From Rags to Witches – the grim tale of children's stories

19 Apr 2018 15:25:21.877

Once upon a time, fairy tales were not for children – and some were even banned by the church as a threat to faith or morality. 

Using original archives and rare books from the University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts & Special Collections, a new exhibition – From Rags to Witches: the Grim Tale of Children’s Stories – will explore a range of children’s stories and traditional tales, from the beloved to the forgotten tales that never got a happily ever after. 

From bloodthirsty stories set in sinister European forests, to the benign bedtime tales set in comfortable Victorian nurseries, this brand new exhibition traces the development of children’s literature through the generations.  

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Kathryn Steenson, Academic & Public Engagement Archivist and curator of Rags to Witches, said: “This exhibition has been a wonderful opportunity to discover the darkness in some of the classic fairy tales, and uncover some Victorian stories that have been forgotten.

“Told and retold by countless storytellers, the versions we are familiar with today can be very different from the ones that entertained our ancestors by the fireside. These were stories of sex, death and curses, and were so morally outrageous that in 1604 the Catholic Church placed one Italian fairy tale collection on its Index of Forbidden Books. The 16th century copy on display was published just before the ban was enforced, and contains some of the earliest surviving written versions of fairy tales.”

Fairy stories began to be seen as a threat to children as new theories about childhood and education developed. A new genre of moral children’s books was born, intended to promote rational thought and Christian morality. Instead of princesses in enchanted castles in faraway places and long ago times, stories were set in the modern world where naughty children met wretched fates and pious children gave heartfelt deathbed speeches warning of the perils of Hell.

But good fairy stories triumphed. On display is an 18th century book by Charles Perrault containing his beloved tale Little Red Riding Hood and the first English-language publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories from 1846, including The Constant Tin Soldier, a doomed love story of a one-legged tin soldier and a paper ballerina. They were translated by Nottingham’s Mary Howitt, who was so captivated by his stories that she learnt Danish specifically to translate them. A successful children’s author of the time, her best-known poem, The Spider and the Fly, will also be on display.

Children’s books became beautiful in the 19th century. Illustrators such as Kate Greenaway became household names. Visitors can see some of her pencil sketches, given to the University of Nottingham in remembrance of her childhood years spent at Rolleston in Nottinghamshire.

In addition to the exhibition, anyone feeling inspired to create their own children’s books will be able to sign up to two workshops run by local authors/illustrators. Storyboarding Picture Books run by Carol Adlam on the 9th May (tickets £20/£10 concessions) will introduce aspiring illustrators to the basics of creating children’s picture books. On 4th August, Sarah McConnell and Maelle Daub will work with children in a fun workshop From Pirates to Porcupines: Creating Magical Children's Book Characters to create their own illustrations (tickets £6, accompanying adults free). Tickets for the workshops, and the free talks accompanying the exhibition, are available from Nottingham Lakeside Arts Box Office. For more information, please visit

The exhibition has been curated by staff from Manuscripts and Special Collections at the University of Nottingham. It will be opened by local author/illustrator Carol Adlam. She teaches book illustration and has been Artist-in-Residence at The National Archives, Nottingham Museums, and Nottingham Lakeside Arts.

Items of particular interest:

  • A 1570 copy of the first European fairy tale collection, The Facetious Nights by Giovanni Francesco Straparola, published shortly before the book was banned by the Catholic Church. It contains the first written recorded versions of some fairy tales, including Puss in Boots.
  • Original pencil sketches by Victorian illustrator Kate Greenaway, presented to the University of Nottingham after her death in remembrance of the part of her childhood spent in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire.
  • A copy of Charles Perrault’s Tales of passed times by Mother Goose from 1796, written in English and French. Some stories, such as Sleeping Beauty, were clearly based on earlier tales but it is likely that he wrote several himself, including Little Red Riding Hood. Each tale ends with a moral, but it isn’t always the moral you would expect.
  • The first English-language edition of Wonderful Stories for Children (1846) by Hans Christian Andersen, translated from Danish by Nottingham author Mary Howitt. She is best remembered for The Spider and the Fly, a copy of which is also on display.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft is better known as an advocate for women’s rights, but she made one, not very successful, foray into writing for children with Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness. The copy on display was illustrated by poet and painter William Blake. 

    — Ends —

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More information is available from Manuscripts and Special Collections on +44 (0)115 951 4565 or at 

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