She Doesn’t Always Get Away: Goldilocks and the Three Bears

It’s such a kind, cuddly story—three cute bears with a rather alarming obsession with porridge and taking long healthy walks in the woods (really, bears, is this any example to set to small children), one small golden haired girl who is just hungry and tired and doesn’t want porridge that burns her mouth—a perfectly understandable feeling, really.

Or at least, it’s a kind cuddly story now.

In the earliest written version, the bears set Goldilocks on fire.

That version was written down in 1831 by Eleanor Mure, someone we know little of besides the name. The granddaughter of a baron and daughter of a barrister, she was apparently born around 1799, never married, was at some point taught how to use watercolors, and died in 1886. And that’s about it. We can, however, guess that she was fond of fairy tales and bears—and very fond of a young nephew, Horace Broke. Fond enough to write a poem about the Three Bears and inscribe it in his very own handcrafted book for his fourth birthday in 1831.

It must have taken her at least a few weeks if not more to put the book together, both to compose the poem and paint the watercolor illustrations of the three bears and St. Paul’s Cathedral, stunningly free of any surrounding buildings. In her version, all animals can talk. Three bears (in Mure’s watercolors, all about the same size, although the text claims that the third bear is “little”) take advantage of this speaking ability to buy a nice house in the neighborhood, already furnished.

Almost immediately, they run into social trouble when they decide not to receive one of their neighbors, an old lady. Her immediate response is straight from Jane Austen and other books of manners and social interactions: she calls the bears “impertinent” and to ask exactly how they can justify giving themselves airs. Her next response, however, is not exactly something that Jane Austen would applaud: after getting told to go away, she decides to walk into the house and explore it—an exploration that includes drinking out of their three cups of milk, trying their three chairs (and breaking one) and trying out their three beds (breaking one of those as well). The infuriated bears, after finding the milk, the chairs and the beds, decide to take their revenge—first throwing her into a fire and then into water, before finally throwing her on top of the steeple of St. Paul’s Cathedral and leaving her there.

The poetry is more than a bit rough, as is the language—I have a bit of difficulty thinking that anyone even in 1831 would casually drop “Adzooks!” into a sentence, although I suppose if you’re going to use “Adzooks” at all (and Microsoft Word’s spell checker, for one, would prefer that you didn’t) it might as well be in a poem about bears. Her nephew, at least, treasured the book enough to keep it until his death in 1909, when it was purchased, along with the rest of his library, by librarian Edgar Osborne, who in turn donated the collection to the Toronto Public Library in 1949, which publicized the find in 1951, and in 2010, very kindly published a pdf facsimile online which allows all of us to see Mure’s little watercolors with the three bears.

Mure’s poem, however, apparently failed to circulate outside of her immediate family, or perhaps even her nephew, possibly because of the “Adzooks!” It was left to poet Robert Southey to popularize the story in print form, in his 1837 collection of writings, The Doctor.

Southey is probably best known these days as a friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (the two men married two sisters). In his own time, Southey was initially considered a radical—though he was also the same radical who kindly advised Charlotte Bronte that “Literature is not the business of a woman’s life.” To be somewhat fair, Southey may have been thinking of his own career: he, too, lacked the funds to focus completely on poetry, needing to support himself through nonfiction work after nonfiction work. Eventually, he accepted a government pension, accepting that he did not have a large enough estate or writing income to live on. He also moved away from his earlier radicalism—and some of this friends—though he continued to protest living conditions in various slums and the growing use of child labor in the earlier part of the 19th century.

His prose version of “The Three Bears” was published after he had accepted that government pension and joined the Tory Party. In his version, the bears live not in a lovely, furnished country mansion, but in a house in the woods—more or less where bears might be expected to be found. After finding that their porridge is too hot, they head out for a nice walk in the woods. At this point, an old woman finds their house, heads in, and starts helping herself to the porridge, chairs and the beds.

It’s a longer, more elaborate version than either Mure’s poem or the many picture books that followed him, thanks to the many details Southey included about the chair cushions and the old lady—bits left out of most current versions. What did endure was something that doesn’t appear in Mure’s version: the ongoing repetition of “SOMEBODY’S BEEN EATING MY PORRIDGE,” and “SOMEBODY’S BEEN SITTING IN MY CHAIR.” Whether Southey’s original invention, or something taken from the earlier oral version that inspired both Mure and Southey, those repetitive sentences—perfect for reciting in different silly voices—endured.

