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Stories Before 1850. 0214: Mary Martha Sherwood, The Little Woodman, and his Dog Cæsar

Author: Sherwood, Mary Martha (née Butt)
Title: The little woodman, and his dog Cæsar. By Mrs. Sherwood, Author of "Little Henry and his Bearer," etc. etc.
Cat. Number: 0214
Date: No date but c.1825
1st Edition: 1818
Pub. Place: Wellington, Salop.
Publisher: F. Houlston and Son
Price: 1s 6d (? - for 4th edition: see advertisement at end of 0212A)
Pages: 1 vol., 106pp.
Size: 15 x 9 cm
Illustrations: Eight full-page wood-cuts (frontispiece and title-page vignette missing) by Samuel Williams?
Note: Front cover, title-page and pp. 11-12 missing

Images of all pages of this book

Page 002 of item 0214

Introductory essay

For synopsis see below.

This outstandingly readable story represents perhaps the very best of Mrs. Sherwood's enormous output. It is concise, neatly structured and written with engaging simplicity, and it manages at the same to be thoroughly entertaining and as heavily didactic as it is possible for a book to be.

The book effortlessly combines three principal literary forms - the fairy tale, the animal story, and the religious tract. From the very beginning the reader is transported into a deep forest, filled with ravenous wolves, humble woodmen and kindly old ladies who live in isolated cottages. This is clearly the territory of Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. When we learn that the hero, William, is the seventh son of a widower wood-cutter, and that his cruel brothers plan to abandon him in the midst of the wood, the fairy story setting is complete. The economy of Sherwood's plot - in which, for instance, the wicked brothers unexpectedly return at the end of the narrative - is also reminiscent of the best fairy tales, which privilege neatness of narrative over the need to suspend disbelief with a wholly believable story-line.

Though this fairy tale ambience never wholly recedes, it is soon complemented by more overtly religious material. Sherwood frequently quotes from the Bible, spot-lights the usual death-bed reformations, and employs quasi-Biblical language (e.g. pp.26-28). She surely meant her description of William being led towards his death on an ass to be reminiscent of Christ's progress towards his passion, and perhaps was thinking of Joseph and his brothers when she described the wood-cutter's family. Moreover, Sherwood is not afraid to interject religious injunctions to her readers into the narrative, nor to offer explicit authorial approbation for William's Christian virtues - his prayers, his resignation to the will of God, his gratitude when he is saved from death, and so on (e.g. pp.38-39). Sherwood never loses sight of her intended audience though. In her book prayers are always answered and the truly religious not only survive whatever trials they are put to, but prosper and are happy. Likewise, the wicked always reform. There are no shades of grey here, but rather a black and white Christianity designed for the youngest reader.

The third strand of the story occupies the middle section of the book. William's faithful dog, Cæsar, suddenly appears to save his master. The confusion over whether it is a dog or a wolf which is stalking William, and the dog's sudden appearance in the nick of time, generates real suspense (pp.56-58). Cæsar's heroism in saving William from drowning, and the dog's battle with the wolf (pp.60-62), places The Little Woodman in a tradition of animal stories which was not yet fully under way (although see certain episodes in 0179B) but which would reach its zenith with Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), and Eric Knight's Lassie Come-Home (1940). Certainly Cæsar's adventures are very different to those of the animal story as it had been written up until 1818. Those which were not designed purely for their amusement value (like The Droll Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her Wonderful Dog, 1805: 0095A) had been, like Dorothy Kilner's The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse (1783: 0159), Sarah Trimmer's History of the Robins (1786: 0241-0245) or Mary Pilkington's Marvellous Adventures; or, the vicissitudes of a cat (1802: 0197), much more heavy-handedly didactic, the animals themselves narrating tales spot-lighting the vices of the humans whom they meet.

