Reading the Collections, Week 32: The English Struwwelpeter
Einstein said that “if you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales”. To this I would add, if you really want your children to stop sucking their thumbs, to the point where they may never sleep again, read them ‘Little Suck-A-Thumb’ from The English Struwwelpeter. If you want to impress upon them that playing with fire is a bad thing (and I think that we can all agree that it is), tell them ‘The Dreadful Story About Harriet and the Matches’. It might be very effective, if you can afford the therapy afterwards.
Didacticism is an inherent part of children’s literature; the cautionary tale dates back as far as Aesop and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. People have always written books for children in order to teach them something, or to impart a particular world view. Struwwelpeter is no exception to this. It comprises ten stories, rhymed and illustrated, the majority of which involve a small child meeting a terrible, avoidable end. It was created by a German psychiatrist, Dr Heinrich Hoffmann, as a Christmas present for his three year old son, after he decided that commercially available children’s books were unsuitable and too moralistic. After he was persuaded to publish, it became one of the most successful and influential children’s books ever written.
The edition which sits in the Library’s children’s literature collection is the third printed in English, entitled The English Struwwelpeter or Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures for Little Children. It has a soft cover and the illustrations are hand coloured woodcuts of Hoffmann’s early drawings, updated in later editions, most notably, to include the better-known ‘straw haired’ version of the title character.
There is something quite astonishing about the fact that a flimsy, soft covered children’s book could survive for 165 years. This edition of The English Struwwelpeter was published in the same year that Robert Louis Stevenson was born.
It is a book designed to appeal, rather than simply to instruct. The illustrations are attractive, sometimes funny, sometimes dark and funny and sometimes simply dark. Maurice Sendak called it “graphically… one of the most beautiful books in the world”. It is written in rhyme (the English translation is much admired, although the identity of the translator is uncertain). It is a self-referential Christmas present
“Naughty, romping girls and boys / Tear their clothes and make a noise… Such as these shall never look / At this pretty Picture-Book”.
The fact that the child has this book in his or her possession means that they have already been judged favourably, for the moment, at least.
According to Hoffmann’s pictures, ‘good’ children – “Good at meal-times, good at play / Good all night, and good all day” are rewarded with toy soldiers, cutlasses, whips and bayoneted rifles as well as sweets and pretzels. As two of the stories depict injury due to whips (Cruel Frederick – he gets bitten by a dog) and guns (‘The story of the Man That Went Out Shooting’ – a little hare has his nose burned), this seems a little strange. If the message is that weapons can safely be given to those who follow orders, it seems a little terrifying.
Also terrifying is ‘The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb’, a Freudian nightmare, written eight years before Freud was born. It is, essentially, a story about a cautionary tale which comes true. Mamma leaves Conrad at home, alone, warning him not to suck his thumb in case the ‘great, tall tailor’ comes to cut it off. Conrad doesn’t take her seriously, which leads to an extremely scissory-looking scissor man coming to cut his thumbs off. “Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come / To naughty little Suck-A-Thumb”.
The most disturbing part of this story is the blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, the nightmare brought to life, and the fact that the ultimate moral of the story is that your mother won’t save you. If anything, it is an incentive to thumb-sucking. Freud must have been delighted with it.
Do people read this to their children now? A modern edition has an average of four and a half stars on Amazon, although the reviews range from “This is a classic that unites the generations in my family” to “if somebody gave my son a copy of this I would incinerate it”. For me, the only really toxic tale is ‘The Story of the Inky Boys’, not because the message is bad – that you shouldn’t tease people, that you should have compassion – but that the dark skinned boy is so successfully othered, the reader becomes complicit in its well-meaning, but ultimately racist and exclusionist, message. It is an intriguing historical artefact, certainly, but I wouldn’t read it to a small child.
Der Struwwelpeter and The English Struwwelpeter, were hugely popular and influential. Although more obscure now, the stories formed a part of millions of childhoods. It was parodied during WWII and was the inspiration for a song by XTC . Today, there is a Struwwelpeter Museum in Frankfurt, where you can hold what sound like wonderful children’s parties, where your 5-10 year olds can dress up as Paulinchen (the German Harriet, who burned to death).
This is a beautiful copy of an extremely important and historically significant children’s book, and more than worthy of its place in the University’s collection. Being kept away from small children has, ensured its survival and this may be the best thing all round. If only Harriet’s mother had considered a similar plan for her matches.
Library Acquisitions Team