In this post, I’ll explore the portrayal of the old woman as found within Robert Southey’s “The Story of the Three Bears.” This 1837 variant is a literary tale based on the oral tradition. In this version the character of Goldilocks is traded for that of an old woman. Southey describes the old woman in this way: a “little old woman,” a vagrant, an “impudent, bad old woman,” and as a “naughty old woman” who says “bad” or “wicked” words. He writes that she has an “ugly, dirty head,” and “could not have been a good, honest old woman.” Southey is clearly using folktale motifs in his work, by either recording, creating or borrowing from other versions of the “Three Bears.” His story, however, does not follow the traditional “old woman” motifs. As of yet, I’m unable to find any tale type or motif that fits his version of this character.
All this got me to wonder whether Southey is reflecting Victorian stereotypes. But before we explore that topic further, it’s time to read the tale itself.
The Story of the Three Bears
By Robert Southey
Once upon a time there were three Bears, who lived together in a house of their own in a wood. One of them was a Little, Small, Wee Bear; and one was a Middle-sized Bear, and the other was a Great, Huge Bear. They had each a pot for their porridge, a little pot for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized pot for the Middle Bear; and a great pot for the Great, Huge Bear. And they had each a chair to sit in: a little chair for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized chair for the Middle Bear; and a great chair for the Great, Huge Bear. And they had each a bed to sleep in: a little bed for the Little, Small, Wee Bear; and a middle-sized bed for the Middle Bear; and a great bed for the Great, Huge Bear.
One day, after they had made the porridge for their breakfast and poured it into their porridge pots, they walked out into the wood while the porridge was cooling, that they might not burn their mouths by beginning too soon to eat it. And while they were walking a little old woman came to the house. She could not have been a good, honest, old woman; for, first, she looked in at the window, and then she peeped in at the keyhole, and, seeing nobody in the house, she lifted the latch. The door was not fastened, because the bears were good bears, who did nobody any harm, and never suspected that anybody would harm them. So the little old woman opened the door and went in; and well pleased she was when she saw the porridge on the table. If she had been a good little old woman she would have waited till the bears came home, and then, perhaps, they would have asked her to breakfast, for they were good hears-a little rough or so, as the manner of bear's is, but for all that very good-natured and hospitable. But she was an impudent, bad old woman, and set about helping herself.
So first she tasted the porridge of the Great Huge Bear, and that was too hot for her; and she said a bad word about that. And then she tasted the porridge of the Middle Bear, and that was too cold for her; and she said a bad word about that, too. And then she went to the porridge of the Little, Small, Wee Bear, and tasted that, and that was neither too hot nor too cold, but just right; and she liked it so well that she ate it all up; but the naughty old woman said a bad word about the little porridge pot, because it did not hold enough for her.
Then the little old woman sat down in the chair of the Great, Huge Bear, and that was too hard for her. And then she sat down in the chair of the Middle Bear, and that was too soft for her. And then she sat down in the chair of the Little Small, Wee Bear, and that was neither too hard nor too soft, but just right. So she seated herself in it, and there she sat till the bottom of the chair came out, and down came she, plump upon the ground. And the naughty old woman said wicked words about that, too.
Then the little old woman went upstairs into the bedchamber in which the three Bears slept. And first she lay down upon the bed of the Great, Huge Bear, but that was too high at the head for her. And next she lay down upon the bed of the Middle Bear, and that was too high at the foot for her. And then she lay down upon the bed of the Little, Small, Wee Bear, and that was neither too high at the head nor at the foot, but just right. So she covered herself up comfortably and lay there till she fell asleep. By this time the three Bears thought their porridge would be cool enough, so they came home to breakfast. Now the little old woman had left the spoon of the Great, Huge Bear standing in his porridge.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN AT MY PORRIDGE!" said the Great, Huge Bear, in his great gruff voice. And when the Middle Bear looked at his, he saw that the spoon was standing in it, too. They were wooden spoons; if they had been silver ones the naughty old woman would have put them in her pocket.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN AT MY PORRIDGE!" said the middle Bear, in his middle voice.
Then the Little, Small, Wee Bear looked at his, and there was the spoon in the porridge pot, but the porridge was all gone.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN AT MY PORRIDGE AND HAS EATEN IT ALL UP!" said
the Little, Small, Wee Bear, in his little, small, wee voice.
Upon this the three Bears, seeing that someone had entered their house and eaten up the Little, Small, Wee Bear's breakfast, began to look about them. Now the little old woman had not put the hard cushion straight when she rose from the chair of the Great, Huge Bear.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN SITTING IN MY CHAIR!" said the Great, Huge Bear, in his great, rough, gruff voice.
And the little old woman had squatted down the soft cushion of the Middle Bear.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN SITTING IN MY CHAIR!" said the Middle Bear, in his middle voice.
And you know what the little old woman had done to the third chair.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN SITTING IN MY CHAIR, AND HAS SAT THE BOTTOM
OUT OF IT!" said the Little, Small, Wee Bear, in his little, small, wee voice.
Then the three bears thought it necessary that they should make further search; so they went upstairs into their bedchamber. Now the little old woman had pulled the pillow of the Great, Huge Bear out of its place.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN LYING IN MY BED!" said the Great, Huge Bear, in his great, rough, gruff voice.
And the little old woman had pulled the bolster of the Middle Bear out of its place.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN LYING IN MY BED!" said the Middle Bear, in his middle voice.