Southey’s bears are just a little bit less civilized than Mure’s bears—in Southey’s words, “a little rough or so,” since they are bears. As his old woman: described as an impudent, bad old woman, she uses rough language (Southey, knowing the story would be read to or by children, does not elaborate) and doesn’t even try to get an invitation first. But both stories can be read as reactions to changing social conditions in England and France. Mure presents her story as a clash between established residents and new renters who—understandably—demand to be treated with the same respect as the older, established residents, in a mirror of the many cases of new merchant money investing in or renting older, established homes. Southey shows his growing fears of unemployed, desperate strangers breaking into quiet homes, searching for food and a place to rest. His story ends with the suggestion that the old woman either died alone in the woods, or ended up getting arrested for vagrancy.

Southey’s story was later turned into verse by a certain G.N. (credited as George Nicol in some sources) on the basis that, as he said:

But fearing in your book it might

Escape some little people’s sight

I did not that one should lose

What will them all so much amuse,

As you might be gathering from this little excerpt, the verse was not particularly profound, or good; the book, based on the version digitized by Google, also contained numerous printing errors. (The digitized Google version does preserve the changes in font size used for the bears’ dialogue.) The illustrations, however, including an early one showing the bears happily smoking and wearing delightful little reading glasses, were wonderful—despite the suggestion that the Three Bears were not exactly great at housekeeping. (Well, to be fair, they were bears.)

To be fair, some of the poetic issues stem from Victorian reticence:

Somebody in my chair has been!”

The middle Bear exclaim’d;

Seeing the cushion dented in

By what may not be named.

(Later Victorians, I should note, thought even this—and the verse that follows, which, I should warn you, suggests the human bottom – was far too much, ordering writers to delete Southey’s similar reference and anything that so much as implied a reference to that part of the human or bear anatomy. Even these days, the exact method that Goldilocks uses to dent the chair and later break the little bear’s chair are left discreetly unmentioned.)

Others stem from a seeming lack of vocabulary:

She burn’d her mouth, at which half mad

she said a naughty word;

a naughty word it was and bad

As ever could be heard.

Joseph Cundall, for one, was unimpressed, deciding to return to Southey’s prose version of the tale for his 1849 collection, Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children. Cundall did, however, make one critical and lasting change to the tale: he changed Southey’s intruder from an elderly lady to a young girl called Silver-Hair. Cundall felt that fairy tales had enough old women, and not enough young girls; his introduction also suggests that he may have heard another oral version of the tale where the protagonist was named Silver Hair. Shortly after publishing this version, Cundall went bankrupt, and abandoned both children’s literature and printing for the more lucrative (for him) profession of photography.

The bankruptcy did not prevent other Victorian children’s writers from seizing his idea and using it in their own versions of the Three Bears, making other alterations along the way. Slowly, the bears turned into a Bear Family, with a Papa, Mama and Baby Bear (in the Mure, Southey, G.N. and Cundall versions, the bears are all male). The intruder changed names from Silver Hair to Golden Hair to Silver Locks to, eventually, Goldilocks. But in all of these versions, she remained a girl, often a very young one indeed, and in some cases, even turned into the tired, hungry protagonist of the tale—a girl in danger of getting eaten by bears.

I suspect, however, that like me, many small children felt more sympathy for the small bear. I mean, the girl ate his ENTIRE BREAKFAST AND BROKE HIS CHAIR. As a small child with a younger brother who was known for occasionally CHEWING MY TOYS, I completely understood Baby Bear’s howls of outrage here. I’m just saying.

The story was popular enough to spawn multiple picture books throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which in turn led to some authors taking a rather hard look at Goldilocks. (Like me, many of these authors were inclined to be on the side of Baby Bear.) Many of the versions took elaborate liberties with the story—as in my personal recent favorite, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, by Mo Willems, recommended to me by an excited four year old. Not only does it change the traditional porridge to chocolate pudding, which frankly makes far more sense for breakfast, it also, as the title might have warned, has dinosaurs, though I should warn my adult readers that alas, no, the dinosaurs do not eat Goldilocks, which may be a disappointment to many.

For the most part, the illustrations in the picture books range from adequate to marvelous—a far step above the amateur watercolors so carefully created by Mure in 1837. But the story survived, I think, not because of the illustrations, but because when properly told by a teller who is willing to do different voices for all three bears, it’s not just exciting but HILARIOUS, especially when you are three. It was the start, for me, of a small obsession with bears.

But I must admit, as comforting as it is on some level to know that in most versions, Goldilocks does get safely away (after all, in the privacy of this post, I must admit that my brother was not the only child who broke things in our house, and it’s kinda nice to know that breaking a chair won’t immediately lead to getting eaten by bears) it’s equally comforting to know that in at least one earlier version, she didn’t.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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