The Victorian Classic: Nameless Old Lady Hag Thief

Newell, Peter, illustrator. Favorite Fairy Tales: The Childhood Choice of Representative Men and Women. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907.

Newell, Peter, illustrator. Favorite Fairy Tales: The Childhood Choice of Representative Men and Women. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907.

Theme: Goldilocks & the Three Bears

***

by Kat

When British writer and poet Robert Southey put quill to ink in the 1830s to record a long-orated English nursery tale, there was no Goldilocks (nor were there bears in England, but we’ll skirt that detail for now). Efficiently titled, The Story of the Three Bears, his chosen pro/ antagonist was a dirty, old, nameless woman.

It wasn’t until meddling Joseph Cundall came along in 1849 that the middle-sized Bear was given a bit of a sex change and the old hag was replaced by an adorable blonde criminal. Ah, those crazy Victorians. As for the child, according to Cundall, there were just *yawn* too many aging women characters, ushering in an era in which roles intended for older women are unjustifiably awarded to their younger counterparts.

 

Let us revisit this classic tale.

We open on three species-atypical male Bears, who have mysteriously acquired a quaint woodland cottage in the non-specified countryside, per fairytale real estate requirements. While their backstory remains in the shadow of our collective imagination, the narrator begins this tale with an account of sophisticated Bear country-living. This includes smoking, of course; an activity fashionable two years after Philip Morris opens shop in London and not yet sullied by the likes of the British Medical Journal.

These tobacco-buzzed Bears are obsessed with collecting housewares in sets of three, with porridge bowls, chairs and beds sized apropos per Bear. At this point we are certain they are male Bears, as female Bears would be forced to deal with the inconsistent availability of their size.

One morning, to the dismay of all Bears, the breakfast porridge is too hot (unbearably hot, one might pun during the final edit). The offending Bear is unnamed, clearly an oversight and missed dramatic opportunity. The Bears take leave to let the porridge cool, instead of fighting or killing and eating each other.

Capping one extraordinary circumstance with another, some old broad wonders in to the house once its tenants have departed. She appears to lack motive, though the narrator speculates, “For hold of all she could to snatch/ No doubt was her intent.” Of course, we all buy into the idea that this woman is capitalizing on a rarely sought out, but highly profitable, opportunity to steal from woodland creatures; although my bet is that she has one hell of a backstory.

Our London-based narrator points out that the Bears left the “door undone” as they “suspected harm from none”. These are, let’s remember, Bears living in the middle of nowhere in 1837. The reader is, rather, more surprised to find a lack of bones littering the floor of the Bear household. This is explored in yet another unwritten tale titled, The Bear Trap.

Nonetheless, our cavalier Old Lady Hag Thief holds low expectations combined with a great hunger, and thus delights in the discovery of inconsistently temperate porridge. (Porridge, meanwhile, is experiencing a culinary heyday as Charles Dickens simultaneously publishes Oliver Twist.) Here we are expected to sympathize with the incongruously hospitable Bears, who would have, so we are told, insisted on entertaining their guest for brunch had she possessed any manors and waited for their return. Unaware of these pleasantries, our Lady samples their breakfast, the sassy old bat; cursing at each displeasing instance.

The first bowl of porridge is still too hot. Our Thief then discovers middle Bear’s bowl of porridge is cold – which comes as little surprise to readers familiar with the thermal properties of food. This journey of logic mystically turns as we are informed that the smallest bowl is inexplicably the right temperature, flying in the face of heat displacement theories. Driven by unsatiated hunger and skirting reason, our protagonist swears at the now empty bowl, angrily forfeiting an opportunity to revisit the first bowl, now likely edible.

Standing around and eating are hard work, so Old Lady Hag Thief decides to rest in a chair, the content of which she is unsuitably picky, given her state of affairs. The first two options prove insufficient, so she favors the smallest Bear’s seat. Promptly breaking the chair by falling through it, she swears like a sailor, gives up and decides to nap.

Working her way through the sleep section of Fairytale Bed, Bath and Beyond, Old Lady Hag Thief complains first about the very tall bed. Middle Bear employs a crazy Sleep Number bed situation with elevated legs, which also doesn’t work. Only upon the smallest of beds does she procure a grand sleep.

Meanwhile, now fashionably jacketed, the three Bears re-enter the house and begin making declarative statements in the style of Yoda. The narrator notes here the fortunate make of the spoons – wooden – otherwise likely stolen because everyone knows old ladies love collecting silver spoons on holiday.

After taking inventory, the Bears, sufficiently clued in to the great breakfast thievery of 1837, do a full recon of their cottage, noting dents in their seat cushions and the destruction of small Bear’s chair. Concluding a full search of downstairs, the narration replays the surprised litany of offenses committed in the bedroom, which sounds far naughtier than the text describes.

This occurs all while Old Lady Hag Thief remains in bed, totally oblivious to the Bear voices, which apparently project fluent English. With an offensively high timbre, the smallest Bear succeeds in awakening the old woman.

At this point, Old Lady Hag Thief both strides and hops to an open window (which, sidebar: the Bears open each morning after they, uh, shave), she leaps out and…

CLIFFHANGER!

In equal measure she might have: died; or been fine, fled and got lost; or found her way out; or been taken to jail. In short, she was gone forever, and we’ll never know her fate. HOW SATISFYING is that?! Omnipresence be damned!

What have we learned, kiddos?

  1. Never leave food unattended.
  2. Lock your doors to ward off hideous old broads.
  3. Buy quality furniture. If you like something, buy three.
  4. When confronted for using and breaking other people’s stuff, jump out the nearest window.

You’re welcome, and good night.

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