And when the Little, Small, Wee Bear came to look at his bed, there was the bolster in its place, and upon the pillow was the little old woman's ugly, dirty head-which was not in its place, for she had no business there.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN LYING IN MY BED-AND HERE SHE IS!" said the Little,
Small, Wee Bear, in his little, small, wee voice.
The little old woman had heard in her sleep the great, rough, gruff voice of the Great, Huge Bear, but she was so fast asleep that it was no more to her than the moaning of wind or the rumbling of thunder. And she had heard the middle voice of the Middle Bear, but it was only as if she had heard someone speaking in a dream. But when she heard the little, small, wee voice of the Little, Small, Wee Bear, it was so sharp and so shrill that it awakened her at once. Up she started, and when she saw the three bears on one side of the bed, she tumbled herself out at the other and ran to the window. Now the window was open, because the Bears, like good, tidy bears as they were, always opened their bedchamber window when they got up in the morning. Out the little old woman jumped, and whether she broke her neck in the fall or ran into the wood and was lost there, or found her way out of the wood and was taken up by the constable and sent to the House of Correction for a vagrant as she was, I cannot tell. But the three Bears never saw anything more of her.
The Victorian period’s emphasis on industrialization led to wide class disparity. Those who were unable to work were treated as an underclass. Living in poverty was a criminal offense. (Remember, debtors’ prisons?) For women, children and the elderly, there were fewer options. They could subject themselves to the local workhouse or live on the streets. During the Victorian age, the upper class viewed those living in the abyss of the underworld as the “criminal class.” We can see this criminal class represented in Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist.”
This photo, “The Woman on the Steps,” was taken by John Thompson sometime after 1876 in a series called “The Crawlers.” Along with Adolphe Smith (who wrote a commentary), the two recorded the Victorian life of the poor. Smith writes, “Huddled together on the workhouse steps in Short’s Gardens, those wrecks of humanity, the Crawlers of St. Giles’s, may be seen both day and night seeking mutual warmth and mutual consolation in their extreme misery. As a rule, they are old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg.”
Later he describes her existence in this way: “They sit on the hard stone step of the workhouse, their heads reclining on the door, and here by old custom they are left undisturbed…When it rains, the door offers a little shelter if the wind is in a favorable direction, but as a rule the women are soon drenched, and consequently experience all the tortures of ague and rheumatism in addition to their other ailments. Under such circumstances sound sleep is an unknown luxury, hence that drowsiness from which they are never thoroughly exempt. This peculiarity has earned them the nickname of “dosses,” derived from the verb to doze, by which they are sometimes recognized. The crawlers may truly be described as persons who sleep with one eye open. Those who seem in the soundest sleep will look up languidly on the approach of a stranger, as if they were always anticipating interference of some sort.”
Robert Southey’s story sets a strong moral tone throughout. He is not the neutral observer of the old woman’s actions but identifies her from the beginning of the tale as a vagrant and a thief. Southey’s mother was an aristocrat and he was raised in that environment. Throughout his life he was helped by those with power or money. Nonetheless, he had a desire for social justice and a more egalitarian way of life. In his poem, “The Complaints of the Poor” he shares their plight with a rich man. Nonetheless, the “Story of the Three Bears” appears to highlight the outrage of the upper class who saw vagrants as morally bereft robbers. The sleeping old woman could easily be seen in his day as either a crawler or dosses. Whether he was embracing the morals of his day or making a parody of them remains unknown. Either is possible based on what we know of Southey.
With that said, I decided that I was called to set right Robert Southey’s highly defamatory version of the “The Three Bears.” If this was a true and accurate recording of an oral telling I would be unable to do so, but because he so besmirched the reputation of this old woman it behooves me to explain how she came to the Three Bears house to begin with.
The old woman’s name was Sarah Collins and no beggar woman was she. Sure, she had come by hard times. Her husband was a ship captain who died at sea many a year ago. Left without a farthing or a child, she worked at the local pub where she eked out a living. Aye, poor but proud, she was. Not long ago, they say, a strange man entered the pub. Tall and thin he was with long hair and an even longer beard. His cloak was purple but his vest, an emerald green. Well, you’ll never guess what happened next. That old man walked right up to Sarah and held out her husband’s wedding ring. That ring should still be at the bottom of the sea! He said her husband freely gave him the ring with the promise he would care for sweet Sarah. Well, naturally she asked what that meant. The old man pointed to the woods. He said look for the cottage with a red door. It would have the mark of the bear upon it. If she could find that cottage all her troubles would be over, and she would live happily ever after. What happened next you already know. And yes, she had the sailor’s mouth about her but that was just her disappointment for what she found in that house. You don’t serve whisky to sailors for 40 years without pickin’ up a colorful word or two. But she was no theft! Not our Sarah! And scared she was I’m sure to be awakened by some bears.
What happened next is a mystery. Southey ne’er asked me nor any of the old wives who lived nearby if his story was true. Here is what I heard. Sarah ran through the woods until she found a tidy cottage with many children running and playing about. Strangely, the cottage had a red door with the mark of a bear. She knocked on the door and a young widow woman answered. Next thing you know Sarah was living with the woman and acting as granny to those children. You can believe me when I say Sarah ne’er ended up in any jail for, she is living happily to this day. Next time Southey should take the time to get his story straight before he hurts the reputation of a poor and defenseless old woman!