Not about Jade. (Well, only peripherally.)
The inevitable comments are starting to come out of the British newspapers regarding the Big Brother bullying-and-racism flap. A few of the articles are making puns on Jade’s last name, including a very specific one: Is it too late to be Goody Two-Shoes?, etc. And something about that brought my head up. What’s with these references to the name of the main character in a children’s book two hundred fifty years old… a book in which even the identity of the writer is in doubt, and which (I would be willing to lay down at least a ten-Euro note) almost nobody who uses the phrase has ever read?
It seems lots and lots of English-speaking people know the phrase, even after the source has been almost completely forgotten in (at least) popular culture. What kind of book remains so long alive in the language — if only in title — while no one knows much of anything about it? Why this strange etiolated fame? …I’m as familiar with the phrase as anyone else, but had never given a moment’s thought to the source. After seeing these news stories, though, suddenly I got curious and went hunting.
“Goody Two Shoes” (with or without the hyphen) turns out to be a shortened version of the proper title, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, one of several titles for a work first published in England in 1765. (The title page itself is worth mentioning, as it looks like this — )
T H E
H I S T O R Y
Little GOODY TWO-SHOES;
Mrs. MARGERY TWO-SHOES.
W I T H
The Means by which she acquired her Learning and Wisdom,
and in consequence thereof her Estate;
set forth at large for the Benefit of those,
Who from a State of Rags and Care
And having Shoes but half a Pair;
Their Fortune and their Fame would fix,
And gallop in a Coach and Six.
And you might be forgiven for thinking, Oh no, here comes another ghastly “improving” work of that period… if the author didn’t immediately tip you the wink, giving himself/herself away:
See the Original Manuscript in the Vatican at Rome, and the Cuts by Michael Angelo.
Illustrated with the Comments of our great modern Critics.
I confess to having been suckered in, so I took the half an hour or so required (I was making dumplings at the same time) and read the book online at Gutenberg. It’s not very long. Yes, it is moralistic, yes, sometimes the dated style and phrasing will nearly send you around the bend: but there’s some funny stuff in it…and I can believe that in its time it may have seemed groundbreaking. It turns out to be a rags-to-riches story in which a poor little girl named Margery, made homeless and shortly orphaned by the connivance of a greedy farmer-estate manager and his boss (a thoughtless absentee landlord) manages to make something of herself. She does this — and here she instantly wins my support — by teaching other kids to read. And the book has some other surprises in it, among them possibly the earliest instance of product placement I’ve ever seen (medical preparations referred to in the text have ads at the end…), and some very serious discourse on animal rights, surely not something you’d routinely expect of a work produced in the mid-1700s. Margery has a lively time of it: some scary things happen to her, some amusing things: and at last she comes out on top.
Yes, the author does let you know that Margery’s success is at least partially because she is Good and Behaves Like A Good Girl while those around her are behaving badly. (There is a certain Polyanna quality to her behavior: and there we have yet another character whose name remains famous though most people haven’t read the book — though certainly Disney has intervened on her behalf.) And the author also lets you know that Divine Providence is about, punishing the wicked and rewarding the good. Whatever. I would need to do some research, but there are dangerous signs in this book of someone writing a children’s book that is both (argh) improving, and (dangerous new idea) funny.
The book was much loved by five or six generations, and stayed in print for at least a hundred and twenty-five years or so, being published and republished in many editions on both sides of the Atlantic, ripped off, recast, and otherwise digested by its parent culture. Eventually, as happens, its interest for newer generations started to wane, and it fell out of the public consciousness, except for its title character’s name.
Some people had strong opinions about this growing, general amnesia about what they felt was a good book that deserved to be remembered. Listen here to the great Andrew Lang getting tetchy about the decline of quality children’s literature (he was writing to Coleridge in one of a series of letters to dead writers: there’s another great one here, where he writes to Sir John Mandeville, Kt. But never mind that at the moment). To Coleridge, he says:
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 Newbery’s hardly deigned to reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf, when Mary asked for them. Mrs Barbauld’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 time 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!
Hang them!–I mean the cursed Barbauld crew, those blights and blasts of all that is human in man and child.
The tone of the complaint sounds kind of familiar… You can take a look at a little of “Mrs. Barbauld’s stuff” over here and see why Lang was getting so riled. It looks to me like an early form of the Dick-and-Jane form of early-reader material, now with Extra Added Didacticism and Mommy holding your hand real tight. Yes, she too was groundbreaking in her way and her time — see this longish article setting out reasons why — but her stuff still sets my teeth far further on edge than Two-Shoes does.)
Anyway. The question I’m left with is: when did “Goody Two Shoes” turn into a pejorative? What happened? Are we just seeing an accretion of scorn, decades thick, for a discarded nursery book whose prose style has fallen out of fashion, and a heroine seen (in modern or pre-modern times) as literally too good to be true?
But also…this whole business makes me look ahead several centuries and wonder if there will come a time when somebody might be referred to as “such a Harry Potter…” …and almost no one will have read the book, or have any idea why the phrase means what it does — or realize that what it’s come to mean may have nothing to do with the genuine trials or triumphs on paper and film of one young wizard. Two hundred fifty years is a long time: even print, eventually, becomes ephemera. Very few are the books still read even a century after they’re published: how many people now know even the names of the superstar writers, let alone the superstar children’s writers, of 1900? Yes, we have the mass media now, and many more ways to disseminate fame. But sometimes I wonder whether that will make the written word more likely to be forgotten, rather than less.
…Who knows. I’m going to go have some of that soup with the dumplings in it.