Sunday, July 15, 2007

Shanty the Blacksmith

Mary Martha Sherwood, aka "Mrs. Sherwood," a popular children's author, wrote Shanty the Blacksmith in 1838. Later it was published under the title The Maid of Judah. In her diary (preserved in all its glory at UCLA's Special Collections Library), however, Sherwood does mention (in 1836) that she had sent in a paper she had written as a "present to Charlotte Elizabeth for her Christian Ladies Magazine" (sic). In October 1836 she wrote the words "Shanty & Tamar," which perhaps was a working title for Shanty the Blacksmith.

Mr. Dymock and Mrs. Margaret, friends of Shanty the Blacksmith, have a foundling orphan turn up at their door. Due to the child being dark haired and olive complexioned, and due to a mark being found on her shoulder (perhaps a tattoo?) of a branch of a palm tree, Mr. Dymock decides that the baby is Jewish and calls her "Tamar." In fact, he becomes obsessed with her Jewishness, and he even wants to teach her Hebrew.

Shanty, however, is more realistic, and tries to convince him that biological descent or lineage is not that important; what is important is one's spiritual heritage and beliefs. (Indeed, Shanty believes the girl is ethnically a Gypsy). A strange story is then told, as Tamar grows up and meets a Gypsy woman who claims that Tamar is also a Gypsy, and that the mark on her shoulder is a Gypsy brand.

Tamar also meets some Jews (Salmon, Jacob, and Rebecca) who appear to be up to no good. It turns out that Mr. Salmon is the true father of Tamar; Tamar's Jewish mother had died in childbirth, and Salmon's servants Jacob and Rebecca conspire to sell the child to Gypsies, who then deposit the child on Mr. Dymock's doorstep. As for Tamar, she had been brought up with Christian beliefs, and "so now with the assistance of the kind old man [Shanty], laboured incessantly, to bring her father to the Messiah of the Christians, as the only hope and rest of his soul; and she had reason before her father died, to hope that her labours had not been without fruit." (p. 196).

One writer who has commented on Sherwood's Shanty is Nancy M. Cutt in her Mrs. Sherwood and Her Books for Children (1974). She writes: "Following the conventions of the Gothic novel, Mrs. Sherwood makes the gipsy woman contribute to clearing up the mystery and establishing Tamar [who later becomes a Christian] as the child of the wealthy Jew, Mr. Salmon. By 1835, the popular novel had accepted the Jew as a romantic figure; the Millenarians were committed to a form of Zionism; and Mrs. Sherwood, always involved in Old Testament studies and the emblematic significance of the Hebrew language, was able to combine romance and religion with considerable success" (p. 90).

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