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Stories Before 1850. 0131: Anon., The History of Primrose Prettyface

Author: Anon.
Title: The history of Primrose Prettyface; who, by her sweetness of temper, and love of learning, was raised from being the daughter of a poor cottager to great riches, and the dignity of Lady of the Manor
Cat. Number: 0131
Date: 1818
1st Edition: 1782?
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 47, Paternoster-Row; and John Sharpe, Juvenile Library, London Museum, Piccadilly
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., 48pp. (but end of book missing)
Size: 14.5 x 9 cm
Illustrations: 9 cuts (some missing)
Note: Pages 7-18, 33-40 and 49 to the end are missing

Images of all pages of this book

Page 004 of item 0131

Introductory essay

See below for full synopsis.

Pages 7-18, 33-40 and 49 to the end are missing from the copy in the Hockliffe Collection. Page numbers below, unless accompanied by a link to the images of the Hockliffe text, refer to the first edition in the British Library.

As its full title promises, Primrose Prettyface is another in the tradition of rags-to-riches-via-learning books which had already received its most perfect expression with Newbery's Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765: see 0123-0124). The theme of a girl or boy who achieves material success after having made a special effort to learn their lessons and then teaching what they had learned to others, was popular throughout the later eighteenth century. It provided a satisfying narrative, rather like that of Cinderella. A poor girl proves her worth in humble life, undergoing one or two tribulations, before she marries a handsome prince, or in Primrose's case, baronet, and lives happily ever after. And it provides plenty of opportunities for straightforward moral didacticism. Such narratives clearly show (as one commentator has put it) how writers could 'silently adapt fairy tale plots or patterns into the empirical world of the rational tale.' (Richardson 1991: 38) By doing so they were able to avail themselves simultaneously of the advantages of both forms. But unlike Cinderella, the protagonists of Goody Two-Shoes and Primrose Prettyface proved their worth by more than mere industry and obedience. It was their scholarship which earned them the love and esteem of their parents and their peers, which got them noticed by their social superiors, and which eventually resulted in their social advancement. This is true not only of Primrose herself, but also of the heroes of the inset narratives which constitute so much of the text. The hero of 'Eudoxus and Leontine', the reader is told, 'studied without intermission' at the University and Inns of Court and thereby earned the elevated social status bestowed on him (p.22). Likewise, the hero of one of the other inset tales, an unnamed Dutch boy who was abducted by gypsies as an infant, brings delight to his father partly because he has returned after so many years, but also because he had developed such 'sharpness of understanding, and skill in language' while away (p.38).

As Primrose's own story makes amply clear, the way to gain learning was to read books. Primrose Prettyface, like Goody Two-Shoes or Giles Gingerbread (0240), was, in effect, an advertisement for reading. (Inevitably, it is actually those books published by John Marshall which are puffed by name in the text, but this is simply a refinement of the overall recommendation of reading in general.) The central premise of the new children's literature of the mid- and late-eighteenth century was that it could lead to social and economic advancement. Books could entertain and they could instruct, but a more important strategy in trying to persuade middle, or lower, class parents to part with money to buy books for their children was to insist that in doing so, they were making a sound investment in their children's future. This promise of future returns was the foundational myth of post-Newbery children's literature. Books like Primrose Prettyface set out to dramatise the process.

Potentially, works like Primrose Prettyface which depicted the rapid social advancement of a poor girl could be accused of being dangerously meritocratic or even of promoting the overthrow of existing social hierarchies. Only a few years after the first publication of Primrose Prettyface, for example, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791-92) would assert that merit was not confined to one particular stratum of society and, therefore, that power should not be conferred only on one small section of the population determined by heredity:

Experience in all ages, and in all countries, has demonstrated that it is impossible to controul nature in her distribution of mental powers. She gives them as she pleases. ... Whatever wisdom constituently is, it is like a seedless plant; it may be reared where it appears, but it cannot be voluntarily produced. There is always a sufficiency somewhere in the general mass of society for all purposes; but with respect to the parts of society, it is continually changing its place. It rises in one to-day, in another to-morrow, and has most probably visited in rotation every family of the earth and again withdrawn.
As this is in the order of nature, the order of government must necessarily follow it, or government will, as we see it does, degenerate into ignorance. The hereditary system, therefore, is as repugnant to human wisdom as to human rights; and it as absurd as it is unjust. (Paine 1791: 199-200)

In effect, Primrose Prettyface was saying much the same thing. Wisdom had germinated in Primrose's family. She was wise, and she was good; she therefore deserved to operate in a higher circle than that into which she was born. Providence duly arranged her elevation. Add to this the book's treatment of the social élite and Primrose Prettyface may be seen as a rather radical work. Jemmy Householder, for instance, though a Squire's son, is a wicked boy who, we cannot help but think, deserves to die in the fire which levels his house to the ground. There is also an evangelical, not to say democratic, tone to the authorial voice in the book: the heading to chapter three, for instance, bluntly suggests that the rich are not in the habit of keeping their promises (p.13). Certainly Primrose Prettyface reads very differently to similar tales published during and after the French Revolution. Maria Edgeworth, say, presented many characters from equally humble backgrounds, who were every bit as worthy, anxious to learn, and as mild, as Primrose. But they were never elevated to the squirearchy and had to content themselves, in their denouements, with some small mark of esteem, or modest financial reward, or even just the restitution of something they had been forced to give up earlier in the tale (see, for instance, Edgeworth's 'Simple Susan').

