History 101: will the real mother goose please stand up

History 101 is an original, regular feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby that combines my two passions: history and reading. Each post I’ll discuss a historical figure or event and then pair it with a book. Interested in previous History 101 posts? Check out its page!

Everyone is familiar with Mother Goose and her nursery rhymes. However, beyond Humpty Dumpty, little is known about this woman. Was she even a real person? If so, who was she?

Let’s start at the beginning. In the late 1690s, a book was published in France entitled Contes de ma mère l’Oye (Tales of my Mother Goose). It wasn’t until 1729 that an English translation was printed, first in London and then in America in the late 1780s. Finally, in 1791, John Newbery (yes, that Newbery) published a collection of tales entitled Mother Goose’s Melody and she’s be a household name ever since.

Surprisingly enough, there are only two theories as to Mother Goose’s real identity. The first is Bertrada of Laon, an ancient queen (and mother of Charlemagne) who had the unfortunate nickname Goose-Foot Bertha.

The second – and far more widely accepted – theory is that the real Mother Goose was a Bostonian named Elizabeth Foster Goose. When she was 27 (in 1692), she married the widowed Issac Goose and brought to the marriage her six children to his 10. With sixteen children – and later, numerous grandchildren – Elizabeth kept everyone entertained by telling stories and singing songs. One of the couple’s daughters married a printer and in the early 1700s he published a collection of Mother Goose’s rhymes. There’s a gravestone in Boston that has become something of a tourist attraction, but whether or not Mrs. Goose was the real Mother Goose is still unknown.

I’ve mentioned these books once before (in a rather short-lived feature that I’m hoping to revive someday!). Jasper Fforde – if you aren’t reading him, you should probably fix that – has a series called Nursery Crimes and they’re wonderful. If you’re familiar with Fforde, you already know what to expect. If you’re new to him, well..expect a lot or quirk. He’s a little out there, but once you get used to his writing, you won’t be able to put him down.

The Nursery Crimes series takes a beloved classic and turns it on his head. The Gingerbreadman is actually a psychopathic killer. Humpty Dumpty has hit rock bottom – literally (spoiler?) – as well as the bottom of the bottle. Inspector Jack Spratt, head of the Nursery Crimes Division, and his partner Mary Mary tackle odd and ridiculous cases in these books and it’s awesome. There’s a third book coming out (not until 2014 UGH!) and I can’t wait!

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