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Fables and Fairy Tales. 0040: Anon., Robin Goodfellow

Author: Anon.
Title: Robin Goodfellow. A fairy tale written by a fairy, for the amusement of all pretty little faies and fairies in Great Britain and Ireland
Cat. Number: 0040
Date: 1815
1st Edition: 1775
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: J. Harris
Price: 3d
Pages: 1 vol., 64pp.
Size: 10 x 6 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece plus 22 further cuts

Images of all pages of this book

Page 003 of item 0040

Introductory essay

The first known edition of the anonymous Robin Goodfellow, a Fairy Tale was published in 1770, 'printed by F. Newbery', in London. The text presented here is an edition of 1815 from the Hockliffe Collection. It was published by John Harris and printed by H. Bryer in London.

A close reading of Robin Goodfellow would show that almost all of its pages are dedicated to inculcating a rather conventional morality. But this is not the impression that the book immediately gives. The text, and most especially its opening, is characterised by a lightness of touch which thoroughly engages the reader. It may be that the author was deliberately cultivating an appealing tone in order to further his or her didactic ambitions. But Robin Goodfellow goes further than this, extolling the pleasures of the imagination in their own right, not merely for their efficacy in sugaring the didactic pill. The text argues for a complete synthesis of imagination and instruction, each the corollary, and neither the servant, of the other.

Such integration of instruction and delight was typical of the children's books of the school of John Newbery, of which Robin Goodfellow is one. John Newbery passed his pioneering business onto his son and his nephew, both called Francis Newbery. It was the nephew who published Robin Goodfellow in 1770, and who, with his wife Elizabeth, sustained the success of the children's book business. John Harris was Elizabeth Newbery's manager from about 1797 and inherited the firm in his own name in 1801, publishing this edition of Robin Goodfellow in 1815. The book had changed only very little in the intervening forty-five years. The text had been re-set and at least some of the wood-cuts replaced (as is evident from a different ordering of the 'delicacies' on p.12). The text had been altered in some small ways, possibly to eradicate vernacular references or lewdness. The 1770 edition has Robin Goodfellow chastise a young girl for her lack of manners with a ginger-bread 'Cock and Breeches', apparently (judging by the accompanying wood-cut) a sort of toy cockerel with pockets hanging down on either side of it. By 1815 Robin instead recommends (somewhat anachronistically) some of 'Mr Newbery's little books for the improvement of her manners' (see p.33). The book had also gone up in price from two to three pence. Three pence was less that Harris's normal price of a shilling or more, the increase being testament to the improved market for children's books rather than rampant inflation. For a similar reason, Harris advertised only children's books at the end of his 1815 edition (see advertisement) whilst Francis Newbery had used his final page to commend pills, drops and tinctures, as well as books.

Robin Goodfellow is set half in Fairy Land and half in the London of the late eighteenth century. Fairy Land is not a geographical place, we read on the opening page, but 'exists in the air, at the distance of about five feet and a half or six feet at most from the surface of the earth'. Fairy Land is, in other words, in the mind. What follows is a paean to the imagination. Robin Goodfellow himself is the jester at the court of Imagination, Fancy and Whim. Only those who have been cursed by an elf called 'Stupidity' cannot visit (the accompanying wood-cut suggest that alcohol might have something to do with this exclusion too - see p.8). It is Robin who invites our narrator, Jackey Goodchild, to Imagination's birthday banquet, the menu of which is so gruesome that it cannot fail to have excited the disgusted fascination of any young reader (Roald Dahl has more recently used a similar technique - see p.12). In fact, it is only when Jackey is discovered at the feast that the moralising, familiar from so many late eighteenth-century children's books, first makes its appearance. The king of the Fairies recognises Jackey, but instead of reprimanding him for intruding on their party, he transforms him into a fairy. He does so to reward Jackey for having been well-behaved, dutiful to his parents, obliging to his friends, and, above all, for having taken pleasure in his reading and writing and having been attentive at school (see pp.22-23). A careful balance is struck, then. We have a eulogy of the imagination, but also a deference to the steadier virtues of 'useful knowledge and ornamental learning'. Both are available through the agency of books. Escape into the world of fairies and faies, and of 'fricassees of fleas', is to be encouraged, but only because the same reading process which enables that escape also teaches children the social, moral and material skills necessary to succeed in their everyday lives. This is, in itself, a dramatisation of the tension present in so much of children's literature between its pleasurable and utilitarian purposes - and its resolution.

