For my darling daughter, Lauren, who, for many years, very much wanted to listen to “Dame Wiggins” before drifting off into sleep (and who could blame her?)
As we know, as the 1870s began, Ruskin had decided that the reformations of society he had been advocating for a decade and more had fallen on deaf ears; his fellows were not interested in being more humane, they were interested, if not to a one then close to it, in making money. It was foolish, therefore, to keep writing tracts advocating change: they just weren’t going there. And so he determined he had to do it himself, being now convinced that “doing” was infinitely superior to “saying,” however persuasive that latter practice might be. And so, it was with this “doing” primarily in mind that he established, early in the decade, The Guild of St. George (originally called “The St. George’s Company”). Its goals were clear and noble, and perhaps never more elegantly expressed than in the passage below:
The object of the [St. George’s] Society…is to buy land in England, and thereon to train into the healthiest and most refined life possible as many Englishmen, Englishwomen, and English children as the land we possess can maintain in comfort…; [to] organize the government of these persons and administer the properties under laws which shall be just to all… and [to ensure that,] over those fields of ours, the winds of Heaven shall be pure, and upon them, the work of men shall be done in honor and truth.
Using his own money, he purchased various tracts of land for those who, living on it, would create those decent and healthy lives, lives that would be in stark contrast to the smoke-enshrouded industrial world that, otherwise, was all but omnipresent and triumphant throughout that place which had once been celebrated as “England’s green and pleasant land.” (For one typical, disturbing, example, of what he was hoping to combat, see: Post 136: Banishing the Gods.)
If one reads the Fors Clavigera letters which were composed in the mid-1870s, we find Ruskin frequently ruminating about how things would work best on St. George’s lands: What would be the best form of government? Where would the finances for running such communities come from (he had some and would gladly give of it–and did–but it never would be enough)? And critically, how would the children who lived in these healthful and sweet new places be taught so that they would learn only those things that were useful, uplifting, and noble? How could they be taught so that these precious little ones would be protected from the venality and vileness rampant in the wider society?
By creating, he decided, a series of lovely libraries: “In [such] libraries,” he said, in 1875, in the 57th of the Fors letters, “there shall be none but noble books, and, in their sight, none but noble art.”
But, as with all vital things, to accomplish this goal was nowhere as easy as proposing it. Those noble books which would be shelved in the St. George’s libraries, for example, had to be of various sorts–great classics, like Plato and Dante and Shakespeare (and, of course, the Bible) would be needed for the older ones, but what should be the reading fare for the tiny ones, the precious ones who, as Plato taught, and everyone in their heart knew, had to be put on the path to noble thinking early?
About this, he tussled much during ensuing years, selecting, then publishing, many of the world’s greatest essays (for one critical, generally unknown, example, see: Post 55: A Classic) and stories about what constituted a good and noble life (and he knew many!). But finding things that would be appropriate for children was harder. Then, finally, fors intervened.
In the early 1880s, Ruskin met and then befriended an artist, Kate Greenaway, who was widely famed–indeed, celebrated!–for her exquisite drawings of children. (Below’s a reproduction of one beautiful drawing she gave him in 1889):
As a child, Ruskin had a favorite poem-story–Dame Wiggins of Lee and her Seven Wonderful Cats, a Humorous Tale, written principally by a Lady of Ninety. It was first published in 1823 when he was four. His mother, Margaret, at his insistence, read it to him hundreds of times. But by the time the 1880s arrived, it was out-of-print. Why not then, the founder of the The Guild of St. George reasoned, republish it, adding to it a few verses he had always thought missing and ask Kate to do some new drawings to go with the new verses? Once published, brand-new copies of Dame Wiggins could then be placed on the shelves of all of St. George’s libraries!
With this goal in mind, the great writer and the famous artist set to work in early 1885. By October, their new edition had been published (by George Allen, of course! see Post 185: How to Learn [Or, Discovering the (hitherto unsuspected) Connections between Ruskin’s Publisher, George Allen, Little Agnes Stalker, and those very Mysterious Bees]), following which it quickly became a best-seller. Given this, I thought that, in the interest of continuing our travels through the astonishing polymathishness that was and remains Ruskin, you might like to see and read their little book!
All the images below are from a copy of Dame Wiggins (a first edition!) that I gave to my darling daughter, Lauren, at Christmastime some years ago (see dedication above). About his new edition, Ruskin said this in the book’s brief “Preface”:
I have spoken, in [one of the letters of] Fors, of the meritorious rhythmic cadence of the verses [in this poem], not, in its way, easy to imitate. In the [first edition of 1823, however], no account is given of what [our good lady’s] cats learned when they went to school, and I thought my younger readers might be glad of some notice of such particulars. I have added, therefore, the rhymes of the third, fourth, eighth, and ninth pages, the kindness of Miss Greenaway supplying the needful illustrations. But my rhymes do not ring like the [original] ones… [Nevertheless,] we alike trust that the interpolation may not be thought to distract from the interest of the little book, which, for the rest, I have the greatest pleasure in commending to the indulgence of the Christmas fireside because it relates nothing that is sad, and portrays nothing that is ugly.
Having said so much, we are at last ready to have a look at and read-through of Dame Wiggins of Lee and her Seven Wonderful Cats, a Humorous Tale written principally by a Lady of Ninety!!
And there you have it! Better, by far, don’t you think, than any of those sleeping pills that might, on occasion, attract!
About it all, just one more thing to say. When I told Lauren I was going to put up a post about one of her favorite childhood poems, she said, “That’s great, Dad, but you know, in that original book of Mr. Ruskin’s, Dame Wiggins is pretty scary! And do you remember that the one you read to me had different pictures? I don’t think I would have liked it so much if you showed me the pictures in the original version every night!”
Which exchange sent me on a web-hunt, a searching which turned up a very different version of Dame Wiggins, one which was, we both agreed, the one I read all those evenings all those years ago. The dust jacket sported an image of the cats’ good friend on its cover that is decidedly less unnerving than the image in Ruskin’s version. (Imagine how troubled he would have been if, instead of having the children who were read this humorous tale (for that, in whatever version you encounter it, it surely is!) slip softly off into delightful dreamland, awoke in the middle of the night with nightmares!
I’ll leave it to you to decide about such crucial matters.
In the meantime, do continue to be well out there until next time.