The inset narratives apparently continue to endorse the possibility of social mobility which underlies Primrose's history. Both Eudoxus and the anonymous Dutch boy grow up in ignorance of their real social status, prove themselves to be good-natured and excellent scholars, and only then discover that they were really born into the high estate which they have by then proved themselves to merit. However, the fact that, before they knew of their true rank, they proved that they deserved their high place in society acts as a justification of the social order which has placed them in such an exalted position. Far from supporting the Painite argument which condemned inherited rank, these inset narratives seem to endorse a counter, conservative view, most famously expressed in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), that wisdom, virtue and talent were to be found chiefly amongst the existing social elite and that power and wealth should therefore pass through hereditary succession. This vindication of the prevailing social order is accompanied by an endorsement of quiescence, of contentment with one's inherited social status. The attitude of Gaffer Thompson, Primrose's father, presented as a paragon, makes this clear: 'Ambition had no charms for him, yet he always paid the respect due to his superiors, or those employed in high places by his sovereign. His prayer for such was "That God would be pleased to make all great men, good men, and truly good."' (p.4)

That Primrose Prettyface can support both Painite and Burkean readings is symptomatic of the tension which underlies the entire text. The book suggests that worldly success - the 'great Riches, and the Dignity of Lady of the Manor', as the title puts it, are something to aspire to, and something to motivate one to pursue one's education. Yet the reader is also told, in no uncertain terms, that 'There was no real use of great riches, except in the distribution, the rest was but conceit.' (p.4) The possibility of social elevation is held out to readers, and yet ambition is condemned. Such a tension was inevitable in children's literature. To commend ambition too blatantly would have been a challenge to the socio-political status quo. It would have defied the orthodoxy of the church, which preached contentment with one's lot, and, as such, it would have been deplored in a book for children. On the other hand, the promise of riches through learning was central to the marketing strategy of children's literature, as developed by John Newbery and continued by John Marshall. Just as it was expected that Cinderella would marry a prince, so it was necessary that Primrose Prettyface would become Lady of the Manor or that the similarly alliterative Giles Gingerbread would one day ride in his coach and six. Marshall, like Newbery before him, clearly did not see learning as sufficiently rewarding in and of itself to persuade children to apply themselves, or their parents to purchase books. The prospect of a material reward was also required.

As has been mentioned, the material incentive to reading and good behaviour was largely dropped from children's literature from the 1790s onwards. Edgeworth, Berquin and the authors of the moral tales which they helped to inspire did not promise their readers social elevation. Yet this is not to say that books like Primrose Prettyface and Goody Two-Shoes went entirely out of fashion. Both proved extremely durable. The edition of Primrose Prettyface in the Hockliffe Collection was published in 1818, and was still being read in 1840, as the manuscript inscription on the fly-leaf shows. The work had first been published sometime between 1782 and 1785 (an inscription in a copy of the book in the British Library bears the date 1785, and Marshall had been at the address mentioned on its title-page - 4, Aldermary Church Yard - since 1782). Not much had changed between the first and the 1818 editions. A few prefatory passages, rather in the manner of Henry Fielding, discussing the importance of beginning at the beginning, had been excised, as had one chapter which contained another inset story, not at all apropos of the main narrative (see below). Remarkably, the same wood-cuts were retained (or copied) for the 1818 edition, although there were rather fewer of them.


Primrose Prettyface's father and mother, Gaffer and Gammer Thompson, are humble but contented threshers. They are the model of domestic felicity - perhaps, the narrator suggests, because of the lesson Gaffer Thompson taught his wife when they were first married. He placed one end of a rope in a hedge and asked his wife to take hold of the other end and pull the rope free. While she tried to do this, he was pulling on the rope from the other side of the hedge, and, being stronger, she could not free it. Naturally, when he went to help her, they pulled it out easily. He explained the moral - when they pull together in marriage they may accomplish everything and will be happy; when they pull apart, they cannot achieve anything. The Thompsons had a son, but he died of small pox at just 11 years old. Then Primrose Prettyface was born. She is universally called by the nick-name 'Prettyface' because she was so sweet-tempered. Primrose meets and impresses Lady Worthy. Primrose reads her several lessons, prayers and a hymn she has just learned - and these are inserted in full into the text. Primrose's willingness to learn pleases Lady Worthy, and she gives Primrose half a crown to spend on books, and promises to send some more from her own library. The books arrive - a dozen large books, 'together with several of Mr. Marshall's gilt books for children, which last were all bound in gilt covers.' A letter explains that Lady Worthy wishes Primrose to teach all the other local boys and girls to read and spell, and she encloses some of 'Mr. Marshall's Universal Primmers [sic] and Battledores' too (p.24). After finishing her chores, Primrose reads to herself one of the stories in one of the big books:

Eudoxus and Leontine.

