Little Detchie-Head

August 23, 2010

Look, I was going to keep this for after I’d done a longer piece on Brooke, but it’s taking so goddam long that I might as well just whack this up anyway, from The Dog at Clambercrown:

My impressions of India, however, were perhaps derived less from Aunt Ada than from the story of Little Detchie-head – that most terrifying of children’s books, rivalling for sheer Freudian horror even Strewwelpeter himself.

I SUPPOSE THAT Little Detchie-Head has, like Stumps, been long forgotten; it is certainly out of print and appears to be quite unobtainable. The little book was published, I think, in the same series as the better-known Little Black Sambo and Little Black Mingo; at any rate, the formate and the illustrations were very similar. I should not be surprised to learn that Little Detchie-head had been withdrawn by the publishers, at an early date, in response to the protests of parents whose children, only too probably, had become half-witted or stark raving mad after reading it. The only reason I didn’t go mad myself was, I think, because the scene of Little Detchie-head was, after all, laid in India, and I could comfort myself – as we have most of us comforted ourselves, in recent times, when reading some more than usually terrifying ‘exposure’ of Nazism or Communism – with the thought that ‘it couldn’t happen here’.

Little Detchie-head was about a little girl ‘who lived with her parents in India’. Apparently normal and well behaved in other respects, she suffered from a precocious form of pyromania, which manifested itself in an incurable passion for poking fires. One day, in the kitchen, when the Indian servant’s back was turned, she slipped and fell (it was only to be expected) headlong into the flames, and ‘her head was burned right off’ – thought the rest of her, oddly enough, remained not only intact but, apparently, alive and kicking. The servant returns – ‘And, oh! Domingo’s face,’ says the tetxt, ‘when he saw his little missy-baba lying on the floor with no head.’ Domingo, however, is a resourceful type; hastily seizing a large detchie, or cooking-pot, from a shelf, he paints a pair of eyes, a nose and a mouth upon its side, and sets it carefully upon the heroine’s severed neck, surmounting it (a nice touch, this) by her cotton sun-bonnet, which apparently, by some miracle, has survived the flames. With remarkable self-possession (and suffering, apparently, from no considerable after effects) little Detchie-head trots off to her parents who, it seems, notice nothing particularly unusual about her, apart from the fact that ‘all she can say is “Clap, clap, clapper-apper-apper.”‘ This rudimentary vocabulary apparently suffices her for the next weeks, nor do her parents seem unduly troubled by it. Christmas, however, comes at last, and Santa Claus, with an admirable appropriateness, leaves in the little girl’s stocking a large, blonde, pink-faced doll’s head. Delighted by this seasonable Yule-tide gift, little Detchie head rises with the lark and, discarding the unbecoming detchie, sticks the doll’s head upon her neck, with the help of a handy pot of glue. Then she runs to Mamma and Papa, tossing her expensive, brand-new curls, and chattering away nineteen-to-the-dozen – presumably in her normal, pre-Detchie-head accents. ‘And’, so the story relates, ‘they were very much pleased’ – surely, one feels, in the circumstances, a rather tepid reaction on the parents’ part; though they do not, it must be admitted, appear to have been a very sensitive or perceptive couple. Little Detchie-head, at any rate, is completely cured, thereafter, of her pyromaniacal proclivities, and indeed, as the author (or authoress, as I suspect) concludes, ‘has to be dragged past a fire’ in future.

The surprising thing about Little Detchie-head is, I think, its date – it must have been published in the nineties or the early nineteen-hundreds – and also the fact it was written, presumably, by a middle-class Englishwoman for English children. Strewwelpeter, after all, was written by a German, and an early nineteenth-century German at that, so that one can explain it – if not excuse it – as a by-product of the ‘Romantic Agony’. But Little Detchie-head is quite another kettle of fish: one doesn’t look for such sadistic horrors in Edwardian England, and it seems barely credible that it should ever have been published in this country, let alone widely read (as it undoubtedly was) in English nurseries.

In my own case, as I have said, the Indian setting made the horrors of the story seem comfortable remote; on the other hand, the knowledge that such appalling events could happen there was to colour my ideas about India for years to come (the only other book about India by which I was ever deeply influenced was E.M. Forster’s novel, which, when I first read it, seemed more or less to confirm the alarming impression made by Little Detchie-head). I developed, myself, a wholesome dread of fires; and the sigh of an Ayah, attendant upon some children staying in our village, could fill me with a tremulous apprehension. I was half-inclined, too, to identify the original little Detchie-head with my cousin, Nancy Pullen, whose hair was suspiciously blonde and curly, and who, moreover, had for several years ‘lived with her parents in India’. I never dared asked her whether she had had, at one period of her life, a ‘detchie’ instead of a head; but it remained a disturbing possibility, and I should hardly have been surprised if , reverting suddenly to her former detchie-hood, she had startled the company at tea-time by rattling out those jangling, metallic syllables (‘Clap, clap, clapper-apper-apper’) which had left her heartless and impercipient parents so strangely unmoved.

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Ooh, a half-formed note I couldn’t really develop in any way –

The only thing I’d add to this is to point out the potential for the grotesque those writers with a moral purpose have. Whether it is the exempla of the monastic ages, Swiftian satire or minatory fables such as Little Detchie-head, the disorder in the physical world that imprudent behaviour or moral turpitude engenders is representative of disastrous alterations of the material universe. (And ghosts, are, after all, moral creatures – spiritual excretions congregating around wrongs, with no understanding of the pragmatism that human flesh requires).

(grotesque as non-moral secular absurdities – see Kayser – “the Elder Bruegel paints the increasingly estranged world of our daily life not with the intention of teaching, warning, or arousing our compassion but solely in order to portray the inexplicable, incomprehensible, ridiculous, and horrible.”).

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