Eloise Wilkin’s Mother Goose
Golden Press, NY 1961
Do you have images from your childhood that haunt your dreams? Like that scene in the 1979 Frank Langella Dracula movie where Mina VanHelsing is all undead and vampirey and red-eyed in the crypt, and she’s raising her arms to Dr. VanHelsing saying “Papa… Papa…” in this super creepy voice and Lawrence Olivier is cowering and crying knowing that he has to stake her though the heart?
No? Just me?
The drawings in Eloise Wilkin’s Mother Goose are charming, in a toddling, shark-eyed, demon Hummel figure kind of way. Which is fine; Mother Goose is inherently weird, and the fact that these are abbreviated, one-verse only versions of the rhymes, somehow makes them weirder, like amputations presented as whole bodies. Which leads me to the “Little Boys” rhyme and its accompanying illustration.
I am thinking that terrifying images from nursery rhymes are supposed to be reserved for the Brothers Grimm and some of Hans Christian Anderson, but this freaked me out as a child, so much so that 40 years later, I can still see it quite clearly in my head:
Can you see it? Do you see what I mean? How is that OK?
It’s as if this rhyme and its companion “Little Girls” rhyme aren’t abomination enough, so we have to add disembodied puppy tails to the visual. Is the rest of the baby dog lying in a dark basement, whimpering in a pool of blood? Too much? Let’s zoom in:
There they are, all the ingredients you need to make your sweet little boy: legless reptile, legless gastropod, and doggy ass-flap. I suppose you combine this fetid mess in an iron cauldron by a dark river at midnight and chant black speech until your little apple cheeked demon climbs out and eats your soul. But I may be combining narratives here.
According to Wikipedia, the premiere source for Internet historians, Mother Goose stories go back to the 18th century, and they chronicle such delicious topics as domestic violence, thievery, child abuse, cannibalism (he “put” her in a pumpkin shell), promiscuity without birth control (old woman, shoe, see below), slacking (Little Boy Blue, Little Bo Peep), and rape culture. You know, for kids!
In the world of Mother Goose, an old woman, who is probably 40, has “so many children, she didn’t know what to do,” but apparently knows a giant cobbler, or a giant, perhaps one of the fathers, and she has chosen a large shoe as her domicile. Where did she get all these children? Kidnapping? Being the town comfort? Is she running an orphanage? Is she addicted to the foster system?
“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped* them all soundly and put them to bed.”
Polly Flinders is a stark little rhyme, reminding women that their appearance is more important than their physical comfort, and that if they exert agency, they will be punished with violence.
“Little Polly Flinders
Sat among the cinders,
Warming her pretty toes!
Her mother came and caught her,
And whipped* her little daughter,
For spoiling her nice new clothes.”
(*The version in this book changes “whipped” to “spanked” because spanking is cuter.)
Eventually, someone with either poor reading comprehension or sociopathic tendencies came up with the brilliant idea to name a children’s dress company after this dreadful sextet, and their popular mid-20th century apparel was distinguished by its colorful smocking and smudges of soot and shame.
And then there’s Georgie Porgie. Oh, Georgie, or “Donald Trump,” as he is now identified. I don’t know if there’s a whole lot more to say about this rhyme that hasn’t been said by the media covering the American presidential election of 2016.
To be fair to Mother Goose, it’s not all larceny, violence, and sexual assault, just like I am sure there is more to Donald Trump than larceny, violence, and sexual assault. There are “rings on her fingers, and bells on her toes, and she shall have music wherever she goes.” That doesn’t sound so bad. Unless it’s really an elegy about a little girl dying of consumption and how they dressed up her body for the viewing. There is also this little rhyme about “pease porridge,” which is a savory mix of peas, milk, black pepper, and salt, and I want some right now, not nine days after it was made, sitting out on the cupboard, which may account for the lack of life in this small boy’s eyes.
Working on this review, I learned that there is a “Christian Mother Goose,” which is probably not filled with slavery, rape, child sacrifice, and capital punishment like the Bible. I’m tempted to get it, but I am sure it’s all treacly nonsense about how Jesus loves the little children and keeps them all warm and cozy and filled with cookies and kisses. And where’s the fun in that?