Curious, If True: Le petit Poucet and Tom Thumb, a case of mistaken identity?

Irene Wiltshire

The Gaskell Society Journal, volume 12, 1998, contains two articles on Curious, If True in Cousin Phillis And Other Tales, Ed. A Easson, World's Classics, Oxford, 1981. By chance I have recently studied this text in preparation for a lecture I gave in Knutsford as part of the Society's Literature and Lunch events. The footnotes on page 361 of CP include a reference to Iona and Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales, 1974.

This book (henceforth CFT) gives interesting and detailed background to the tales and characters represented in Curious, If True. One of the most interesting facts to emerge is the clear distinction between Le petit Poucet and Tom Thumb. Le petit Poucet was translated from Perrault's text into English by Robert Samber appearing as Little Poucet in 1729. The tale became known as Little Thumb in 1764. It was not until the 19th century that it was known as Hop o' My Thumb, a title provided by William Godwin. There is no evidence in CFT to show that Le Petit Poucet ever acquired the title of Tom Thumb. In fact Opie states that Little Poucet's story "is not really analogous to that of the British Tom Thumb."

The tale of Tom Thumb has quite different origins. Opie states that Tom Thumb was first recorded in print in 1621; by a Londoner of the name Richard Johnson. Although Tom Thumb has European counterparts, such as Hop o' My Thumb, the cultural background and adventures of the two characters are quite different. Tom Thumb lived in the age of King Arthur and was conceived after his mother, at that time barren, visited Merlin. His very small size led him into a series of adventures that included being swallowed by a red cow, a raven, an ogre and a fish. When the fish was presented to King Arthur's table Tom Thumb was rescued and became a courtier.

The Little Poucet is the youngest of seven children in a poor woodcutter's family. His greater wisdom compensates for his smallness of size. After the children are abandoned by their parents, he finds a variety of means to save his life and the lives of his brothers. After being threatened and pursued by an ogre, Poucet steals the magic "boots of seven leagues" from the sleeping giant.

In his article in The Journal, Dr Stiles says "Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, Tom Thumb, and Beauty and the Beast are there, to name but a few." On page 18 he goes on to say "So many of the characters in this story are troubled by and unable to escape from the events of their former lives as depicted in the respective fairytales from which they have been taken." Poucet is undoubtedly haunted by events in his former life, he continually touches his throat that was threatened by the ogre and retraces his footsteps as he did when trying to return to the family home in the original tale. But these are the experiences of Poucet and not Tom Thumb.

Dr Kirkland, in her article on page 21 in The Journal, quotes Coral Lansbury who wrote in 1981, referring to Curious, If True, that 'a figure of fairy tale himself, dreams of, or perhaps actually attends, a ball where Blue Beard matches wit with Tom Thumb'. But quoting directly from Curious, If True, Dr Kirkland writes, (page 22 GSJ) "Near her is a tiny fellow, 'the least little man I had ever seen' with an elfin look and much-mended boots whom others call Monsieur Poucet". In her following paragraph, top of page 23 GSJ, Dr Kirkland states that Cinderella, Tom Thumb, and Puss in Boots are the English translations of Cendrillon, Petit Poucet, and Le Chat Botte. In Classic Fairy Tales, however, Poucet is not Tom Thumb and in Gaskell's Curious, If True Tom Thumb is not mentioned by name. In the third paragraph of Dr Kirkland's article, (page 21 GSJ) quoting from Patsy Stoneman (1987), she reminds us that Elizabeth Gaskell was familiar with all the standard fairy tale collections. Would "Mistress Gaskell" herself have been unaware of the distinction between Tom Thumb and Monsieur Poucet? Probably not.

Irene Wiltshire

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