* Prices may differ from that shown
I have always been fascinated by the origins of nursery rhymes and this book provides a glimpse into their deeper meanings, which are often dark and sinister.
The book lists over 80 nursery rhymes, presenting them in alphabetical order, so it is easy to go straight to whatever rhyme you are interested in. I think it is the kind of book that most people would pick up and dip into now and again (a typical bedside book, or one to keep by the loo!), rather than read it from start to finish. I did attempt to read it from the start, but I found it rather repetitive and wondered if it would have been more readable if the author had grouped the rhymes by theme, e.g. rhymes originating from the dissolution of the monasteries, rhymes about royal intrigue, etc. As it was, I found the rhyme-by-rhyme approach a bit tedious, particularly as the author didn't have much to say about certain rhymes and I couldn't see much point in their inclusion. At times I found myself sighing and thinking, "not another one about Mary Tudor."
In spite of my criticisms about the organisation of the information, the book provided me with some interesting bits of nursery rhyme trivia, which is worth knowing just for the hell of it really. Perhaps the most fascinating part for me was the author's comments on the purpose these rhymes served. We are told that nursery rhymes were a kind of propaganda, a means of circulating information by word of mouth (crucial at a time when few ordinary people could read and write). For example, if you thought that Humpty Dumpy was just a humble egg, you might be surprised to read that this rhyme relates to events of the English Civil War. There is quite a dramatic explanation as to why poor Humpty couldn't be put back together again, which I will allow you to discover for yourselves. (Incidentally, the idea that Humpty Dumpty was an egg came much later, in Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1871).
It is clear from the book that many nursery rhymes are about historical events and political upheaval. There are rhymes about religious persecution, prostitution, royal scandal, child labour and even torture methods. I won't spoil it by telling you which rhymes relate to which theme, however I don't think it will take you long to guess which rhyme was about a 16th century spider expert! There were a few that really surprised me. For instance, the innocent-sounding Higgledy Piggledy My Black Hen and Rub-a-Dub-Dub, which have somewhat salacious origins.
Before each interpretation, the author provides the text of the rhyme in full, which is helpful as some of the rhymes have extra verses I had forgotten about or was unaware of and there are some rhymes that I didn't know at all.
The author's interpretations of the rhymes are somewhat hit and miss, in my opinion. Often he reaches no definite conclusion, leaving the reader none the wiser. For instance, in the case of Jack and Jill he presents three possible explanations. Were Jack and Jill meant to be Louis XVI of France and his Queen, Marie Antoinette? Or were they a young, courting couple in a 17th century Somerset village? Or is the rhyme about taxation of alcohol in the reign of King Charles I? Without more conclusive data to back up each theory, we will probably never know.
I was interested to read that, contrary to popular belief, the author believes that Ring-a-Ring o Roses may not actually be about the plague. He points out that no contemporary record of the rhyme exists from the plague period. As this rhyme's plague origins were something I had believed all my life without questioning, it was intriguing to read something that sheds doubt on the traditional explanation. However, once again the author fails to provide any satisfactory alternative explanation, which was quite frustrating for me.
At times the author's interpretations of certain rhymes told me nothing I didn't already know or could have guessed at. For instance, what do you think Hot Cross Buns might be about? The sale of hot cross buns, perhaps? You would be right. The author waffles on about the history of the hot cross bun for several paragraphs, which is interesting enough, but doesn't tell me anything new about the rhyme. Similarly, although he agrees it is highly likely that London's Burning is about the Great Fire of London, he feels the need to tell us that London suffered many other fires over the years, including when Boadicea chased the Romans out. Somehow I can't believe "fetch the engines, fetch the engines" could relate to events in AD 61! So, interesting though this historical detail may be, it doesn't take me any further in establishing the origins of the rhyme and feels a bit like padding.
The book also includes a section on well-known songs, from Christmas carols to national anthems. This seemed a strange addition to a book that was supposed to be about nursery rhymes, but again it contained some interesting snippets, such as how The Star Spangled Banner started out as a London drinking song and exposing some of the ironies surrounding 'Jerusalem', a song associated with English patriotism.
In conclusion, this is an interesting book, written in a chatty, down to earth style but if you're looking for more than mere speculation and conclusions backed up by research, you'll be a bit disappointed, as I was. Having said that, I appreciate it may be difficult, even impossible, to ascertain beyond any doubt what all these rhymes are about. However, if, like me, you enjoy historical trivia and have a quirky fondness for these strange ditties, this will make a welcome addition to your book collection.