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RetroWacktive: “Mary’s Wish” (1852)

March 9, 2011

Here’s the Victorian period you know and love: rakish gents in waistcoats pursue prim, shapely virgins in hoopskirts, weekend guests pair up with servants in humorous candlelit trysts, everyone exchanges meaningful looks over breakfast the next morning, and Helena Bonham Carter gets nominated for an Academy Award. If half the costume flicks on PBS are to be believed, the entire nineteenth century was one big freaking spring break, only with cholera and no black people.

Yes, it’s true: the Victorians loved to party like it was 1899, and even developed some killer apps. But other aspects of the period are a bit … odder. This was the era, after all, that almost immediately followed the invention of photography with the invention of post-mortem photography, a notion that has many a sullen art major in black nail polish pining for the good old days. And how about a culture that idolized and romanticized childhood to a degree that would put any modern helicopter mom to shame, yet sustained itself on crumpets, coal, and child labor?

Death and children were, clearly, among the favorite obsessions of the age. So what could be better than to combine the two? This very thing seems to have occurred to “Cousin Cicely” when she published The Green Satchel: A Collection of Pieces in Prose and Rhyme in 1852. This slim volume is more or less typical for children’s books of the eraa collection of stories whose colorful candy coating of fun and games quickly dissolves to reveal the bitter Brussels sprout of stilted Sunday-school moralizing. Take, for example, this gritty dialogue from the shocking, climactic fight scene in “The Long Hill”:

“Look here, Peter Wagner, you must give that little fellow back his sled!”
“I should like to know who is to make me?” said Peter.
“I’ll tell you then,” said Clarence. “I am to make you, if you don’t do it quickly….”

And then there’s a bloody nose and the boys’ guardian angels go at it and pretty soon there are seraphim all over the place brawling and dishing out noogies and Dutch rubs as Satan sits astride his sparkly unicorn and laughs evilly at the whole scene while the kids go home to dinner. But the real gem among the stories—even besting the white-knuckle tension of “Poor Jeannie’s Pet” and “My First School-Mistress”is the shortest, “Mary’s Wish.” Weighing in at just four sentences, it delivers fantasy, adventure, tragedy, and nihilism in a package so compact and staightforward that it makes Hemingway sound like a windbag. And now, in its entirety, for the first time anywhere on the web: “Mary’s Wish.”

When Mary was a little girl, she was always wishing that she could go to England. Every day she would say, “Oh, I wish a little breeze would come and blow me over to England, and when I had seen all I wanted to, another little breeze would come and blow me back home again.” Poor Mary! When she was still quite young, she married a British officer, and the breeze blew her over to England, but it never blew her back again, for she died, and was buried there.

What I learned from this story:

1. Going to England may kill you.
2. Marrying young may kill you.
3. Marrying a Brit may kill you.
4. Breezes are completely undependable and should never be trusted.
5. Wishing is for suckers.
6. If you prefer cremation to burial, be sure to state this explicitly in your will. Especially in England.

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