Gratitude to the ladies

Andrew Lang was born in Selkirk, Scotland, on 31st March 1844. He studied at the Universities of St. Andrews and Glasgow, and Balliol College, Oxford. He was elected to an Open Fellowship at Merton College, moving there in 1869. Lang was prolific in a number of disciplines, such as pre-history, the relationship between myth and religion, and Scottish history, and was particularly prominent in the field of folklore, being a founding member, in 1878, of the Folklore Society, and its president during the International Folk-Lore Congress in London in 1891. He died on 20 July 1912. It is perhaps paradoxical, given the prevailing view at that time that children’s books were not real literature, that he is probably best remembered for his children’s books, particularly the ‘coloured’ series of fairy books. More ironic still, it was his wife who did the majority of the work on these.

Leonora Blanche Alleyne (Nora to her family and friends) was born, the seventh of eight children, in Bristol on 8th March 1851 (coincidentally, now International Women’s Day) to the owner of a plantation in Barbados. In April 1875 she married Andrew Lang, who had to give up his fellowship as a direct result. They moved to London, where they both worked as writers and translators, and moved in literary and artistic social circles. The obituary to ‘Mrs Andrew Lang’ published in The Times on 12 July 1933 refers to the ‘intellectual and social gifts, good looks, and kindness of heart’ of both of them.

Leonora wrote one novel, Dissolving Views, published 1884 and a collection of essays, Men, Women and Minxes published 1912 (both “By Mrs Andrew Lang”!); translated from French a history of Russia (1879); wrote introductions to editions for children on Shakespeare and Tennyson; and contributed articles and book reviews to various periodicals.

As well as their other, more ‘serious’ works, the Langs produced 24 books of stories and one of poems for children. Seventeen of these have a colour in the title, and all are beautifully illustrated in both colour and black and white, mainly by Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941).Some of the tales are fictional, some retellings of legends, and some true. Many were translated from the originals, often by Nora, who also edited the stories to bring them into line with the Victorian ideas of what was suitable for children. The first book, The Blue fairy book, was first published by Longmans in 1889, in an edition of 5,000 copies. There was no intention, at this point, to create a series, but the book proved so popular that, like Topsy (a character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century) it ‘just growed’.

In the preface to each book, Andrew Lang lists those involved with its preparation. The vast majority are women, including Leonora’s nieces Thyra (1875–1954) and Alma (born 1873) Alleyne; Miss Minnie Wright; Eleanor and May Sellar; Miss Bruce; Mrs Hunt; Miss Wright; Miss Cheape; Miss Blackley; Mrs. Dent and Mrs. Skovgaard-Pedersen.

The last book in the series, The strange story book (top), was published in 1913, after Andrew Lang’s death, yet even this one carries his name on the title page, and bears a photograph of him as the frontispiece. There seem to be few pictures of ‘Mrs Lang’ in existence, but this one (below) is pasted into a book by Andrew Lang in the Library of the University of St Andrews.

Image courtesy of University of St Andrews Library