We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Marchette Chute's stories from Shakespeare · 2 December 06

Dear Marianne,

First, a picture I’ll come back to,

Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), Woodland Scene (1885)

In Mansfield Park Fanny Price has many passages where she thinks about memory (how it can hurt as well as console), how imagination works, and on mostly romantic evocative literary texts and artistic pictures. The mind itself is a major topic in this novel by Austen. At one point Fanny remarks:

If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient, at others so bewildered and so weak—and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond controul! ... our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out” (MP).

This letter to you is prompted by the sudden pleasure of a long-lost memory brought back yesterday when I went to a session of the Washington Area Print group at the Library of Congress.

The speaker was to discuss how in the 18th through early 19th century William Shakespeare was presented and used by adults attempting to provide appropriate educational reading and activities for children. I leave out pleasure or fun since it seems that until the later 18th century the kinds of texts adults provided for children were solemnly didactic, filled with heavy-handed admonitions, often derived from the dullest reiterations of general religious exhortations, where (among other things) nasty prejudices against servants are used to present them as doing wrong or somehow cheating their employers and in clear need of discipline. Shakespeare’s were among the many unfortunate texts exploited and debased in this effort. I found it amusing to see how what Shakespeare’s texts were turned into resemble the frequent popularizations of better novels since into trivializing melodramatic stories concentrating on the more sensational and sentimental aspects of the original text.

Gradually across the century though two movements emerged which were somewhat better than turning Shakespeare into versions of Goody Two-Shoes or Eric, or Little by Little. One was again not very heartening: the bowdlerization of Shakespeare proceeded apace after the first publication of The Family Shakespeare, volumes of the plays where any sexual thought that was understood were censored out. I suppose this is understandable given adults’ prejudices about sexuality and fears their children might emerge with ideas that will not allow them to control these children’s sexuality on behalf of their family’s aggrandizement and respectability in the eyes of others. The children’s safety was probably a secondary concern until they were older.

I note the speaker herself did not really speak of these censorings as absurd or unfortunate, seemed slightly to sympathize with the Family Shakespeare project, and at one point, albeit jokingly, remarked she was surprized at how the earlies editions of bowdlerized books left in much sex in Shakespeare as apparently the first bowdlerizers themselves had “insufficiently dirty minds” (didn’t recognize many of the sexual allusions) and only later bowlderizers managed to “clean up” Shakespeare thoroughly. A young woman who gave a talk in one of my classes the other night was embarrassed even to use the word “sex,” much less openly discuss the central story in LeCarre’s Constant Gardener about the possibility that Tessa has committed adultery or the realities of marriage for adults that swirl about their sexual relationship. If anyone thinks genteel college-educated people today in western society are necessarily less repressed than the average Victorian, they had better think again.

The other movement was more felicitious. People began to see childhood as a state of development where what was important and at stake were also the child’s pleasures and a development of the child’s mind and body into an effective adult who can create a happy and prosperous life for him or herself. Toys from (paper dolls), toy theatres, texts which could be used by children to act out Shakespeare, were all part of this trend. In Mansfield Park we are told that the Bertram boys were taught to act out and declaim dramatic passages from Shakespeare’s plays. We see Fanny read aloud to Lady Bertram, and Henry Crawford read aloud to Fanny in ways that give pleasure.

The transformative moment was the publication of the Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. As I think about it, I wish the speaker had spent more time on this; she said her talk was derived from a paper she had written and was to be published and seemed to feel we all knew about the Lamb’s book, which we did not: afterwards when the question period came, after the usual silence, and usual tendentious questions about how girls were educated and trained to read Shakespeare as opposed to boys, I asked a question which got the speaker talking about Shakespeare for children today and the Lamb texts; then other people began to ask questions and talk in ways that showed what interested them was the Lamb volume and modern texts of Shakespeare for children.

I had raised my hand and told about how in the sixth grade Caroline participated in an school production of Macbeth where the teacher had copies of a text of the play meant for a class of 12 year olds to act out. I remembered clearly and easily how Caroline had played Macduff and what an aggressive and fun Macduff she had made; how she enoyed her swordplay with Macbeth. Around that time I bought a copy of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare in a fine illustrated edition, and tried to read some of the tales aloud to her. I discovered the language was too hard or old-fashioned and I had to turn the sentences into modern ones as I went along very frequently.

