Joseph Jacobs: Writer of Children’s Literature

By: Mabel Kaplan

a distinguished Jewish historian, a noted student of classics, linguistics and mathematics.
Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916)”
– a boy from Oz – one of Australia’s forgotten sons.

In secular circles Joseph Jacobs is probably best remembered for his contribution to children’s literature and as an English folklorist.

He gave the world versions of its best known and most representative folktales in a form suited to children.

Thanks to Joseph Jacobs, over the years tales like ‘Goldilocks’, ‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘Tom Tit Tot’, ‘Henny Penny’, Jack and the Beanstalk’ and numerous others have delighted young listeners.

During his life Joseph Jacobs left an indelible mark on the academic world of the three continents in which he lived – Australia, England and Unites States of America.

Joseph’s father, John Jacobs was a Londoner by birth and came to New South Wales, Australia about 1837 where he met and married Sarah Myers. Joseph was born in Sydney on the 29 August, 1854, the fourth son – after Sydney, Edwin, Louis. In the Great Synagogue Burial Register, John Jacobs’ death certificate lists a further five male children as deceased). A younger sibling – Frances – is also recorded.

From an early age the young Joseph exhibited all the signs of a child prodigy: voracious reader, insatiable curiosity in all things. “He had a remarkable memory for the things he had once read or heard and would delight his friends” by reeling off “anecdotes and stories without end.” (Editorial, 1916)

At the age of six, according to Professor Graham Seal (1986), Director Australian Folklore Research Unit at Curtin University, WA, Jacobs was told the tales of ‘Henny Penny’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ on a visit to the Cornish Community in South Australia. That ‘Henny Penny is No. 20 in Jacobs first anthology of English Fairy Tales (London, 1890) bears testament, not only to the impression this early telling had but also, to the prodigious memory of Joseph, the child. The original text is reproduced in Seal’s article.

Of Joseph’s early formal schooling little is known, but given his father’s close association as a seatholder at the York Street Synagogue from 1842, it is likely that he was taught privately at the Jewish day school then in existence.

In 1863, by the time Joseph was nine, his father was licensee of the Post Office Hotel on the west side of York Street, between King and Barrack Streets (Benjamin, 1949, p.73). This position John Jacobs retained until 1874 when he went into business first in Elizabeth Street and later in Redfern.

It is known that the young Joseph entered Sydney Grammar School, as did many Jewish boys of the period, – a non-denominational selective school for gifted boys – in the April of 1867 at the age of twelve years, eight months. A.B. Weigall, who was to become one of Sydney Grammar’s most noted academics, had taken up the position of headmaster in January of the same year.

From the very beginning, Joseph proved himself an exceptional scholar. In his first year he won his form prize for mathematics. The following year he won a prize for English, while in 1869 he topped his form in mathematics, English and the physical sciences. At the end of 1870, when he was just over sixteen, he won the Knox Prize for the highest aggregate of marks in the upper school competing against others a year older. In his final year (1871) , he won the Senior Knox Prize, as well as the coveted title of Captain of the School, given not to outstanding footballers, but to the Dux in languages. (Interestingly, by the end of his life Jacobs reputably knew forty different languages).

In addition to his academic pursuits during 1871-2, Jacobs was an honorary teacher of the Sydney Jewish Sabbath School. This interest in Jewish faith, culture and history developed into a major thrust of much of his later writings.

Jacobs won a valuable Scholarship to Sydney University having taken honors for general proficiency, English, mathematics and classics. In March, 1872 Jacobs entered the Faculty of Arts of Sydney University where again he had a most successful year, winning his class prizes in classics, mathematics, chemistry and experimental physics. By this time, at the age of eighteen the width of his reading was amazing. He owned an extensive library of classics, and both English and European History.

The Australian Israelite (1873, 6) reports: “Mr Joseph Jacobs, son of Mr John Jacobs of York street has been announced as “first” amongst the first year University students in classics, mathematics, and physics, in the examinations just concluded at our local Alma Mater. This gentleman gives great promise of future distinction in his educational career, and is about proceeding to the mother country to enter the lists at Cambridge.”

Instead of completing his degree at Sydney University, Jacobs’ father and elder brothers, who by now were well established in business, sent him to St John’s College, Cambridge University in time for the opening of the academic year in October, 1873. Although, Jacobs never returned to Australia (Bergman, 1978, 41), according to his daughter, May Bradshaw Hays, Jacobs fully intended to study law and return here to practice when he left Australia. (Hays, 1952, 386)

In Cambridge Jacobs resumed his run of academic success, including the Freshman’s Award in his first year and in his final year, the Wright Prize – a highly valued distinction among Moralists – and the College prize for an English essay. This interest in literature and anthropology continued to shape his future. Upon receiving his B.A. (Hons. First Class) in 1876 Jacobs went to London to become a writer.

