“‘Goody Two Shoes’ is almost out of print. Mrs. Barbauld’s stuff has banished all the old classics of the nursery; and the shopman at Newberry’s hardly deigned to reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf, when Mary asked for them. Mrs. B.’s and Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense lay in piles about. Knowledge insignificant and vapid as Mrs. Barbauld’s books convey, it seems, must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, and his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers when he has learnt, that a horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a horse, and such like; instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales, which made the child a man, while all the while he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men. Is there no possibility of averting this sore evil? Think what you would have been now, if, instead of being fed with tales and old wives’ fables in childhood, you had been crammed with geography and natural history!”
Hence when the time came Lamb was all ready with a nursery method of his own.
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Page 1. TALES FROM SHAKESPEAR.
Mary Lamb was asked to write the Tales from Shakespear, with help from her brother, in the spring of 1806 or the winter of 1805. I have seen the statement that this was at the instigation of Hazlitt, but Lamb does not say so. The first mention of the work is in Lamb’s letter to Manning, May 10, 1806:—
“She [Mary] says you saw her writings about the other day, and she wishes you should know what they are. She is doing for Godwin’s bookseller twenty of Shakspeare’s plays, to be made into children’s tales. Six are already done by her, to wit, ‘The Tempest,’ ’Winter’s Tale,’ ‘Midsummer Night,’ ‘Much Ado,’ ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ and ‘Cymbeline’; and the ‘Merchant of Venice’ is in forwardness. I have done ‘Othello’ and ‘Macbeth,’ and mean to do all the tragedies. I think it will be popular among the little people, besides money. It’s to bring in sixty guineas. Mary has done them capitally, I think, you’d think. These are the humble amusements we propose, while you are gone to plant the cross of Christ among barbarous pagan anthropophagi. Quam homo homini praestat! but then, perhaps, you’ll get murdered, and we shall die in our beds with a fair literary reputation.”
Mary Lamb’s letters to Sarah Stoddart (afterwards Sarah Hazlitt), continue the story. This is on June 2, 1806:—
My Tales are to be published in separate story-books; I mean, in single stories, like the children’s little shilling books. I cannot send you them in Manuscript, because they are all in the Godwins’ hands; but one will be published very soon, and then you shall have it all in print. I go on very well, and have no doubt but I shall always be able to hit upon some such kind of job to keep going on. I think I shall get fifty pounds a year at the lowest calculation; but as I have not yet seen any money of my own earning, for we do not expect to be paid till Christmas, I do not feel the good fortune, that has so unexpectedly befallen me, half so much as I ought to do. But another year, no doubt, I shall perceive it.