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Stories Before 1850. 0213K: Mary Martha Sherwood, The Busy Bee

Author: Sherwood, Mary Martha (née Butt)
Title: The Busy Bee. By Mrs. Sherwood, Author of "Little Henry and his Bearer," "Lucy Clare," etc. Seventh edition
Cat. Number: 0213K
Date: 1823
1st Edition: 1818
Pub. Place: Wellington, Salop.
Publisher: F. Houlston and Son
Price: 2d (from cover of sixth, 1822 edition in British Library)
Pages: 1 vol., 30pp.
Size: 10 x 6 cm
Illustrations: Six wood-cuts
Note: Bound with 213A-213M

Images of all pages of this book

Page 16B of item 0213K

Introductory essay

The sisters Mary Martha and Lucy Lyttelton were born in 1775 and 1781 into the family of George and Martha Butt. Both sisters became much better known by their married names - Mary Sherwood and Lucy Cameron. Their early lives were comfortable and enjoyable, although the family placed a strong emphasis on both education and discipline. In her autobiography Mrs. Sherwood describes roaming freely in the countryside around the village of Stanford, near Worcester, where her father was rector. But from the ages of five to twelve she was also forced to wear an iron collar and a back-board - she called them the 'stocks' - for several hours a day to improve her posture (compare the girls who are forced to sit in stocks to improve their posture in Dorothy Kilner's The Holyday Present, 157: pp.38-42). Lucy was spared this treatment on account of her delicate health. She was a very precocious child, and recalled in her autobiography that she had started to learn Latin at seven years of age, and that she gained an early fluency in French. Perhaps this love of learning derived from her father, who had moved in intellectual circles in his own youth, socialising with Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thomas Day, Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Johnson and Anna Seward. (He had also briefly been chaplain to George III.) Lucy was herself introduced at an early age to such literary luminaries as Hannah More and Elizabeth Carter. But this training for a career as a blue-stocking did not run against her emerging piety. She recalled seeing a funeral at the age of three, which inspired in her a fear of God's wrath, and sometime later physically attacking a boy who had dared to tell her that Jesus Christ had never existed.

The sudden death of their father in 1796 led to an enforced removal to a much more retired and frugal existence in Bridgnorth. Lucy later came to think of this time as Providentially arranged, for 'Had I been differently situated, - had we gone, at my father's death, as was once thought of, to live at Bath, I might have been fostered in vanity, love of admiration, etc., to which I had strong inclinations.' (quoted in Wood 1996: 51). Her sister Mary responded to her enforced isolation by writing. She had already begun, having produced The Traditions in 1795, which she followed in 1799 with Margarita. Both were fairly standard lightly-gothic novels published at William Lane's Minerva Press (although Janis Dawson asserts that The Traditions was published by subscription for the benefit of the master at the Abbey School, Reading, where Mary and Lucy had both been pupils - Dawson 1996: 272). But it was in Bridgnorth that both Sherwood and Cameron began to develop the Evangelical style of writing for which they were both to become so celebrated. Influenced by the example of Hannah More, they produced simple, religious tales, ostensibly for the pupils of the Sunday School at which they had begun to teach, for example Sherwood's The History of Susan Gray which she published in 1802, and Cameron's The History of Margaret Whyte (written 1798-99 and published before 1802) and The Two Lambs (0213E), written in 1803 but not published for over a decade.

Mary married her cousin, Henry Sherwood, in 1803. He was a soldier, and within two years of their marriage he was posted to Calcutta. Sherwood decided to accompany him, leaving their infant child in the care of her mother and sister. The rest of the Sherwoods remained in India until 1816. It was here that her Evangelical agenda developed fully, partly through her own reading and her growing conviction that the impiety of both the 'pagan' Indians and the British army needed redress, and party under the influence of the certain Evangelical army chaplains whom she met. Sherwood decided to concentrate her attention on the children who fell within her ambit. She established a school, where she taught basic literacy and religion to soldiers, soldier's children, and such members of the indigenous population as were to be found in the military encampments. She dramatised her work in The History of Little Henry and his Bearer (1814), the work which made her name (0211 and 0212B). The Sherwood family returned to Britain in 1816, settling near Worcester. From 1818 to 1830 Sherwood ran a boarding school for girls, as well as looking after her own five remaining children and two adopted orphans.

Lucy, meanwhile, had married in 1806. Her husband, the Rev. C. R. Cameron, was a clergyman, and the family removed to his parish in Shropshire. They stayed, attempting to reform the morals of this mining community, attacking the local customs of wakes weeks, bull-baiting and cock-fighting, until moving to a new parish in 1836. The Camerons had twelve children. Four sons became ministers; three daughters became missionaries.