Eudoxus and Leontine, two boys, were great friends in their youth and were educated and brought up together. While the former entered the court, and worked his way up to higher and higher office, becoming rich, the latter preferred to study, and although he too managed to gain a reasonable living, he did not become nearly so rich as his friend. When they both came to settle down and start a family, they bought land near one another, Eudoxus buying a large estate, and Leontine a much smaller one. Eudoxus had a son, Florio. Leontine had a daughter, Leonilla. But because Leontine's wife died shortly after giving birth, he feared that, on his own, he would not be able to educate Leonilla properly. Eudoxus and Leontine therefore decided to exchange their children so that Eudoxus and his wife would bring up Leonilla as if she was their daughter, and Leontine would bring up Florio. Thus Florio grew up without the assurance that he would one day inherit a vast estate. As a result, he worked hard, and made his way to the university and the Inns of Court. He became very learned. He also fell in love with Leonilla, although he knew that he could never aspire to marry someone of her great fortune. Thus was his joy enhanced ever further when his real parentage was eventually revealed. He soon married Leonilla, whose own parentage was then revealed too. Florio deserved his fortune much more than he would have done if he had simply inherited it.

Primrose Prettyface begins to teach the local boys and girls to read - something she does by bribing the children with the books Lady Worthy has given her. The oldest boy reads out another story:
A boy was trying to take a ride on a boat from Leiden to Amsterdam but he did not have sufficient money. A passing merchant felt drawn to the boy, and gave him the money. They got to talking. The merchant discovered that the boy could speak several languages, and had travelled throughout Europe after having been stolen away by gypsies as a child. This made the merchant remember his own lost son, missing and presumed to have drowned in a canal. The boy turned out to be the missing child, and while he was happy to have found a father from whom he would inherit a substantial estate, the father was happy not only because he had found his son again, but because his son was so strong and so clever.

Various other stories and poems are read out from Primrose Prettyface's books. Then Primrose heard her pupils tell their letters, and that was the end of school for that day.

Primrose loses one of her pupils when he drowns. He is found in the river by his father, who goes almost mad with grief (picture p.31. The boy had stopped to raid a bird's next on an errand, and had somehow fallen into the river. Later, a fight breaks out between some of the children over some mulberry juice. In the fight the juice is spilled, which Primrose mistakes for blood. She calls the adults who break up the fight and mete out punishment. One of the boys' fathers tells a story warning against theft: A boy had stolen the toy horse of his younger brother. To escape his father's wrath the boy hid up a chimney. His apparently disembodied voice was mistaken for that of a ghost - although the text strenuously points out that such things do not exist (p.60). The story is punctuated by poems by Isaac Watts celebrating sibling love.

When she is old enough, Primrose Prettyface leaves off the school and is taken into service as a maid at the house of Squire Homestead. His son, Jemmy, is much given to insubordination, lying, impoliteness and greed. When the Squire notices some apples are missing from his favourite tree, he asks Jemmy about it. Jemmy says Primrose Prettyface has stolen the apples and she is disgraced. She is only exonerated when Jemmy betrays himself by accident. He ran into his house, where his father was entertaining company. Because he does not greet the guests, his father asks him where his bow is. Jemmy seems confused, eventually admitting that it is in the barn. This amuses the assembled company, but the Squire soon discovers that Jemmy and his accomplice have broken off a bough from the apple tree, and hidden it in the barn. This leads to a full discovery of who it was who stole the apples, and to a pardon for Primrose Prettyface. Later, a fire breaks out in Squire Homestead's house, due to a Butler reading by candlelight. Jemmy and a footman are killed in the blaze.

[This chapter appears in the first edition, but was omitted in all subsequent editions: A gentleman, our narrator, has returned to England to find his father dead. The father left a letter acquainting our narrator with the fact that he, the father, had made a marriage contract between his son and the daughter of Sir George Steady. The narrator is on his way to the Steady household when he falls in with another traveller. Together they tease a third traveller on the road, pretending to be coarse and lewd so as embarrass him. The narrator arrives at Steady's house, is very cordially received, and falls in love with the daughter. Then suddenly he is treated very differently - everyone shuns him and he is clearly no longer welcome. His engagement is terminated, and he is asked to leave. When he asks for an explanation by letter, he is told that the gentleman whom he taunted on the road had informed Steady of his behaviour and had revealed that the other traveller, with whom the narrator appeared to be on very close terms, was in fact a notorious brothel-keeper and gambler who has now been forced to flee the country after cheating at dice. The narrator mediates that the path of rectitude is very narrow, and the inset narrative ends. (The same narrative is to be found in Solomon Sobersides' Christmas Tales): 02190220.)]

The benevolent character of Lady Worthy is described, and her son, Sir William is introduced. Primrose Prettyface is taken on as a maid in Lady Worthy's household. In a parish competition for the best behaved servant - as set out in affidavits signed by their masters and mistresses - Primrose is awarded 10 guineas as the clear winner. Some time later, Sir William falls in love with her, and they marry.

Paine, Thomas, Rights of Man, 1791-1792; rpt. ed. Henry Collins, Pelican Classics, Harmondsworth, 1969