Saturday 23 April 2016

How does your garden grow? From Mary Tudor to Hercule Poirot, Alison Lurie, blackbirds and wisteria

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

Still exploring my childhood, the garden in April and books, I stumbled upon nursery rhymes yesterday. The equivalent of nursery rhymes in French would be our comptines. The French comptines are songs, which go through the day with the child. They are used to play, dance, learn to count or to find one's place in time and space for instance, and help to go to sleep as lullabies. They are pretty and seem innocent enough although they often have an origin in witchcraft, and hidden meanings - libertine, political, satirical, social or historical. Famous ones are "Au clair de la lune", "Dansons la capucine", "Frère Jacques", "Dodo l'enfant do", to mention but a few.

Au clair de la lune

Dansons la capucine

Frère Jacques

Dodo l'enfant do

It is interesting to note that this material of different origins has been appropriated and changed again by composers: Mahler uses Frère Jacques in his First Symphony, and Debussy uses Dodo l'enfant do and Nous n'irons plus au bois in his "Jardins sous la pluie", one of his three "Estampes".

Debussy - "Jardins sous la pluie" - Yvonne Lefébure

These past days, still thinking of April and gardens, the verse "How does your garden grow"  was nagging at me from the back of my mind. I could not remember the other verses and this was irritating. Of course, it was solved when I asked Mr Google. But at the same time, it revealed itself to be more complex than I had thought.

There are a wealth of illustrations of this nursery rhyme, not always referenced and not always shown with credits to the illustrator. You may recognise Kate Greenaway here. As to the others , I would be glad of any reference given.

What the illustrations show when they are purporting the text of the rhyme is the slight differences between them: "Mary, Mary" or "Mistress Mary"  for example. 

Back then to some research. And who is Mary? Is she a nice little girl in her garden as the Victorians and nowadays illustrators would have us believe or is she a young lady or even a lady when "Mistress" is added to her name?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, the oldest known version was first published in "Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (circa 1744) with the following lyrics:
Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,
And so my garden grows.
But several printed versions of the 18th century have the lyrics:

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,
Sing cuckolds all in a row.

But the last line often varies:

Cowslips all in arow [sic].
With lady bells all in a row.

Of course, explanations differ.

It would be a religious allegory of Catholicism, with bells representing the sanctus bells (altar bells rung after the Sanctus to indicate that it is the time of consecration of the bread and wine), the cockleshells the badges of the pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in Spain (Santiago de Compostela) and pretty maids are nuns. But even within this strand of thought there are differences of opinion as to whether it is lament for the reinstatement of Catholicism or for its persecution.

Another theory sees the rhyme as connected to Mary, Queen of Scots, with "how does your garden grow" referring to her reign over her realm, "silver bells" referring to (Catholic) cathedral bells, "cockle shells" insinuating that her husband was not faithful to her, and "pretty maids all in a row" referring to her ladies-in-waiting – "The four Maries". The four Maries or Marys accompanied Mary, Queen of Scots, when she went to France as a child in 1548 and remained her closest lifelong friends. Mary Beaton was the eldest and the "head" of the squadron, while the three others were all of noble families closest to the Stewart Court, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston.

Mary has also been identified with Mary I of England, with "How does your garden grow?" said to refer to her lack of heirs, or to the common idea that England had become a Catholic vassal or "branch" of Spain and the Habsburgs. It is also said to be a punning reference to her chief minister, Stephen Gardiner. "Quite contrary" is said to be a reference to her unsuccessful attempt to reverse ecclesiastical changes effected by her father Henry VIII and her brother Edward VI. The "pretty maids all in a row" is speculated to be a reference to miscarriages or her execution of Lady Jane Grey. "Rows and rows" is said to refer to her executions of Protestants.

A fourth theory argues that no proof has been found that the rhyme was known before the eighteenth century, while Mary I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, were contemporaries in the sixteenth century.

I have found an even more gory interpretation according to which "the meaning was about Bloody Mary torturing her victims. Silver bells stood for thumb screws that were torture devices, cockle shells that were a genital torture device, and the pretty maids in a row stood for the people lining up to be exeuted by the Halifax Gibbet. And the meaning of "How does your garden grow?" is said to refer to the cemetery, being that the more deaths, the more the cemetery "garden" would grow."

