Beyond the Pale

Cautionary Tales in Sepia & Scarlet…
August 8, 2009, 9:48 pm
Filed under: Books, Fairytales, Fripperies, Nursery Rhymes, Victorian Originals

As a child I was simultaneously entranced & horrified by those ‘cautionary tales’ that often take the form of fairytales or nursery rhymes. Of course they are supposed to have shock value – indeed, Marina Warner explains in her wonderful book From the Beast to the Blonde, that such tales were purportedly told to children deliberately to scare, but for practical reasons: don’t go into the woods alone, little one; don’t go off with strangers, be wary of those who offer you seemingly too-good-to-be-true presents you know you don’t deserve… Basically, we can boil these tales down to the following advice: Listen to your mother, she knows what’s best. If you don’t, the *insert monster here* will get you.

The book that stayed with me the most, I think, is Struwwelpeter – written by a German psychiatrist, Heinrich Hoffmann, in 1845. The poems therein, and the particularly gruesome drawings, have a certain quality that made me shiver all those years ago, and still makes me shiver now. One only has to read The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb to get a flavour for the book:

The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb

One day, Mamma said, “Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs.
And ere they dream what he’s about
He takes his great sharp scissors
And cuts their thumbs clean off, – and then
You know, they never grow again.”
Mamma had scarcely turn’d her back,

The thumb was in, alack! alack!

The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legged scissorman.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught our little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast;
That both his thumbs are off at last.
Mamma comes home; there Conrad stands,
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;-
“Ah!” said Mamma “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

The picture of The Tailor, and that of Conrad displaying his bloody stumps, makes quite an impression on the mind, does it not? Of course, there differing ways of reading this ‘tale’ and we might transpose Conrad and his thumb for something else mama does not want Conrad to do – if The Tailor cut off his thumbs, what might he be after next?! – but there are many better books dealing with this subject and we shall leave the experts in the field to thrash it out, I think.

Other favourites of mine from Struwwelpeter- to read again and again and slyly show the pictures to my friends and be delightfully repulsed by each time – were The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches (you might have a pop at guessing the conclusion to that one) and The Story of Augustus [Kaspar in the original, and all other versions than the English translation, for some reason] Who Would Not Have Any Soup. Again, it’s the images, here, that really stuck in my mind and slammed home the moral lessons of the stories: the kittens crying over Pauline’s smoking shoes – all that remains of her in the fire – so much that they put the flames out at last… and Augustus – who’s a really quite unlikable character and we don’t particularly mind dying – but the gradually wasting pictures have a peculiar strength of their own, especially when coupled with the simplicity of the rhymes: “He’s like a little bit of thread / And on the fifth day he was dead.” They seem to have a lip-smacking quality in the telling. Not simply a cautionary finger-wagging, but a satisfaction at seeing the audience delight/cringe at the cruelty.

The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches

Mamma and Nurse went out one day,
And left Pauline alone at play;
Around the room she gayly sprung,
Clapp’d her hands, and danced, and sung.,
Now, on the table close at hand,
A box of matches chanced to stand,
And kind Mamma and Nurse had told her,
That if she touched them they would scold her;
But Pauline said, “Oh, what a pity!
For, when they burn, it is so pretty;
They crackle so, and spit, and flame;
And Mamma often burns the same.
I’ll just light a match or two
As I have often seen my mother do.”

When Minz and Maunz, the little cats, saw this,
They said, “Oh, naughty, naughty Miss!””
And stretched their claws,
And raised their paws;
“Tis very, very wrong, you know;
Me-ow, me-o, me-ow, me-o!
You will be burnt if you do so,
our mother has forbidden you, you know. “

Now see! oh! see, what a dreadful thing
The fire has caught her apron-string;
Her apron burns, her arms, her hair;
She burns all over, everywhere.

Then how the pussy-cats did mew
What else, poor pussies, could they do?
They screamed for help, ’twas all in vain,
I So then, they said, “We’ll scream again.
Make haste, make haste! me-ow! me-o!
She’ll burn to death,- we told her so.”

So she was burnt with all her clothes,
And arms and hands, and eyes and nose;
Till she had nothing more to lose
Except her little scarlet shoes;
And nothing else but these was found
Among her ashes on the ground.

And when then the good cats sat beside
The smoking ashes, how they cried!
“Me-ow me-o! ! Me-ow, me-oo! !
What will Mamma and Nursy do?”
Their tears ran down their cheeks so fast.
They made a little pond at last.

The Story of Augustus who not have any Soup

Augustus was a chubby lad;
Fat ruddy cheeks Augustus had;
And everybody saw with joy
The plump and hearty healthy boy.
He ate and drank as he was told,
And never let his soup get cold.
But one day, one cold winter’s day,
He threw away the spoon and screamed:
“O take the nasty soup away!
I won’t have any soup to-day:
I will not, will not eat my soup!
I will not eat it, no!”

Next day! now look, the picture shows
How lank and lean Augustus grows!
Yet, though he feels so weak and ill,
The naughty fellow cries out stillÑ
“Not any soup for me, I say!
O take the nasty soup away!
I will not, will not eat my soup!
I will not eat it, no!”

The third day comes. O what a sin!
To make himself so pale and thin.
Yet, when the-soup is put on table,
He screams, as loud as he is ableÑ
“Not any soup for me, I say!
O take the nasty soup away!
I won’t have any soup to-day!”

Look at him, now the fourth day’s come!
He scarce outweighs a sugar-plum;

He’s like a little bit of thread;
And on the fifth day he was-dead.

Should you want more of the same, read the English translation of Struwwelpeter online.

The fairytales we are used to, in Europe at least, often involve woods with children wandering alone in them, a choice of paths to take (to heed the grown-up’s advice or to strike out on their own) and various monsters gathering to snap at their ankles along the way or – worse – to beguile with a toothy smile. It is in the spirit of those tales that we present our latest gallery – a veritable feast of temptations around the theme of sepia & scarlet, which we feel manages to evoke the same weirdly entrancing atmosphere of traditional cautionary tales. It has been set out using the Poster Sketch page at Etsy, as our previous features were.

We do hope you enjoy!
Sepia Scarlet

Direct links to items shown:

Copeland’s Photography Studio

Oh My Cavalier!

Trillium Artisans


Miniature Rhino

Jen Gillette [Skirt now sold, but still has some wonderful items to explore!]

Sepia Scarlet2

Further links to items shown:


The Decorated House

The Fetching Hound (usually in stock, but just look at all their other mouth-watering delights – we wish we could import them into the UK!)

Reids Weeds

Larry Nicosia

If you go down to the woods today, be sure to look foxy.

Take heed, little ones.

Yours, as ever,

Miss Nightingale



3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks for showing off Beau Bunny! He has traveled the world, but is still a very humble little guy who always appreciates a mention.

I enjoyed visiting your site very much!
Donna, The Decorated House, Home of Beau Bunny

Comment by The Decorated House

I love your blog. Never would have found it, so glad you sent a link. Take a look at my Baba Yaga, and her story!

Comment by Reidsweeds

I just love them! So deliciously awful 🙂

Comment by kaliwags

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