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Stories Before 1850. 0121: Anon., The History of the Basket Maker

Author: Anon.
Title: The History of the Basket Maker; or, Vanity Reproved, and Industry Rewarded. A Peruvian Tale
Cat. Number: 0121
Date: No date
1st Edition: Unknown
Pub. Place: Chelmsford
Publisher: I. Marsden
Price: 2d
Pages: 1 vol., 21pp.
Size: 12.5 x 7 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece, decorated outside back cover, and 14 interspersed small cuts

Images of all pages of this book

Page 002 of item 0121

Introductory essay

From their appearance alone, a date of c.1820-25 seems not unlikely for the publications of I. Marsden of Chelmsford. Trade directories reveal that an Isaac Marsden owned a circulating library in Chelmsford in 1826 (see 'The Library History Database': https://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. Several Marsden works are to be found in the Hockliffe Collection, all of which share the same general format. This edition of The History of the Basket Maker is different from Marsden's other publications only because it seems to have used a selection of miscellaneous illustrations, few of which have any direct relevance to the text. For the other Marsden editions in the Collection see The History of Abou Casem [with] Puss in Boots (0018), The Cottage Piper (0087), Occurrences of Master Manley's Journey to the Metropolis (0188) and Pretty Tales (0238).

Judging by its use in a number of chapbooks, the story of The Basket Maker seems to have been a well-known fable in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As it is given in this version, the narrative goes as follows:
On one of the Solomon Islands in the South Seas, a rich man and a poor basket-maker were neighbours. A marsh full of reeds stood between the rich man's mansion and the poor man's hut, and the marsh proved an impediment to the rich man's fishing and hunting. Unable to brook any check to his pleasure, the rich man gave orders that the marsh should be burned. This eradicated at a stroke the basket-maker's livelihood, for he had used the reeds to make his baskets. The basket-maker sought justice from the King, a wise man. The King ordered that both the rich and poor man should be deposited on another island inhabited by savages. Once there and confronted by the hostile savages, the rich man cowers while the basket-maker, who has been used to hardship and poverty, and consequently has no fear of death, confronts the savages. He soons wins the gratitude and respect of their leader by constructing for him a crown made out of reeds. The savages recognise the basket-maker as a useful member of society and they treat him well. The rich man they disdain, however, and would perhaps have attacked him had not the basket-maker, out of pity, entreated them to take him on as a manual labourer. At last, the rich man realises that 'The preference which fortune gives, is empty and imaginary: and I perceive too late, that only things of use are naturally honourable' (p.19). He promises that if he is ever restored to his former fortune then he will share his riches with the basket-maker. When the King recalls the two men to their home island, the rich man fulfils his promise.

Exactly the same text (but without the illustrations and without any suggestion that it is a 'Peruvian tale') occurs as one of the additional pieces in The History of the Children of the Wood, a chapbook of c.1820 (0085: pp.29-34). An earlier version of the tale appeared in the second volume of Thomas Day's Sandford and Merton (0091 and 0092), published in 1786. Before this, the tale was to be found in Anne Fisher's The Pleasing Instructor (0618 in the Hockliffe Collection), first published in 1756, where it was subtitled 'The Pride of Blood, or high Birth decried' (p.19). The Pleasing Instructor is an anthology of short prose and verse pieces extracted from other souces. Its contents page indicates that'The Basket-maker' was taken from The Gentleman's Magazine but I have been unable to trace its appearance there.

In any case, the version in Sandford and Merton is substantially different from that given here, and has clearly been revised by Day to to suit his own views. It seems likely that Day rekindled interest in the tale, for at least three versions were forthcoming in the 1790s (two of which were published as additional pieces to supplement a longer story - The History of Abou-Casem [William Lane, London, c.1790], and The Village Orphan [London, 1797], and one of which, also from 1797, was also subtitled 'A Peruvian Tale').

