In the spirit of Christmas, Dr Karen Attar explores Senate House Library’s collection of seasonal books and finds a 19th-century twist on the traditional fairy tale that wasn’t to everyone’s liking.

Christmastime, Christmas presents, possibly Christmas books. Think books, and Charles Dickens may well be the first name to spring to mind, for his Christmas stories in general and A Christmas Carol (1843) in particular.

Senate House Library is fortunate to hold several editions of A Christmas Carol from 1843 and the years immediately following, by several publishers and, within the edition published by Chapman and Hall, with several variants. Holdings include facsimiles of the manuscript, several modern editions, a miniature copy just 52 millimetres tall, a private press edition, an edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham, and dramatic adaptations.

Dickens’s tale was an early and salient example within a flourishing genre. Three years later, the brothers Augustus and Henry Mayhew – who shared Dickens’s popularity and his combination of humour with social criticism — wrote The Good Genius that Turned Everything into Gold, or, The Queen Bee and the Magic Dress: A Christmas Fairy Tale. In the first of several collaborations between authors, publisher and artist, the publisher was David Bogue, who had a line in children’s books, the illustrator, the famous George Cruikshank.


Cruikshank matched his work to the tale. Measuring 16.5 by 10.5 centimetres, The Good Genius is a small book, well suited to children’s hands. Stamped in gilt on the green-ribbed cloth is a large-winged fairy with a magic wand, and an impossibly tiny waist, matching Mayhews’ description of a bee that seemed to melt ‘into a tiny winged human figure, with a waist as small as a silkworm’s egg, and a fullness about the hind-breadths of her skirt, as if the little being was indebted for the elegance of her tournure to the aid of some thistledown “crinoline”’ (p. 5).

What makes the tale a Christmas one, is the publication date and targeted market, not the content, as is apparent from an advertisement at the back for a uniform title to be published at Easter, ‘A New Fairy Tale Illustrative of the Magic of Kindness’. The Good Genius that Turned Everything into Gold tells the story of a poor forester called Silvio. Traditional fairy-tale phraseology quickly moves into modern colloquial language to introduce him:

Once upon a time, a young Woodman sat on the trunk of a tree that he had just felled. He’d had a tough day’s work of it, no doubt; but still the heart of such a forest, at such an hour, wasn’t exactly the place or a time for a body to take his rest in. Yet there the young Woodman sat, as if he had got all the afternoon before him … (p. 1-2).

Silvio has just lost his home and all his possessions in a flood. He finds a honeycomb and is about to take honey from it, but refrains, on the basis that “he is just a human bee, and since he has had his hive and little hoard of honey taken from him, why should be make the poor things as houseless and as destitute as himself?” The queen bee, touched by his restraint, offers him whatever he desires throughout his life as a reward.

He begins modestly, merely wanting his home back, to the scepticism of his benefactress, who queries whether he does not want some gold too. As she predicts, Silvio grows increasingly ambitious throughout the tale, ultimately wanting wealth, the hand of a princess in marriage, and a kingdom. She grants them all. He loses the kingdom through idleness and regains it, a better man.

The moral is the importance of industry as a principle of life. The book ends with the writers’ declared intention to follow it up with “others of a similar character, designed to exemplify the Magic of the different Virtues; which magic will be made … in the shortening of the time ordinarily required for the working out of the results; and so … to give a fairy character to that which is of everyday occurrence” (pp. 193-4).

Moralising occurs frequently, as when the fairy deplores the uselessness of tears, or tells Silvio a fable to emphasise that gold is ‘the best of servants, and the worst of masters’ (p. 30). The tale is unmistakably modern in its vigorous, practical language and its portrayal of society, as in the following examples:

“Come, come!” continued the merry little Bee, “I’m no wicked elf! You’re mistaken in the character, I can assure you. But you distrust me, because we haven’t been formally introduced. Nevertheless, my intentions are perfectly honourable, believe me, and you’ll find that I belong to a most respectable little family of fairies, when you know me better.” (p. 6)

“Tut! Tut!” proudly answered the monarch; “what can you, a Bee, do for me, a King?”

“Well!” replied the Fairy, nettled at the haughty air of his majesty, “you Kings are not in the habit of doing much – so there! Though I dare say you would make out that you’re a dreadfully over-worked and under-paid gentleman.” The monarch begged the Bee would remember to whom she was speaking, and pay proper respect to the institutions of his country. (p. 61)

Not everybody appreciated the twisting of fairy tales in this way. William Makepeace Thackeray, writing ‘A Grumble about the Christmas-Books’ in Fraser’s Magazine (January 1847), devoted seven columns to the story, complaining about its mixture of aims and calling it: ‘a work of prodigious benevolence, stupendous moralisation, frequent wisdom, and rather a clumsy and doubtful fancy and humour’.

He regarded it as having been written ‘often with so much brilliancy, and frequently with such dullness … so wise at times, and so unsatisfactory in the main’. His main criticism was that it was an unsatisfactory sermon masquerading as a fairy story, with ‘a prodigious deal of political ethics’, to which he reacted with anathema: ‘If any fairy presumes to talk such nonsense to me, I will do my best from my place in the pit to hiss him off the stage’.

This copy of the book is from the library of the psychical researcher Harry Price (1881– 1948). It bears the hallmarks of being a childhood relic, although it also fits the tenor of Price’s collection of magical literature as being to rationalise magic in all forms. An inscription by Augustus Mayhew dated 22 December 1846, to the Reverend Henry Cole (truly a clerical friend, or the civil servant, journalist, and inventor of the Christmas card?) as “a small token of his affection and esteem” enhances the volume.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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