Romantics exhibition and Story of the Three Bears

A new exhibition from the Sir George Grey Special Collections entitled 'The Romantics: Jane Austen meets Frankenstein' has recently opened at the Central Library (Level 2) and runs until 22 June. The exhibition of rare books and manuscripts from late 18th to early 19th century covers a time when there was a revolutionary mood in art and literature, and a new emphasis on the imagination and the emotions. Jane Austen and Mary Shelley are some of the well known authors included. Find out more.

Ref: an illustration from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Lynd Ward
Another author from this time, although he is not included in the exhibition is Robert Southey (1774-1843). He was an English poet of the Romantic school, one of the so-called "Lake Poets", and Poet Laureate for 30 years from 1813 to his death in 1843. "The Story of the Three Bears" (sometimes known as "The Three Bears", "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" or, simply, "Goldilocks") is a fairy tale first recorded by Southey, and published anonymously in a volume of his writings in 1837 titled “The Doctor”. Sir George Grey Special Collections has an edition of this from a slightly later date (1853).

In the story the three bears – "a Little, Small, Wee Bear, a Middle-sized Bear, and a Great, Huge Bear" – live together in a house in the woods. They are very good-natured, trusting, harmless, tidy, and hospitable. Each of these "bachelor" bears has his own porridge bowl, chair, and bed. One day they take a walk in the woods while their porridge cools. An old woman (who is described at various points in the story as impudent, bad, foul-mouthed, ugly, dirty and a vagrant deserving of a stint in the House of Correction) discovers the bears' dwelling and enters uninvited.

Ref: title page from 1843 edition of 'The Story Of The Three Bears'
Also in 1837, British writer George Nicol published this new version in rhyme based upon Southey's prose tale, with Southey approving the attempt to give the story more exposure. Both versions tell of three bears and an old woman who trespasses upon their property. Sir George Grey Special Collections has an early version of this poem from 1843.

The old woman eats the Wee Bear's porridge, then settles into his chair and breaks it. Prowling about, she then finds the bears' beds and falls asleep in Wee Bear's bed. The climax of the tale is reached when the bears return. Wee Bear finds the old woman in his bed and cries, "Somebody has been lying in my bed, – and here she is!"

The old woman starts up, jumps from the window, and runs away never to be seen again.

Ref: illustration from the 1843 edition of 'The Story Of The Three Bears'
By the middle of the 19th century the old woman had become ‘Silver Hair’ and by the beginning of the 20th century she was a young girl called Goldilocks. The Victorians also removed any mention of her bottom hitting the floor when the bottom fell out of the chair. The bears also went through a transformation from three male bears to a family of mother, father and baby bear.

Author: Ian Snowdon, Sir George Grey Special Collections