In fact, Robin Goodfellow is fundamentally propaganda for reading. Robin takes Jackey to 'the book-seller's shop, at the corner of St. Paul's churchyard', that is to say the shop of Francis and Elizabeth Newbery, and later John Harris (pictured pp.24 and 28). The bookseller there, Mr Alphabet, finds books suitable for each customer who comes in - Eleanor Fenn's Nurse Lovechild's Golden Present for one and The Polite Academy (of which the Hockliffe Collection has a 1762 edition, 0619) for another (pp.24 and 29). Both will teach the reader what he or she needs to know - how to succeed at school in the former, and a valuable gentility in the latter. Just as interesting as this flagrant promotion of the reading habit is the fact that Mr Alphabet refuses to sell books to three other children (pp.28-29). They do not love reading, preferring dolls or cards, and they are punished for what Robin clearly considers their debased tastes with a halter round their neck or a padlock through the cheek. But why does Mr Alphabet not seek to sell them improving books, or to sell the boys the playing cards which Newbery famously stocked? Assuming that the author was working in conjunction with (or actually was) the publisher this seems to show a certain trepidation about the role of the bookseller and a desire to avoid any charge that he was pandering to the perhaps vitiated tastes of children. In 1770 there was still anxiety about the propriety of children reading for pleasure, and these episodes seem to represent an attempt to pre-empt criticism of the newly flourishing children's book-trade. Mr Alphabet is constructed as both the seller of books and a friendly counsellor who cares more for the well-being of his young 'friends' than the money of his customers. He is a responsible monitor and even censor of what children were reading. Such an assertion of circumspection was directed at parents more than children. It was an attempt to build up the confidence of consumers, and to insist that, in the modern world, the book-seller was the counterpart of the teacher. Mr Alphabet is, in effect, a private tutor to those who could not afford one. The strategy worked. Even Sarah Trimmer, whose Guardian of Education patrolled children's literature for any signs of aberrance, commended Robin Goodfellow, though all other fairy stories attracted her reprehension (Darton 1982, 96).

The longest section of the book seeks to present reading as the only legitimate and worthwhile form of gratification. Robin and Jackey move on to Bartholomew Fair, the traditional locus of pleasure and of release from the responsibilities of day-to-day life. As Jackey sees it, with Robin's guidance, the fair is little but a waste of time and money. The fair-ground rides symbolise this best: the round-about, Robin notes, represents the way so many people fly from one supposed pleasure to another without getting any benefit from any (pp.41-43). The tumblers, and those who enjoy their antics, are no better than monkeys (p.44). There are lessons too against idleness and drunkenness (p.39). Above all, the fair is full of 'silly boys and girls spending their money upon mere useless trifles, when it might be much better employed in purchasing some of these little books, which would improve their minds, and cultivate in their hearts the seeds of virtue.' (p.30) As well as drumming up trade for the book-sellers, this has more far-reaching implications. Books, as the early part of this tale insisted, give access to Fairy Land and provide the true pleasures of the imagination. Yet they are also worthwhile in that they provide the moral, intellectual and social skills necessary to succeed in one's temporal life. Robin Goodfellow is an attempt to redefine reading as a process which simultaneously frees the reader from the mundane world of his or her daily life but also equips him or her to operate successfully in ordinary life. Jackey Goodchild, the boy who has been rewarded for his temporal diligence with the ability to turn into a fairy and enter the court of Imagination at will, personifies this synthesis. Robin Goodfellow argues that children's reading is safe, moral, pleasurable and educational. No other activity, it insists, can offer all this.

Darton, F. G. Harvey, Children's Books in England: Five centuries of social life, Cambridge: CUP, 1932; third edition, revised by Brian Alderson, 1982