In Day's Sandford and Merton version (0091: pp.17-23), which bears the title 'The Gentleman and the Basket-Maker', it is the basket-maker's habitual cheerfulness which the rich man cannot abide, for he has no repose nor contentment because of his idleness. The basket-maker seeks justice from the local magistrate, for his island is apparently no longer a feudal state. When the two men are sentenced to exile on the island we find that the basket-maker survives initially, not because of his weaving skills, but because he has been inured to hard work all his life, while the rich man cannot lift wood nor perform any other useful office because his limbs are too tender and delicate. Then comes the encounter with the inhabitants of the island, who welcome the skills of the basket-maker (pictured opposite p.22) and find the rich man suitable only for the most manual labour. When they return home, the magistrate suggests that the rich man split his fortune with the basket-maker, but the latter indignantly refuses: 'I, having been bred up in poverty, and accustomed to labour, have no desire to acquire riches, which I should not know how to use' (p.22). Day's revisions, of course, are designed to reinforce the theme of his whole oeuvre, derived from Rousseau, that civilisation and riches bring decadence and weakness, and that a simple, natural way of life will create, and be prefered by, the best human beings. The point is made clear in Day's preface to the 'robinsonnade' Philip Quarll in his Children's Miscellany (0090). As he puts it, the city-dweller, like the rich man, is little more than an oyster or a muscle, attached to one spot and unable to fend for himself because his decadent idleness has gradually eroded the ability to move his limbs or even to think for himself (pp.196-197). The ship-wrecked Philip Quarll, forced to rely on the 'latent resources' of his mind and body, shows what nobility man is capable of when he throws off the shackles of civilisation and stretches himself to the limit of his powers (p.198). The rich man in 'The Gentleman and the Basket Maker' might have achieved the same in time, but there he stands in contrast to the poor basket-maker who is hardy, strong and resourceful, like the noble savages amongst whom he has been sent.

By the time the Hockliffe's other nineteenth century versions of story had been published, the inhabitants of the island were no longer being portrayed as noble savages in the tradition of Rousseau and Day. They may have been the instruments of natural justice, but they are almost incidental to the main thrust of the narrative, and, when they are characterised, they are depicted as lazy, happy to let the rich man perform all their work (p.18). On the other hand, the principal lesson of the tale remains the same as it had in Day's day - rank is not instrinsically worthy of respect, but has to be justified by virtuous and noble behaviour. As trite as this can seem when put into the form of a simple fable such as this, this question of how to value rank had been contested vigorously during the Revolution crisis of the 1790s and continued to be central to the political philosophy of the early nineteenth century. Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine had clashed over just this issue. Paine contended that inherited wealth and status ought to count for nothing since there was no logical reason why it would be accompanied by virtue or abilities. Burke insisted that a deference to inherited rank was the only thing that kept the nation safe. He argued that a 'natural aristocracy' was the fittest to hold power not only for pragmatic reasons (it had leisure for reflection, was habituated to decision making, was disinterested) but also because this rank was historically, and Providentially, sanctioned. For Burke, each aristocratic family was founded on noble deeds performed long ago. This had won the family their status which could not be subsequently removed. Paine believed that each generation should have to prove itself on a new, level playing field, and that only through this could the fittest people to govern and hold high rank be selected. In this context, it is even possible to read The History of the Basket-Maker as a political allegory republished to support the arguments of Paine. While the humble basket-maker proves himself valiant and resourceful, the aristocrat of the island - we are told that he was 'A descendant of one of the great men of this happy island' - proves himself undeserving of his rank, for he has become 'a gentleman to so improved a degree as to despise the good qualities which had originally ennobled his family' (p.8). Indeed, the rich man has already been condemned by the wise King for claiming that because of what he calls 'the submission due from the vulgar to gentlemen of rank and distinction', he may do as he pleases to the basket-maker.

In fact, The History of the Basket-Maker is unlikely to have been received as a politically radical document. After all, not only Paine and his fellow 'Jacobins' were arguing for a reformation of the manners of the great. Evangelical authors, many of whom, such as Hannah More and Jane West wrote children's literature, held that the aristocracy was corrupt and needed to reform itself (the difference between their opinion and Paine's being that he wanted to reform the institution of aristocracy, they its manners). Also the sub-title - 'Vanity Reproved, and Industry Rewarded' - suggested of a more conventional morality. Moreover, the King's analysis of the relationship between the rich man and the basket-maker seems to accept a Burkean view of the origins and raison d'tre of rank at the same time as it critises the corruption of the principle:

But pray, replied the king [addressing the rich man], what distinction of rank had the grandfather of your father, when, being a cleaver of wood in the place of my ancestors, he was raised from among those vulgar you speak of with so much contempt, in reward for an instance he gave of his courage and loyalty in defence of his master? ... I am sorry I have a gentleman in my kingdom, who is base enough to be ignorant that ease and distinction of fortune were bestowed on him but to this end, that, being at rest from all cares of providing for himself he might apply his heart, head, and hand, for the advantage of others.' (pp.30-31)

Ultimately, however equivocal its political alignment, The History of the Basket-Maker certainly brought at least the rudiments of a political debate into the nursery.