I also asked the speaker if children in the later 18th and 19th century could really read the Lamb volumes. She instantly averred that children in this earlier century could read better and had more complex vocabularies. I wanted to ask her, “Which children?” but refrained as she clearly was imagining a society of relatively privileged people like herself. Obviously not working class children nor children not of a reading disposition would not read the Lamb book with any ease. Perhaps some more intelligent and middle to upper class children did grow up to gain more complex vocabularies earlier as they had no intermediary east young adult texts to read for their teenage years.

Then one woman raised her hand and said she had just had a similar experience reading the Lamb versions of Shakespeare to a granddaughter, and then another woman asked if there is a modern version of Shakespeare meant for children that has achieved dominance. The speaker said there were many modern versions of Shakespeare for children, but none more dominant than any other. You may know that Shakespeare’s own texts are nowadays printed with a facing text that turns his lines into demotic modern English for high school and college students. The language of his plays is now treated like Chaucer’s language has been treated since the 19th century.

As the talk went on, the speaker prompted it seemed suddenly by memory, said when she was young her first acquaintance with Shakespeare was through a thick book of prose stories written by Marchette Chute and called something like The Tales of Shakespeare.

So I come to why I have written you this letter. Suddenly flooding back to me after more than 4 decades of time came the image of a fat whitish book with a drawn frame on the cover. Marchette Chute. Yes. I first became acquainted with Shakespeare through Marchette Chute. I had forgotten this completely. When I reached 13 or so did not only did I begin to read dark dull tomes of books about Renaissance queens, I read Marchette Chute’s retellings of Shakespeare’s plays. I also read her biography of Shakespeare, Shakespeare of London. I think I half-remembered that more than the retellings of the plays because Edward and I have come across old cheap copies of Chute and I bought one for Caroline or Yvette to read if they wanted to read a life of Shakespeare. Chute did the same kind of life for children on Chaucer, both a sort of life and times, innocently presented probably.

What a pleasant moment. Also one of regret. How I felt like kicking myself! I regretted I had forgotten Chute, for if I had remembered her I would have bought her book over the Lambs or after the Lambs once I found the Lambs were too difficult for Caroline or Yvette at age 10 to 12.

Eventually both girls did read a couple or more of the tales. I seem to remember them delighting in the gorgeous colored illustrations (faintly medieval like) and reading As You Like It.

But now I wish I had remembered this much more suitable genuinely modernized text. Chute has no prestige and doesn’t appear in good bookstores in versions gussied up for Christmas and others presents for children. Very like Edith Hamilton whose books on the Greek gods and goddesses which Yvette did read over and over, Chute is a woman author who reached children and enabled them on their own to enjoy and develop their imaginations through the rich mythic heritage and great writings of the European past.

I opened with a picture I put on WWTTA for this week: Elizabeth Adela Armstrong’s Forbes’s Woodland Scene. It reminds me of the kind of illustrations I used to gaze it in books I read when young, the sort of thing I also saw in novels by Walter Scott and The Prisoner of Zenda sort of thing, books of fairy tales and the like. Indeed Forbes did illustrate a childrens’ book, King Arthur’s Wood in 1899. Her pictures remind me of Helen Allingham’s in that they are often of women and children in impressionistic beautifully-colored landscapes, delicate and yet realistic.

Forbes’s painting techniques (the way she uses paint and draws) has been compared to Whistler’s, Sargeant’s and (a popular later Victorian painter) Walter Sickert; her art is also partly impressionistic (as is Allingham’s). Her Woodland Scene is Pre-Raphaelite and Romantic. It’s lovely, oneiric, Oneiric (dream like): see the reflections of the people in the pond at the bottom of the picture so we see them upside down and through the blue-light of the water. The orange, green and yellow outfits remind me of modern TV and movie costume drama
as they combine contemporary taste with idealizations of medieval (or historical) dress.

She also did young children and girls at play, everyday scenes full of ingenuity, candidness and sympathy. Note the harmony of the soft blue and brown colors, another oneiric body of water:

Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), Ring-a-Ring-o’Roses (1880).

The yellow of the sun plays a role in the color scheme like the orange of the woman’s dress in Woodland Scene.

Like Chute and Hamilton, and Helen Allingham, Forbes is unsung —except when nationalistic impulses prompt people to present her as Canadian as she was born in Canada though spent much of her artistic and adult life in Europe and England or in books of women artists.

