May 17, 2014

A Writer Worth Knowing: Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, By Marcia Sherman


"Brownie," by Dorothy Todd

Recently, I came across a reference to the story “Brownie and the Cook," by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik. It was described as being about a hobia – a little fellow similar to a brownie or perhaps a pixie. Not quite twelve inches tall, they may live in the darkest parts of basements or attics and cause household mischief. Occasionally they are helpful to children, but I see them as having the name "Not Me," as in who did this? Not Me! Creaks and knocks in old homes are attributed to these creatures. Further reading uncovered the story to be from a book called “Adventures of a Brownie."

Having never heard of Dinah Craik, I was intrigued to find her an author of renown in Great Britain during the mid-1800’s. Her back story in brief: father was a self-absorbed "minister" who abandoned the children after his wife died. Craik was nineteen at the time and raised her two younger brothers in what is politely described as austere circumstances. She kept the family afloat with her writing. At twenty-one she came into a small trust left by her mother and was able to devote more time to her craft. Craik’s works are varied and many. She wrote in almost every genre: poems, stories, novels, and essays.

Although she had yet to become a mother (in fact, she had yet to be married and may have already consigned herself a life of the single unmarried woman), she enjoyed the company of the children of relatives and friends and wrote for them. In 1852 she published “Alice Learmont," the tale of a girl spirited away at birth to be raised in the fairie realm. She returns to the human world several times and eventually becomes, and remains, completely human by the power of her mother’s love for her and that love returned. In this narrative, the fae are not delightful tiny winged creatures who sprinkle glittery dust and enable flight. They are the size of young children; uncaring, selfish, and totally devoted to their own pleasures. One disturbing action by these fae is a sacrifice to the devil every seven years in order to remain in this pleasurable domain. Alice learns she has been kept and raised for just such a purpose and manages to free herself in time. This is not a short story, rather a novelette.

Based on the success of “Alice Learmont,"  her publisher Alexander Macmillan (founder of THE Macmillan Publishers, Ltd.), asked her to gather and edit fairy and folk tales from the German, French, and other cultures. The request came with the edict to cull the very best. This resulted in “The Fairy Book” published in 1863. Craik declined to include what she considered the more "modern" tales such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears," and those by Hans Christian Andersen. She also did not "clean" them up for the tender minds of children. Puss in Boots is a wily con, the giant in "Jack and the Beanstalk" is outwitted but not redeemed, and the huntsman in "Little Snow Drop" ("Snow White") is told to bring back the lungs and liver of the princess. Any changes Craik did make simply clarified details and eased transition.

Always unconventional, Dinah Craik married rather late in life, and her husband was ten years her junior. They adopted a foundling girl and lived happy and healthy and apparently somewhat wealthy. Craik’s independent and forthright nature enabled her to enter into contracts with her publisher which guaranteed royalties. Sadly, she died just before her daughter was to be married. She never saw her grandchildren, but left her books in which they could get to know her.

Read more about Dinah Craik at www.victorianweb.org; and find her works at Amazon and half.com.

Marcia A. Sherman resides in southern New Jersey. She works magic with words, candles, and the occasional meal--when not busy attending to the demands of cats Stars and Shadow.

2 comments

  1. Definitely a writer worth knowing!

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  2. This post just unleashed a flood of memories. I believe that my great aunt read to me from Craik's work many years ago. She was born in 1895 but always had one foot in the 19th century. I know that the image of the tiny little guy is ringing several bells in my head:) I need to dig into this some more.

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