A fascinating early version of the Goldilocks story was written in 1837 by British poet laureate Robert Southey, under the title “Story of the Three Bears.” Southey’s Goldilocks was neither young nor beautiful; rather, she was an angry, hungry, homeless grey-haired crone, perhaps in her midsixties, who broke into the bears’ well-appointed home for food and lodging. The character’s evolution from an ill-tempered wiry-haired curmudgeon, to a silver-haired beauty, and finally to a radiant golden-haired maiden occurred over many years and at the hands of several writers.
Southey claimed that he had heard the tale from an uncle. And once the poet published the story, it gained wide acceptance. British readers assumed that “Story of the Three Bears” was an original creation of the Southey family. So did historians until only a few decades ago. In 1951, an old manuscript was discovered in the Toronto Public Library’s Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books. Home-printed and bound, the booklet was titled “The Story of Three Bears metrically related, with illustrations locating it at Cecil Lodge in September 1831.” Subtitled “The celebrated nursery tale,” it had been put into verse and embellished with drawings as a birthday gift for a little boy, Horace Broke, by his thirty-two-year-old maiden aunt, Eleanor Mure. That was six years before the tale appeared under Robert Southey’s name.
The two stories contain strong similarities. In Eleanor Mure’s version, the unwelcome intruder to the bears’ home is also an “angry old woman,” but the bowls in the parlor contained not Southey’s porridge but milk turned sour. In Southey’s version, when the homeless old woman is discovered in bed by the bears, she jumps out the window, never to be seen again. But in Mure’s earlier tale, the incensed bears resort to several cruel tactics to rid themselves of the hag:
On the fire they throw her, but burn her they couldn’t, In the water they put her, but drown there she wouldn’t.
Worse arrives. In desperation, the bears impale the old woman on the steeple of St. Paul’s church.
Researchers can only surmise that Robert Southey’s uncle picked up the salient details of Eleanor Mure’s story. What is indisputable, however, is that the British poet laureate introduced the fairy tale to a generation of English readers. Who transformed the rickety old woman to a radiant young Goldilocks? Twelve years after the publication of Southey’s story, another British writer, Joseph Cundall, published his Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children . In an introductory note, Cundall explained to his readers: “I have made the intruder a little girl instead of an old woman”; then he
justified the transformation by adding, “because there are so many other stories of old women.” And he named the girl Silver-Hair. The character was known by that name for several years, appearing in a variety of children’s books. Then in 1868, in Aunt Friendly’s Nursery Book, the intruder to the bears’ home is once again transformed: “There lived in the same forest a sweet little girl who was called Golden Hair.” Thirtysix years later, in 1904, in Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes, the intruder’s appearance remained unaltered, but her name was changed to fit her tresses: “The little girl had long golden hair, so she was called Goldilocks.” And Goldilocks she has remained.