Why did I forget the Chute book when Caroline and Yvette were young? Why did I keep forgetting it until yesterday afternoon. I could see the speaker was a woman my age going to the library at the time I did, and she came upon and took out the same book. Was it this that prompted the memory? Or just the mention of the book itself? Fanny Price is right about the tricks, uncontrollability, and unequal powers of our memories.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. What I’m going to say is probably related to this blog, but if it is, it’s coincidental. I was just listening to this song and decided to post the lyrics on your blog because you might have something to say about them. I read what you wrote, and I might write a comment about it when I have time to think about it more. I haven’t been doing much blogging recently because I’ve been concentrating on my classes.

    I’m experiencing deja vu. I feel like I already wrote about this song on your blog. But maybe that’s just because I wanted to write about, and the memory of writing it could be the memory of thinking about what I wanted to write.

    I was wondering what the meaning of this song is, and I found out because I read what the writer said about it. The song is called Always, by the way. She said:

    I wrote this song when I was in college. There was this feeling of unease, Amherst hadn’t been coed that long, and women were still at times strange trespassers there. (Mostly at homecoming when the alumni would heckle and paw.) And I was into that female isolation and angst! Anyway, it was very influenced by Suzanne Vega and all her queen, king, soldier imagery.

    Here are the lyrics of the song:

    A princess was invited to an island-
    A king’s castle in the sea
    No one came to take her suitcase
    She waited in the garden outside
    The guests inside were dressed for the water
    But the princess remained outside alone
    And the king who had called her
    His precious flower
    Would not grant her a room of her own

    She was young and frightened
    By the glittering wealth, and she wondered
    If she’d be allowed to stay…

    But she slipped herself into the sea and
    Swimming, naked, all the crystal,
    Lovely, dancing waves were hers and
    Whispered, “I am here, yes, I am always”

    The king was angered by such indecency
    He sent his soldiers to pull her out
    Her foot met something sharp on the ocean floor
    But still she did not want to leave
    She saw the king, and she saw with him
    That the island was not her home
    She could not live her life
    Like the rest of his court-
    She needed a room of her own

    But she slipped herself into the sea and
    Swimming, naked, all the crystal,
    Lovely, dancing waves were hers and
    Whispered, “I am here, yes, I am…

    Always, always, always, I am
    Always, always, always, I am, always”

    The castle still stands there on the island,
    But the king and his court are alone
    And his beautiful, precious flower
    Has swum away to a room of her own

    She slipped herself into the sea and
    Swimming, naked, all the crystal,
    Lovely, dancing waves were hers and
    Whispered, “I am here, yes, I am…

    Always, always, always, I am
    Always, always, always, I am
    Always, always, always, I am
    Always, always, always, I am”

    My questions are why did she say I am here yes I am always? What does that mean? Or was it the waves that said that? And the other question is why is she the king’s precious flower? How does that relate to the song being about her experience in college? Maybe the king is trying to protect the princess. He doesn’t want her to swim away, because the world is dangerous, and it’s less dangerous inside the school. Is there any significance of her foot hitting something sharp? She waited in a garden. Does that have anything to do with the Garden of Eden, or am I trying to find meaning where there is no meaning?
    Jennica    Dec 3, 12:36pm    #
  2. You’re writing about sex and the analogies seem clear to me.

    I have a rather savage counter-poem by Marge Piercy to offer for your consideration:

    A Story Wet as Tears

    Remember the princess who kissed the frog
    so he became a prince? At first they danced
    all weekend, toasted each other in the morning
    with coffee, with champagne at night
    and always with kisses. Perhaps it was
    in bed after the first year had ground
    around she noticed he had become cold
    with her. She had to sleep
    with heating pad and down comforter.
    His manner grew increasingly chilly
    and damp when she entered a room.
    He spent his time in water sports,
    hydroponics, working on his insect

    Then in the third year
    when she said to him one day, “my dearest,
    are you taking your vitamins daily,
    you look quite green”, he leaped
    away from her.

    Finally on their
    fifth anniversay she confronted him.
    “My precious, don’t you love me any
    more?” He replied, “Rivet Rivet.”
    Though courtship turns frogs into princes,
    marriage turns them quietly back.

    Sophie    Dec 7, 12:31pm    #

commenting closed for this article