Sunday, 20 March 2011

The true history of a little ruggamuffin

One of my favourite books when I was a child was The little ruggamuffin, by James Greenwood. It wasn't just my favourite, it was everybody's favourite, a classic, mandatory classroom reading, yet still a favourite, as famous as Alice in Wonderland and Robinson Crusoe and mentioned in every Russian source on world children's literature, British children's literature, children's literature, fullstop. When I got prefessionally interested in children's literature and started reading Western sources, I was a bit puzzled that this masterpiece wasn't mentioned anywhere, but there were so many other things to learn that I didn't even think about it. What foreign children's books got translated into Russian was a serendipity; and this one was a very progressive book from the point of view of Soviet ideology, showing the misery of the working classes under capitalism.

When I visited London for the first time, many place names, for instance, Covent Garden, were familiar from The little rugamuffin. I still think of The little rugamuffin these days when I take the Tube and pass Covent Garden.

In my book Children's Literature Comes of Age, I have a chapter on canon and an argument about how books can become more prominent in a foreign culture than in their own. The little rugamuffin was obviously a good example, but I needed at least some information about it. I had asked English and American colleagues, and nobody had heard of this book. I found it eventually in the British National Bibliography for 1866 (this was long before Google). It wasn't even a children's book.

Some time ago I was talking to my childhood friend Alyona about our favourite children's books. The little rugamuffin came up immediately, and I told her that it was in fact a retelling of an obscure penny-dreadful. I also told this story to my research assistant (to whom I happen to be married) who started searching and found several facsimiles. I couldn't resist it: I had to know how much liberty the translator/reteller had taken. This reteller was no other than the Grand Old Man of Soviet children's literature, Kornei Chukovsky.

It turns out that Chukovsky was quite faithful to the original, although he deleted episodes of domestic violence, references to wicked Jews and some other minor details. Since I remember the Russian version more or less by heart, it was easy to trace the changes. However, Chukovsky did amend the ending to suit the ideology. In the original, the protagonist grows up, goes to Australia and makes his fortune there. In the version I know, he becomes a factory worker, which apparently was a huge improvement for a little boy as compared to being a street urchin. Well, at least he wasn't adopted by a rich lady.

Not unexpectedly, I have found the Russian text online, with an excellent preface, explaining all these strange circumstances. Altogether, The little rugamuffin has 38,000 posts in Russian and 140 images (covers and illustrations).

This is a true history.

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