A rhyme in a pocket
A cinnamon curl
A secret uncovered
A Mother Goose Girl!
This rhyming prophecy from a fortune-teller in a pointy hat, sets my protagonist Pixie Piper on a quest to find out the truth about her own personal ties to the heritage of Mother Goose. It’s a new take on an old tale; something many other authors have examined. Was Mother Goose French, English, American, or does she go back to ancient Ethiopia? Were her rhymes snippets of lullabies, long lost magical chants, or cleverly disguised political satires?
In The Secret Destiny of Pixie Piper, the descendants of Mother Goose, known as the Goose Ladies, are still with us today. When Aunt Doris arrives to recruit Pixie, the fifth grader is resistant, until she learns their mission involves using their rhyming powers to bake wish-granting cakes. Pixie’s a whiz at rhyming, but to become an apprentice, a goose girl must be also be braver than brave and truer than true. To join the family ‘business’, Pixie will have to prove herself.
But before I sent Pixie’s version of history out into the world, I felt I owed it to her and to my readers to find some truths. I wanted to research the legacy of the woman sometimes called the ‘Mother of All Rhymes’. Who was she or who was she based upon? How did her rhymes become part of the DNA of so many of us? I know many adults who can easily recite such gems as Humpty Dumpty or Jack and Jill. But their author and her intentions are lost in the mists of history and fantasy.
It’s likely that Mother Goose was a sort of everywoman, representing beleaguered, but imaginative women down through the ages who spent time caring for their young. Who among us hasn’t changed the words to an old song or made up a silly rhyme to entertain a child? (Note to fathers: I recognize that you might have done this too.) But where or with whom did the legend originate?
One of the first and most interesting sources I found was an article by Joel Benton in The New York Times’s Saturday Review, dated February 4, 1899. Mr. Benton’s objective was to refute the claim that the real Mother Goose was Elizabeth Foster Goose from Boston, whose son-in-law, a printer named Thomas Fleet, “being needy and shrewd thought to turn a penny by noting down the grandmother’s nursery songs and issuing them to the public.” Mrs. Goose is said to have died in 1757 at the age of ninety-two. But Benton’s article points out that no one has been able to find a copy of Fleet’s book, supposedly published in 1719. And even if it had been recovered, Mother Goose’s name and literature was known centuries before that time. Even so, there is a tombstone in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston that is promoted as the burial place of Mother Goose, although instead of Elizabeth Goose, it is Ann, first wife of Fleet’s father-in-law, who is actually buried there.
In his Times article, Mr.Benton also quotes an earlier writer-editor, W. H. Whitmore, who wrote notes for Mother Goose’s Melody, issued in 1760 by the London publisher, John Newbury. But that doesn’t mean that Mother Goose was English, either. As Mr. Whitmore observes, Mother Goose may be connected with the legend of eighth century Queen Bertha or Queen Goosefoot (Reine Pedance), the possibly big-footed mother of King Charlemagne of France. But the only known mention of Queen Bertha didn’t occur until 1650 in a publication titled, La Muse Historique by Jean Loret, which contained the phrase, “like a Mother Goose story.” So there’s no definite proof that Mother Goose was French.
And that’s not all! In The Annotated Mother Goose, published in 1962, authors William S. Baring Gould and Ceil Baring-Gould, include more prime and not-so-prime suspects, including, yes, the Queen of Sheba!
Frustrating? Pretty much. If I couldn’t pin Mother Goose’s rhymes on a single person, being true to her legacy seemed even more of a challenge. The Baring-Goulds attribute many purposes to Mother Goose’s rhymes – to accompany children’s games; to teach letters, numbers and proverbs; as lullabies, love songs, drinking songs; and just-for-fun riddles and tongue twisters. But the authors also acknowledge –somewhat reluctantly – the viewpoint of Katherine Elwes Thomas, author of The Real Personages of Mother Goose, published in 1930. According to Ms. Thomas, “These political satires, written with a merciless keenness of scintillating thrust and bloodletting, in the directness of their lunge at the heart of people and events, embody through many notable reigns the vices and foibles of humanity upon the throne and about the court of England.”
Wow! I imagined all of the Mother Gooses rolling in their graves.
Thank goodness for the great Mother Goose scholar, Iona Opie, who in her book, Mother Goose’s Little Treasures (published in 2007) refers to herself as “Mother Goose’s self-appointed treasurer.” About the rhymes in that particular collection, Ms. Opie says they are “mysterious fragments from our shared memory: long-ago laughter of little meaning and echoes of ancient spells….These rhymes are a confirmation that though we must live in the real world, we need to know the way to another world where there are no limits and nothing is certain.”
I much prefer the world Iona Opie envisions. And that is the world in which I decided to set my story. Doing the research didn’t provide me with answers to my questions about the who or why of Mother Goose, but it gave me something more important –it freed me to create a Mother Goose legacy of my own.
What does your Mother Goose legacy include?
The Secret Destiny of Pixie Piper
by Annabelle Fisher
An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Annabelle Fisher is the author of The Secret Destiny of Pixie Piper, which reviewers have called, “entertaining,” “fresh,” “creative,” and “pretty darn charming.” She’s taught courses in writing middle grade and young adult literature in the Graduate Creative Writing Department of Manhattanville College, as well as writing workshops for kids, teens, and adults. She lives in Westchester County, New York, not too far from where the Headless Horseman roams at night.