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Stories Before 1850. 0256: Catherine G. Ward, Cottage Stories

Author: Ward, Catherine George (afterwards Mason)
Title: Cottage stories; or, tales of my grandmother, by Mrs. Catherine G. Ward. For the amusement and improvement of juvenile readers. New edition
Cat. Number: 0256
Date: 1825
1st Edition: 1817
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: A. K. Newman and Co., Leadenhall-street
Price: 2s (from book-list at end of volume)
Pages: 1 vol., 149pp.
Size: 13.5 x 8.5 cm
Illustrations: Engraved frontispiece

Images of all pages of this book

Page 003 of item 0256

Introductory essay

Cottage Stories is a collection of short moral tales. Despite the frequent references to religion, and the pious morals appended to each tale, they are not without merit as works of entertainment. In 'The fisherman and his two sons' (p.9ff.), for instance, suspense is skilfully built up and sustained, before the tale dissolves into a happy (if unlikely) ending. A poor fisherman finds a sealed chest in his nets. He puts off opening it for several days until his family's various needs have been attended to, heightening the reader's curiosity. And the reader shares the family's joy when the chest is revealed to contain precious jewels and gold. However, since 'Providence has wisely ordained, that there is no pleasure in human happiness without alloy', the fisherman also finds a note telling him that the treasure will only become his if a year and a day passes without the owner, Ferdinand Don Manuel, claiming it (pp.30-31). As the months pass, the fisherman's family becomes poorer and poorer, but rather than sell the gold and jewels, he insists on remaining honest and true to the contract. On the day before the treasure is due to become his, strangers appear at the door. They are welcomed in with every mark of hospitality which the starving family can offer, and it seems a cruel twist of the plot that one of the strangers is Ferdinand Don Manuel. Hearing their story, however, he gladly bestows the treasure on the fisherman and his family. The narrative seems at once to have proved, and contradicted, the moral: 'Honesty repays itself, and virtue is its own reward' (p.41).

This and the other, not dissimilar, tales, are framed by two short pieces, 'The Sabbath day; or the curate's fireside' and 'Returned from my grandmother's'. These are narrated by Isaac Plainway, a curate, who at first is reluctant to let his children spend Sunday in visiting their grandmother, rather than going to church, even though the church is far distant and the heavy rain will spoil the children's new clothes. Such negligence of their spiritual duty, he says, will be bad for the children, and they will be taught to be vain of their clothes rather than thankful to their God. He relents only when he finds the children happy to spend their day with their prayer books, which convinces him that they may be allowed this dispensation from church. The children go to their grandmother's then, and hear the stories which fill the rest of the book. The final section returns to the good-humoured tone of 'The Sabbath day', with the curate impatient for his children's return, and his pacification by his wife Dorothy who reminds him how good and hard-working his children are.

What Cottage Stories sets up then is an opposition between the church and the stories of the grandmother. Even though her stories have overt religious morals or ostensibly teach secular virtues, the grandmother loosely represents a folk tradition of children's literature - an oral, often ludic, even amoral tradition - which had been held in low esteem for most of the eighteenth century. She is an embodiment of the servants of John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education, who he accused of spreading anti-Christian and unmanly sentiments, or of the proverbial old women who were accused by many of the moralists of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of corrupting children with fairy tales and other such vulgar material. In Cottage Stories, Isaac, the curate, representing the Church, has to be made to see that this tradition of non-Evangelical children's literature is innocent and even to be welcomed. His wife, Dorothy Plainway, teaches him this by showing him how well his children have turned out - being devoted to their prayer books and working hard to clear his garden and stitch his handkerchiefs (pp. 6-7 and 147) - and how unlikely it is that all this will be undone by their grandmother's tales. Cottage Stories, then, can be read as Catherine Ward's attempt to reconcile two tendencies within children's literature which were still aligned against one another when the book was published.

Catherine (sometime Catharine) George Ward, afterwards Mason, was a prolific novelist, poet and writer for children. Volumes of her poems appeared in 1805, 1812 and 1820 and her first novel, The Daughter of St. Omar in 1810. Many others followed, most of which appeared after Cottage Stories. The Eve of St. Agnes: a novel (1831) was republished as late as 1878, and The Cottage on the Cliff; a sea side story (1823) appeared in a new edition in the early twentieth century. Adelaide and her Children: a tale, published by Dean and Munday and designed for a youthful audience, appeared in 1828. The first edition of Cottage Stories which appeared in 1817 was dedicated to Miss Linwood, at the 'Ladies' Seminary' in Leicester.