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Stories Before 1850. 0087: Anon., The Cottage Piper; or History of Edgar, The Itinerant Musician; an Instructive Tale

Author: Anon.
Title: The Cottage Piper; or History of Edgar, The Itinerant Musician; an Instructive Tale. Ornamented with Cuts
Cat. Number: 0087
Date: No date, but c.1820-25? (see essay)
1st Edition: Unknown
Pub. Place: Chelmsford<
Publisher: I. Marsden
Price: 2d
Pages: 1 vol., 22pp.
Size: 13 x 7 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece, four full-page cuts (one on outside back cover), and one printer's decoration.

Images of all pages of this book

Page 004 of item 0087

Introductory essay

Anyone buying The Cottage Piper for an engaging plot would surely have been disappointed. But this is not to say that the tale is dominated by that overt moral didacticism which often takes the place of narrative in the chapbooks of the early nineteenth century.

Mr. Herbert, a traveller wandering in rural Savoy, happens upon a cottage outside which a young man, Edgar, is entertaining a rustic crowd with his lute (pictured p.7). Mr. Herbert, whose poetic sensibility has already been described, and in whose words the tale is now being narrated, describes his immediate fascination with the lutist. 'I held out my hand to him,' he records, 'and he gave me his, which I took hold of in a kind of extasy' (p.9). After the crowd has dispersed, he is taken in and offered shelter by Edgar and his wife. On Mr. Herbert's promptings, Edgar tells his life story. He was a shepherd, singing on the hills, when another lost traveller chanced upon him (p.16). The traveller took him away with him and taught him to read and write, to appreciate the poets, and to sing and play the lute. His mentor recognised that Edgar still longed to return to his native region, but urged him not to go back until he had earned enough to purchase his cottage. Edgar set out as an itinerant musician, travelling Europe and playing for whoever would pay him. Because of his frugality and his obvious talents - the aristocracy of Europe formed parties especially to hear him - Edgar soon accumulated enough money to return home. He bought his cottage and married his childhood friend, Matilda. He is now perfectly content in his retired life, a life which Mr. Herbert envies. His only ambition is to be 'a good husband, a tender parent, and a virtuous peasant' (p.20).

If neither plot nor didacticism were put to the fore in The Cottage Piper, what was its attraction based on? It seems most likely that the publisher was banking on the hope that readers would appreciate Edgar's story for its poetic and bucolic charm, as had Mr. Herbert. The effort made to establish the pastoral scene in the opening pages of the book (pp.5-6), not to mention the use of phrases like 'darksome verdure of the trees' (p.8), suggests that the author was attempting to appeal to readers who had enjoyed, would enjoy, or wished to show that they enjoyed, works of sensibility in the style of, say, Ann Radcliffe. For example, Mr. Herbert's 'contemplative view of the natural beauties that surrounded him' in Savoy (p.5), the lute which attracts his attention, and the tone of the book as a whole, are very similar to that of Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), which likewise opens with Monsieur and Emily St. Aubert's meditations on the pastoral beauty of the Pyrenees:

M. St. Aubert loved to wander, with his wife and daughter, on the margin of the Garonne, and to listen to the music that floated on its waves.
The peasants of this gay climate were often seen on an evening, when the day's labour was done, dancing in groups on the margin of the river. Their sprightly melodies, debonnaire steps, the fanciful figure of their dances, with the tasteful and capricious manner in which the girls adjusted their simple dress, gave a character to the scene entirely French.
The deepest shade of twilight did not send him from his favourite plane-tree. He loved the soothing hour, when the last tints of light die away; when the stars, one by one, tremble through æther, and are reflected on the dark mirror of the waters; that hour, which of all others, inspires the mind with pensive tenderness, and often elevates it to sublime contemplation. When the moon shed her soft rays among the foliage, he still lingered, and his pastoral supper of cream and fruits was often spread beneath it. Then, on the stillness of night, came the song of the nightingale, breathing sweetness, and awakening melancholy. (Radcliffe 1794: 1-5)

Of course there is a moral dimension to The Cottage Piper too (as there is with the work of Radcliffe). The tale can be read as a parable preaching contentment with one's station in life, that most recurrent theme of children's fiction in the early nineteenth century. But this moral is by no means explicit, and it does not dominate the text. Rather, the three layers of narration (our first narrator, then Mr. Herbert, then Edgar) succeed in ridding the tale of the strong, authoritarian authorial voice which would usually be used in children's fiction to proclaim the moral. When this lack of a strong moral voice is taken into account alongside the lack of a strong plot, and the lack of any obvious concession to young readers, the question must arise of whether a book such as this was directed primarily at children. There is not easy to answer. It may be germane, however, to note that all of the other works in the Hockliffe Collection which were published by I. Marsden of Chelmsford, all of which were printed in a very similar format as The Cottage Piper, are more obviously designed for children - see The History of Abou Casem [with] Puss in Boots (0018), The History of the Basket Maker (0121), Occurrences of Master Manley's Journey to the Metropolis (0188), and Pretty Tales ... for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Children (0238).

Little is known about I. Marsden. Trade directories reveal that an Isaac Marsden owned a circulating library in Chelmsford in 1826 (The Library History Database: http://www.r-alston.co.uk/circ3.htm), and those books which bear his imprint which are dated were published in the years between 1822 and 1830. A date of c.1820-25 seems to fit with the appearance of the book.

Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794, rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, World's Classics, ed. Bonamy Dobrée, 1980