In fact, with all its interpretations, the mystery behind which one is the true origin remains.

One thing is sure: this nursery rhyme as [almost] all others - and as the French comptines - has double meanings. Be it in the 16th century or the 18th century, during that time period and earlier, people had to preserve history any way they could. When the leaders of the country - any country and any leaders - wanted THEIR history to be the one to go down the ages, then the "opposition" used songs and poems. If writing was banned or if people were illiterate, ideas went on by way of oral tradition made easy by rhymes or music.

In the case of "Mary, Mary, quite contrary", another version of political events - whichever they were - were kept, embedded in what would become Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

In "Au clair de la lune", there is a libertine double entendre. But libertines were political opponents during the 17th century in France - and not the sexually depraved persons that a further distorted meaning made them in the following centuries. In Molière's "Dom Juan", the eponymous character is a libertine not because he mutiplies sexual intercourse with several women but because he believes that "deux et deux font quatre" (two plus two makes four): he is a rationalist and someone who does not believe in God and the religiously ordered world. The consequences were not only religious but temporal as well, and against the power that was: the king being king by God's will, God being doubted or denied by Reason, there was no reason for the king's power and authority. And the music of "Au clair de la lune" was composed by Lulli, the King Sun's composer. We are right in the reign of Louis XIV and the 17th century.

I wonder if something of the sinister meaning of "Mary, Mary, quite contrary" survived unconsciously in the minds of the listeners.

Part of Agatha Christie's work is based on nursery rhymes: "One, Two, Buckle my Shoe", the now-unpolitically correct "Ten Little Niggers" turned into "And They Were None", "A Pocket Full of Rye", "Five Little Pigs" among others. And among these others, a short story where Hercule Poirot is the detective: "How Does Your Garden Grow?". This appeared in the short story collection entitled "Poirot's Early Cases", published in the UK in 1974.

Poirot's Early Cases

Of course, Poirot's first case was "The Mysterious Affair at Styles", published much much earlier, in 1920. The 1974 collection was nicely giving a background to Hercule Poirot.

The short story "How Does Your Garden Grow?" cites the whole nursery ryhme that gives the solution of the enigma / the murder, and gives away the murderer / murderess. It was filmed for the Poirot's miniseries in 1989, as one episode of the first seasons when they lasted but a little under an hour - no full films as later. This is an adaptation of the short story with some vagaries departing from the original, but quite faithful anyway.

"How Does Your Garden Grow?" (the miniseries)

This ramble through nursery rhymes brings me back to books of course! There were already books in the collected nursery rhymes: they are still said out loud today but one may find them in albums for children. There was a book with Agatha Christie's collected short stories. But there is one more book at least I would like to mention: Alison Lurie's "Foreign Affairs" that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.

Alison Lurie researched and wrote extensively about children's literature and her main character, Vinnie Minner, in "Foreign Affairs" is an American academic come to Britain to do some research about ditties sung in school playgrounds of London. She discovers, among other things, that such ditties are not as innocent as she believed, that they have double meanings or are openly "dirty". The main topics of the book would be more the place of the American in Britain, the discovery of compatriots abroad, the different layers one may uncover in an individual after having gone past prejudices, love improbable due to different social standards and age... It is a beautiful book (that does walk somewhat in the steps of Henry James when it comes to the American and the Europeans!), as are most of Alison Lurie's books. Over the years, she built a whole world with recurring characters, sometimes playing little or walking parts in other stories, or being alluded to - somewhat in the manner of Balzac (of course, for the French girl I am) but more in the manner of Barbara Pym. 

Meanwhile, after this long excursion through the ages, oral tradition, printed versions, history, literature, films, music, books, newspapers, I can still tell you that my garden grows, that I am very happy to add The Gardener to The Shopping-cum-Cleaning Lady and The Lady in Training next week. Grass is growing at an unbridled pace. The wisteria is raining clumps of purple and violet and mauve flowers; some of it has now grown inside one cherry tree. It is truly beautiful but deadly for the poor tree. Apple trees are in full blossom. The leaves on the oak trees are almost fully grown. The lilac trees are ready to explode in white and deep purple fireworks. And soon, the road verges will be awake with Queen Anne's lace. Blackbirds are singing full throat through rain and sun. Smaller birds are perching precariously on thin branches. It is the height of spring. 

And you?  How does your garden grow?

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