As well as providing children with an entertaining introduction to Evangelical Christianity, Sherwood also at least partly seems to have aimed The Little Woodman at adults. The books is full of lessons about the right way to raise children. William's father, the wood-cutter, is a good man, but he is condemned for not teaching his children religion. By the time he repents it is too late, and the seed of impiety has been planted in his six eldest children. His death, with the six sons sitting nearby, but oblivious to their father's approaching death, was surely designed to jolt parents out of their complacency by showing they what it was like to die without the love of one's children. Moreover, Sherwood carefully reveals that it is not only the wood-cutter's fault that his six eldest sons have turned out bad. It was his own mother's fault too, as she acknowledges: 'I loved your father so foolishly that I never corrected him, so God corrected me. But I will love you, my little grandson, with a wiser love, and will not fail to punish you when you are naughty' (pp.86-87). This explained the rationale behind a strict parental regime to children, who might be on the receiving end of it, but it was also a clear rebuke to lenient parents. Sherwood's aim at this dual audience is made explicit in a passage from one of the page missing from the Hockliffe copy of the book: 'Fathers and mothers, you should lead your children to love God while they are little, and while their hearts are tender. And you, little children, lose no time, but give yourselves up to God before you become hard and stubborn, like William's brothers' (pp.10-11).

The Little Woodman was first published in 1818. It proved immediately popular. Houlston's published at least twenty editions by 1850, and new editions continued to appear from various companies even into the twentieth century. Although the copy in the Hockliffe Collection lacks its title-page, its format is that used by Houston's early editions and it may be ascribed a date of about 1820-1830. The book-list which appears on the outside back cover is identical to that which appears on the sixth edition of 1822 in the collection of British Library. A manuscript note in this British Library copy announces that 'The cuts are instantly recognisable as the work of S. Williams'. This was Samuel Williams (1788-1853), a noted wood-engraver first in Colchester, where he was apprenticed to I. Marsden, and then in London. The style of the wood engravings is indeed singular, and perhaps ahead of its time in terms of the stylised form, sometimes rather grotesque, of the figures.

Mrs. Sherwood was born Mary Martha Butt in 1775. Her early life was comfortable although strictly disciplined. In her autobiography she describes roaming freely in the countryside around the village of Stanford, near Worcester, where her father was rector, but she was also forced to wear an iron collar and a back-board 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). By the time she was twenty Sherwood had begun to write. She produced The Traditions in 1795 and Margarita in 1799, both fairly standard lightly-gothic novels published at William Lane's Minerva Press. The sudden death of Sherwood's father in 1796 led to an enforced removal to a much more retired existence in Bridgnorth. It was perhaps here that Sherwood, along with her sister Lucy Butt (later Lucy Cameron), first began to develop the Evangelical style of writing for which they were both to become so celebrated. They produced 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. Sarah Trimmer approved of the work, commending it in the usually vitriolic Guardian of Education because 'all the arguments which Reason and Religion can furnish [are] enforced by the most striking examples of persevering Virtue' (v.1 [1802], p.267). But even Trimmer's exacting standards became too lax for Sherwood, and by the time the book was reissued by Houlston's in 1815 she edited out what she thought of as the book's doctrinal faults and further 'evangelized' it (Darton 1910: 202; Cutt 1974: 28-29).

What had changed in the time between the first and second publication of The History of Susan Gray was that Sherwood had been to India. She had 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. Her attitude is summed up in her journal. An early entry, for example, records her reaction to meeting the son of an eminent British family in Calcutta. The four-year-old could speak hardly any English, but was fluent in the 'Native language', prompting Sherwood to write,

Is it not dreadful to leave children to such an age as this to the entire management not only of servants but of Pagans, & the horrid profligacy of Pagans may be conjectured by what I am told is visible in their worship & religious ceremonies ... Please God I should ever be tried I will take warning from the experience of others and never will trust a Christian lamb within the jaws of the Lion who goes about seeking whom he may devour. I do not blame the poor natives of the country ... the time I hope will come when the glorious light of Christianity will shine upon them.Cutt 1974: 3

This missionary zeal, and her refusal to contemplate any assimilation of one culture into another, underlies Little Henry and his Bearer and the other tracts and stories Sherwood produced while in India. It also provided the motivation for the school she established, 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.

