One of Elizabeth Gaskell’s close friends was fellow writer Mary Howitt (1799-1888). Both she and her husband William were key figures in Elizabeth’s early writing career. She had written to them in 1838 with an account of a visit by her to Clopton House near Stratford-on-Avon, thought to be haunted by the spirit of the doomed Charlotte Clopton, for inclusion in their work, Visits to Remarkable Places (1840). This early piece of writing which Jenny Uglow, her biographer, describes as having, “touches of authentic Gaskell alchemy, bringing history alive through anecdote, humour and atmosphere” – brought her to their attention and to their social circle.
But it is Mary I shall concentrate on for this blog. A small inconspicuous volume by her is in our collection of books in the study – Strive and Thrive (c1840), which turns out to be a lively tale of the feckless Edward Walsingham; his indefatigable, hardworking wife Margaret and their talented creative offspring. I wanted to know more of this accomplished friend and correspondent of Elizabeth, and discovered Mary was a prolific writer. She produced English and American histories; works of fiction for children and adults; a two-volume autobiography, and became a translator of Scandinavian literature. Whilst living in Germany she had learnt Swedish and Danish – Hans Christian Andersen was one of her subjects. She collaborated with her husband on journalism, natural history and poetry – impressive by any standards. Yet it is for one poem she is perhaps best remembered – the cautionary tale of The Spider and the Fly published in 1828.
The opening line is one of the most recognised and oft-quoted in all of English verse –”Will you walk into my parlour?’ said the Spider to the Fly; ‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy.” This seemingly innocent invitation conceals the gruesome fate the cunning and eloquent spider has for the unsuspecting “silly little fly”. By use of flattery, charm and seduction it lures the gullible visitor into its home. It’s a clever, darkly humorous fable which anthromorphises its characters; better to convey the warning to people who may allow themselves to be deceived; taken in; or manipulated by those who flatter, offer false praise and empty promises.
Almost two hundred years on and there are many versions of The Spider and the Fly: it’s been illustrated – in 2003, the American fantasy artist Tony DiTerlizzi was awarded the prestigious children’s literary award – the Caldecott Honor for his adaptation, it’s been set to music and there are several animated versions. The language has been modernised; the poem variously misquoted and even parodied – by Lewis Carroll no less! ‘”Would you walk a little faster”, said a whiting to a snail, “there’s a porpoise close behind us and he’s treading on my tail.”’ – from The Lobster Quadrille from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland mimicking the metre and rhyme scheme of The Spider and the Fly.
Today, Mary Howitt is not a household name – shall we just say that she was a writer of her time but the fundamental message of the poem The Spider and the Fly – to be vigilant and on your guard – is timeless, and it is likely that the poem will be read and spoken and enjoyed for many years to come.
Diana Ashcroft – House volunteer