It is a shame that Mlle Lheritier is such a prolix and genteel writer, that her flashes of feline wit and her moments of inventive cruelty are few and far between. Her predicament, poised between respectability and exclusion, mirrors that of the contemporary woman writer, which is why I felt I had made a discovery when I first read her and then felt cheated that she lacked the courage to be as robust and earthy and potent as the nurses and old women she invoked, the Mother Geese of tradition. The editor of this volume of essays, Roy Porter, has asked the contributors to reflect upon their own relation to the they have chosen—otherwise I would continue to hide behind my cerebral quest for Mother Goose. For of course I want Anon. to be a woman, I would like old wives' tales to be just that, for Mother Goose to prove the existence of ancient female narrative, and for the prejudice that clings to old women, to female language and speech, to the very phrase 'old wives' tale' and the folly of Mother Goose to become a matter of history, even though I appreciate, as I hope I have shown, how much power nose-thumbing actually accords to these persistent notions. But the problem of Mother Goose's double tongue remains: is she truly a female storyteller, only now and then in drag, or does the drag constitute a claim on credence, advanced by men invoking something more authentic than themselves? If Mlle Lheritier were as bawdy and comic and knowing as she describes her peasant sources and as the British panto tradition has developed, wouldn't she have fed the prejudices that make old wives' tales suitable fare for none but children? Or would she have been able to overcome that persistent tinge of contempt? I know it to be a mistake to try to occupy some imaginary primordial femaleness, an essentialist where history and law and all the other factors in sexual politics have not gained entry. So Mother Goose is another false trail in the quest for the women's version. Furthermore, there is a distinction between a woman telling a story, and telling a story as a woman, though both run up against the difference femaleness makes. Mother Goose does the latter; she may not have been a woman at all, but only a fantasy of nursery, of nurture, of female magic, of woman at the hearth. She vividly represents in Victorian culture and in our own the continuing mixed feelings both men and women experience about such a voice, such a practice. For a female writer, Mother Goose's presence is a comfort and a source of unease at one and the same time, holding up before us a long history of enchantment on the one hand, of ridicule on the other. Any writer who has identified herself with women's issues knows how she'll trip up over mockery; yet laughter can still be answered in kind, for it has its own retaliatory strength, as a goose knows when she cackles.
I am sorry that my essay provoked such a howl of pain from Dr. Harrison and other psycho-analysts who have protested about my inability to appreciate the importance of sex. I consider myself chastised, although to tell the truth I had a sneaking suspicion all along that a libidinal undercurrent flowed through the peasants’ Mother Goose. I would go so far as to argue that the peasants had sex lives. They also had appetites for food and ran after the occasional tax collector with a pitchfork. If I could see as deeply into texts as Dr. Harrison does, I would not have to hunt through history in order to understand the meaning of those experiences. I could remain content with the modernized, bowdlerized, and anachronistic Mother Goose of Erich Fromm and Bruno Bettelheim.