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. But Sherwood was also at her most prolific as a writer during this period. For Houlston and others she, and her sister, produced numerous tracts, chapbook tales and longer pieces of fiction each year. Some of this output can be considered hack work. Both Sherwood and Cameron, it is said, produced tales to accompany whatever wood-cuts Houlston happened to have in stock (Carpenter and Pritchard 1984: 484). Certainly many of these were rather thin works on tried and tested themes, even if they are among the most sprightly contributions to the genre (see for example 0213A-J). Other works constituted much more substantial projects, like The Little Woodman or her most famous story, The History of the Fairchild Family (first part also 1818, published by John Hatchard). Sherwood 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.

For further analysis of The Little Woodman see M. Nancy Cutt, Mrs. Sherwood and her Books for Children, pp.46-56.


Roger Hardfoot is a poor wood-cutter who lives on the edge of the forest. His wife has died, leaving him to bring up his seven sons. The family lives comfortably, but Roger does not provide a religious education for his sons. This is a sin made all the worse because his mother had striven to teach him the importance of religion when he was a boy, but he had deserted her when a young man. Of course, this becomes relevant later in the narrative.

As if to punish him for his impiety, a tree falls on the wood-cutter during his work in the forest, and the injury leads slowly but inexorably to his death. During his long decline, the wood-cutter realises the error of his ways, and embraces Christianity once again. He attempts to persuade his sons to reform too, but only the youngest, William, then aged five, harkens to him. The other six sons become increasingly depraved, drinking and poaching the king's deer. They hardly notice the illness of their father.

When the wood-cutter dies (pp.23-24), the six elder sons become suspicious of their youngest brother. They fear that he will inform against them for stealing the king's deer. Though they cannot bring themselves to kill William outright, the decide to take him three days' journey into the forest and abandon him there to his fate. He is placed on an ass, and the journey begins, the brothers having taken care to tie up Cæser, William's dog. William is ignorant of his brothers' design, for they have told him that they are going to hunt deer. When William sees deer near at hand, and asks his brothers why they do not hunt these, they shrug off his question. William prays: 'Oh my God! do thou take care of me, for my dear Saviour's sake', and as he is falling asleep he hears the words 'I will. Be not afraid'.

While he sleeps, William's brothers sneak off, leaving him, as they think, to the wolves. His first response to the discovery that he has been deserted it to pray (pictured p.44)). Providentially he finds food and water, and he climbs a tree for the night. While there he thinks he sees a light, and he chases it. He cannot find the source, but continues onwards in the night become more and more frightened as he hears noises behind him. The chasing animal catches up with him - but with great relief William finds that it is not a wolf, but his dog, Cæser, which had somehow got loose and found its master in the midst of the forest (pp.56-57). They continue together through the night. Cæser saves William from drowning as the cross a river, and then, when a wolf appears, the dog leaps into battle. The result is in doubt for some time until, at last, the wolf retreats (pp.60-62).

William and Cæser continue through the forest until they find themselves at a neat cottage. They are invited in by the owner, a kindly, pious old woman. She provides food and drink for Cæser, and explains that the dog licking its own wounds will provide the best cure. She also cleans, feeds and puts to bed William. Before long, she has discovered that William's father was her son, who had abandoner her so long before. William stays with his grandmother for many years. They lead honest, hard-working Christian lives, and prosper as a result. Eventually, she dies, as does Cæser, but William marries and soon has a family of his own.

One day, six poor men walk past, soliciting aid. They are ill, hungry, and deprived of sleep, for they have nowhere to stay where they will be protected from the wolves. William soon realises that they are his brothers, whose decline had begun as soon as they had abandoned William. They were quickly arrested and imprisoned for their poaching, and they have never recovered their health. William allows them to stay in his barn, and he provides them with food, some furniture and tools with which they can resume their father's profession of wood-cutting. They soon die however, having lamented their sins and begun to hope for salvation.

Darton, F. J. Harvey. (ed.), The Life and times of Mrs Sherwood (1775-1851). From the diaries of Captain and Mrs. Sherwood, London: Wells Gardner, Darton and Co., 1910

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

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

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

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