma, and the Wicked Wolf’ in the East Midlands Special Collection (EMSC Pamphlet Not 3.Y16 LIT) is neither ‘true’ nor is just a ‘story’; it’s also an advertising pamphlet for Coleman’s Mustard. Each page is accompanied by a full colour illustration, most of which feature a box of mustard peeking out of the basket Red Riding Hood carries. It is a simple re-telling of the classic story, in which Little Red Riding Hood encounters a wolf whilst walking through the woods to visit her ill grandmother, with sweet cakes and butter (which makes the addition of mustard all the more incongruous!). A woodcutter scares the wolf away, but not before he has tricked Red Riding Hood into revealing where she is going and why. The wolf runs ahead and eats her grandmother, dresses in the old lady’s bedclothes and waits for Red Riding Hood to arrive.

Just as they finish the traditional exchange of ‘what sharp teeth you have!’ and the wolf leaps out of bed to eat the little girl, the woodcutter arrives and kills the wolf. There are several different endings and in this version, the grandmother is not cut out of the wolf’s stomach, shaken but alive, but remains eaten. Little Red Riding Hood runs home to the safety of her mother’s house, she, and presumably the children reading the story, having learnt a valuable lesson about talking to strangers.

Variations of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ have been told throughout Europe for centuries, and it is still one of the most well-known fairy tales.  Time has been less kind to the early 19th century tale ‘Julia Wentworth; or, the Fatal Effects of Folly and Disobedience’ (Briggs PZ6.2 J8). The titular Julia is a spoiled and headstrong girl, an only child raised by her father after her mother died in Julia’s infancy. She spent her childhood catching colds from wearing summer clothes in December, and suffering numerous other small misfortunes brought about by her stubborn nature. At the age of twenty she is courted by Mr Lumley, a handsome young man from a respectable background, but who is extravagant and lives far beyond his means. Julia’s father repeatedly warns her that he is only after her fortune, but she rejects all the good advice and marries Lumley, believing he genuinely loves her and that she can reform him.

Julia WentworthMr Wentworth disowns his only child, emotionally and financially. Lumley becomes increasingly cruel towards Julia as his gambling debts spiral. The couple are imprisoned in the Fleet Prison for debtors, as depicted in the image above. Raised in a house of comfort and plenty, Julia is miserable at the vice and degradation surrounding her in prison, but remains loyal to her husband throughout. When Lumley abandons her immediately after their release, she finally breaks down and cries bitterly at what her pride has cost her.

Victorian morality tales are never subtle, but readers expecting a children’s story to end happily ever after will be disappointed. A repentant Julia goes to visit her father seeking forgiveness, only for her carriage to be involved in an accident en route. She is admitted to the parish workhouse to recover, but suffers the “merited and inevitable consequences of perverseness and disobedience” and dies alone of a fever shortly thereafter.

These books are available to view in the Manuscripts & Special Collections Reading Room.

National Storytelling Week was established in 2000 to increase public awareness of the art, practice and value of oral storytelling. There are a number of events around the country which you can find out about from their website or by searching for the hashtags #storytelling and #UoNstories on  @sfs_uk  and @UniofNottingham.

Posted in From the collections