By the time Mary returned from India, both sisters were writing tracts and chapbook stories, as well as longer pieces, and this continued throughout the 1820s, '30s and '40s. Mostly their work was published by the firm of Houlston, based in Wellington, Shropshire, near where Lucy lived. Some of this output can be considered hack work, albeit always piously intended. Both Mary and Lucy, it is said, produced tales to accompany whatever wood-cuts Houlston happened to have in stock (Carpenter and Pritchard 1984: 484). Cameron's The Raven and the Dove, she claimed, took only four hours to write (D.N.B.). She had carefully calculated that half an hour of writing a day would enable her to write 1800 pages in a year - 'equal at least to about forty tracts' (Wood 1996: 54). For her part, Mary wrote over 400 works during her lifetime. Certainly many of their shorter pieces were rather thin works on tried and tested themes, often based on their own experiences. But they do number among the most sprightly contributions to the genre. Other works constituted much more substantial projects. Lucy edited the monthly Nursery and Infants' Schools Magazine from 1831 until at least 1852, and Mary produced very impressive works such as The Little Woodman (1818: 0214) and her most famous story, The History of the Fairchild Family (first part 1818, published by John Hatchard). Other books added a more specific agenda to the always underlying Evangelicalism. Mary's The Nun (1833) and The Monk of Cimies (1834), amongst others, were virulently anti-Catholic. Her History of Henry Milner (published in parts, 1822-1837) was an attempt to rewrite Thomas Day's Sandford and Merton (1783-89: see 0091-0092) without the dangerous influence of Rousseau. Rousseau's idea of the natural child, inherently innocent, was anathema to the Evangelical understanding of the child as already corrupted by original sin. However, Mary and Lucy's 'penny' books, of which several are in the Hockliffe Collection (0213A-L), generally adopted a milder tone. Not only were they less severe on their sinful protagonists, but they could relax literary proprieties too. Thus Mary often used fairy tales elements, as well as gothic settings, to engage the less committed reader.

Mary closed her school in 1830. She traveled in Europe for two years before returning to dedicate herself to writing once again. She was publishing new material right up until 1849, two years before her death. Lucy also continued to write until her last years. She died in 1858.

The Hockliffe Collection edition of The Busy Bee is bound with eleven other similar short stories written by Sherwood and Cameron. All of them are dated 1824 (save 0213G and 0123K, which are from 1825 and 1823 respectively), suggesting that they were purchased simultaneously and deliberately collected, rather than slowly accumulated and subsequently bound up for a private library. The fact that the title-pages of the tracts insist that the reader is looking at the fourth, the eighth, the twentieth edition, and so on, should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. If these were in fact separate editions, Houlston must surely deliberately have kept the size of each edition unrealistically small, for by the 1820s he must have known that the work of Sherwood and Cameron would quickly sell out. Once this had happened he could then issue another edition, and amend the title-page accordingly, to emphasise the popularity of the work. It is also possible that Houston did not actually reprint the whole work for each successive edition, but simply upped the edition number on the title-page and covers of existing stock to make the titles appear in demand.

For further analysis of Sherwood's work see Cutt 1974, Demers 1991 and Vallone 1991. For sympathetic reconsiderations of the lives and work of Sherwood and Cameron, a bibliography of their writing, and biographical material (from which much of the above has been taken), see Wood 1996: 48-55 and Dawson 1996: 267-81.

Wood, Nancy J., 'Lucy Lyttelton Cameron', pp.48-55 in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol.163: 'British Children's Writers 1800-1880', ed. Meena Khorana, Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Inc., 1996

Dawson, Janis, 'Mary Martha Sherwood', pp.267-81 in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol.163: 'British Children's Writers 1800-1880', ed. Meena Khorana, Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Inc., 1996

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

Lee, Stephen (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1892 and after

Wood, Nancy J., 'Lucy Lyttelton Cameron', pp.48-55 in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol.163: 'British Children's Writers 1800-1880', ed. Meena Khorana, Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Inc., 1996

Cutt, M. Nancy, Mrs. Sherwood and her books for children, Oxford, 1974

Demurs, Patricia, 'Mrs. Sherwood and Hesba Stretton: The Letter and Spirit of Evangelical Writing of and for Children', pp.129-49 in Romanticism and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, ed. James Holt McGavran Jnr., Athens, GE.: University of Georgia Press, 1991

Vallone, Lynne, '"A Humble spirit under correction": Tracts Hymns, and the Ideology of Evangelical Fiction for Children, 1780-1820', The Lion and the Unicorn, 15 (1991), 72-95

Wood, Nancy J., 'Lucy Lyttelton Cameron', pp.48-55 in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol.163: 'British Children's Writers 1800-1880', ed. Meena Khorana, Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Inc., 1996

Dawson, Janis, 'Mary Martha Sherwood', pp.267-81 in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol.163: 'British Children's Writers 1800-1880', ed. Meena Khorana, Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Inc., 1996