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Stories Before 1850. 0094: Catherine Ann Dorset, Think Before You Speak, or, the Three Wishes

Author: Dorset, Catherine Ann
Title: Think Before You Speak, or, the Three Wishes. A Tale. By the author of the Peacock At Home
Cat. Number: 0094
Date: 1809
1st Edition: 1809
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: M. J. Godwin, at the Juvenile Library, no.41, Skinner Street; and to be had of all booksellers
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., 32pp.
Size: 15.5 x 10 cm
Illustrations: Fronispiece plus five further engravings by William Mulready
Note: Inscription: 'For Jemima with Mrs. Gandolfi's Lo'[ve?]

Images of all pages of this book

Page 004 of item 0094

Introductory essay

Its title-page announces Think Before You Speak to have been written by the author of The Peacock 'At Home'. This was Catherine Ann Dorset (1750?-1817?), née Turner, sister of Charlotte Smith (also a writer for children, but most famous as a poet and novelist). Charlotte wrote several works of natural history, and the sisters collaborated on Conversations Introducing Poetry of 1804. By then, Charlotte had established herself as one of the principal authors of her day. But her sister Catherine achieved a huge success in the year after Charlotte's death with her The Peacock 'At Home' (0762 in the Hockliffe Collection). It had been published anonymously by John Harris in 1807 as a sequel to William Roscoe's enormously popular Butterfly's Ball (0836A).

The Peacock 'At Home' recounts the story of a ball given by the Peacock at which many different species of bird are in attendance. It was probably successful because of its fusion of fun and natural history (especially in later editions, where ornithological notes accompanied the verse). The text, in varying forms, was reprinted many times within the year of its first appearance, and over the course of the following years. Dorset's authorship was soon revealed, and she followed it up with The Lion's Masquerade, also first appearing in 1807 and on a similar theme, and then Think Before You Speak two years later. For this, her last major work, she had changed her publisher, ditching John Harris, who had profited so much from her Peacock, and taking her work to Mary Jane and William Godwin's 'Juvenile Library' (for more on the Godwins' publishing firm see Kinnell 1988).

As Dorset acknowledged in her 'Preface', the story of Think Before You Speak comes straight from Madame Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's Magasin des Enfans, first published in French in 1756, and translated into English in 1757 as The Young Misses Magazine. Le Prince de Beaumont (1711-80) had adopted the plan used by Sarah Fielding in The Governess (1749) - a dialogue between a teacher and her pupils in which various instructive stories are interpolated. The most famous such story in Le Prince de Beaumont's work was undoubtedly Beauty and the Beast (see 0008 or 0036). The Three Wishes, which Dorset plundered for Think Before You Speak, had a similarly long pedigree. Charles Perrault had written a similar version, Les Souhaits ridicules, in 1693, and The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature gives the gist of a more sexualised version which was to be found in the ninth century Persian Book of Sindibd (Carpenter and Prichard 1984: 526). Le Prince de Beaumont, as was her wont, used the tale to teach moral and religious lessons. Her pupils suggest one or two things they would wish for, if given the opportunity, but only one girl, who wishes 'to become the best of girls, for I find it very hard to keep from being naughty', is commended. The wish will not come true, but Mrs. Affable, the author's mouthpiece, explains that 'as soon as one really wishes to be good and virtuous, one begins to be so' (Le Prince de Beaumont 1767: 1:231-32). Dorset did not include such heavy-handed morality in her version, but it is still a little unfair of her to assert that translations of the tale before hers had rendered the tale 'not only insipid, but vulgar' ('Preface').

Having said this, Dorset's version is much more amusing than her source. It was written in jaunty rhyming couplets, and was well and lavishly illustrated, after designs by William Mulready. But it also embellishes the original with several humorous interchanges between the two protagonists, Mr. and Mrs. Homespun. They are happy, humble and apparently fairly poor cottagers (although the engraving opposite p.10 shows a well-stocked kitchen, boasting even a clock). They work hard, save their money, and live for their holidays, on which they love to visit local fairs. Suddenly, a fairy appears explaining that the cottager helped her, the fairy, when she was compelled to take on mortal form as a hare. The cottager saved her from the fangs of his dog. For this the fairy will grant three wishes, and she counsels them to be wise. It is then that their troubles start:

'But ah! what passions, long suppres'd,
Were rous'd in each unguarded breast;
Ambition, that had dormant lain,
And Pride, with Luxury in his train;
While Vanity perform'd her part
In simple Susan's easy heart!' (p.18)

Mr. Homespun thinks of becoming a farmer, and then a squire. His wife thinks a Lord would be better still, for then she would be able to travel in a fine coach and wear fine clothes. How jealous the neighbours will be, she thinks. The two of them decide to drink, and then sleep, on their decision. But as she is raking the fire, Mrs. Homespun cannot help thinking that it looks so nice and warm that all it needs is a pudding on it. Her inadvertent wish is granted. Unsurprisingly, her husband is livid, and he angrily wishes that the pudding was on his wife's nose. It flies there and cannot be removed. He toys with wishing for unlimited wealth, but his wife will not have it and she threatens to lay down and die if the pudding is not removed. Mr. Homespun tries to persuade her, saying that they will have a gold case made for the pudding, and that their wealth will outweigh any ridicule she suffers, but he eventually realises that he must comply, and he wishes for the pudding to go to the devil. It vanishes. Realising that they are no better off than for all their three wishes they lament their folly, but come to realise that,

A wholesome lesson she [the Fairy] has taught,
Though it is somewhat dearly bought,
And should she call another day,
She'll find it is not thrown away -
For as we have regain'd our senses,
We'll lay aside our vain pretences,
Temper our hopes with moderation,
And suit our wishes to our station. (pp.31-32)

Dorset even deprives her repentant hero and heroine of the one solace found by the protagonists of Le Prince de Beaumont's version - the eating of the pudding (Le Prince de Beaumont 1767: 1:231)

The Hockliffe Collection contains another edition of the book, also published by M. J. Godwin and Co., but in 1823 (0569F).

Kinnell, Margaret, 'Childhood and Children's Literature: The Case of M. J. Godwin and Co., 1805-25', Publishing History, 24 (1988), 77-99

Carpenter, Humphrey & Pritchard, Mari, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Oxford: OUP, 1984

Le Prince de Beaumont, Marie, The Young Misses Magazine, Containing Dialogues between A Governess and several Young Ladies of Quality her Scholars..., 2nd edition, 2 vols., London: J. Nourse, 1767

Le Prince de Beaumont, Marie, The Young Misses Magazine, Containing Dialogues between A Governess and several Young Ladies of Quality her Scholars..., 2nd edition, 2 vols., London: J. Nourse, 1767