For Jacobs, life as a student and academic was accompanied by the problems that plagued many a student – not the least of those being financial. For someone who was to become such an eminent writer in so many fields it is amusing to note that his first published book, was one he wrote as a ghost writer for a dentist: Dental Bridges and Crowns. (Hays, 1952, 386).

George Eliot’s controversial Daniel Deronda (telecast on ABC 2003) – a book that foreshadowed the movement for a Jewish Palestine – made a deep impact on Jacobs. His first published article, “Mordecai” in MacMillan’s Magazine (June, 1877) attacked the criticisms of the book and led Jacobs to devote most of his life from that point to Jewish studies.

He became secretary of the Society of Hebrew Literature, strengthening his knowledge of folk-lore and racial history. During this time Jacobs met and married Georgina Horne. They had three children – a daughter, May who married David Hays, and sons, Sydney and Phillip.

In 1888 he edited The Earliest English Version of the Fables of Bidpai followed by articles on the migration of Jewish Folktales. He next edited The Fables of Aesop 1889. Jacobs joined the Folk-Lore Society and from 1889-1900 edited the Society’s Journal Folk-Lore.
Jacob’s daughter, May Bradshaw Hays, in ‘Memories of My Father Joseph Jacobs’ in Horn Book 28, 385 (1952), shares these insights into his continuing passion for children’s literature: “Until I was nearly eight, I thought all fathers wrote fairytales to earn a living for their families. As a matter of course every morning I would watch my father, Joseph Jacobs, take his bowler hat from the hallstand, place the crook of his umbrella over his left arm, and start out for the British Museum “to find more stories to put in fairy books”.
May describes his nightly homecoming as a child’s delight – surprises in his pockets, stories on his tongue. She also paints a delightful picture of his returning on a cold London evening having bought two hot baked potatoes from the old man on the corner by the museum and using them to warm his hands in his pockets on the way home … where they shared the eating of them. (Hays, 1952, 386)
The children were his test cases; on them, he tried out the tales he would publish in his fairy tale collections. In writing for children, Jacobs rarely failed to consider his audience. According to his daughter, he trusted their responses absolutely. … The centrality of these children to the shaping of the fairy tale volumes is reflected in the tenderly worded dedications of three of the works to his three children. (in Hays, 1952)

Jacobs series of collections of fairytales make him one of the most popular writers of fairytales for English speaking children.
Jacobs went on to compile European folktales and stories, as well as editing scholarly editions of The Thousand and One Nights (six volumes, 1896)

That Jacobs placed tales like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Dick Whittington’, ‘The Pied Piper’, ‘Jack, the Giant Killer’ and the ‘Three Little Pigs’ in a fairytale collection may come as a surprise. But to Jacobs, the fairy world was simply a world where the extraordinary can, and usually did happen. Thus, the giant and ‘wee’ folk equally belonged therein. Originally fairy folk could even be human size. They might be ugly hags or amoral tricksters like Puck or Robin Goodfellow, or even thieves blamed for losses around the house or farm.
Jacobs looked on the fairy world as a world of enchantment.

In all his writings for children, Jacobs preserved the ‘oral voice’ – the way the stories should actually be told to children. In maintaining this approach, Jacobs gave the world versions of its best known and most representative folk stories in a form suited to children while remaining true to the essential core of the original versions. In many respects his work provides a worthy successor to that of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen – in preserving traditional tales in a manner that secured their place for enjoyment by many generations of children.

According to Eloise Ramsey (1952), Jacobs rescued the fast-disappearing English tales from a threatened oblivion and rekindled interest in them by rewriting them in a style he himself once described “as good as an old nurse will speak”. Professor Stewig (1987, 128) credits Jacobs at the age of thirty-six years with being “the person most responsible for preserving the body of British folk tales”. The collection’s greatest significance is that it recorded old tales at a critical time when they were in danger of being lost.

Despite Jacobs’ deep involvement in the study of folklore and the activities of the Society throughout the 1880’s and 1890’s and his voluminous output of writings – articles, reviews, lectures, literature studies and his numerous compilations of fairy/folk tales for children – his interest in Jewish History never waned. In 1900, he went to the United States to become the revising editor of The Jewish Encyclopedia. He was also appointed a Professor of English at the Theological Seminary in New York and for a time edited the British journal “Folklore”.

An older Joseph Jacobs writing from America pens this letter – later published in the school’s magazine (Sydneian, 1910, 15-16) – to his former headmaster, Mr Weigall, still at Sydney Grammar – to congratulate him on being named in the King’s Honours List underlines the significance of Joseph’s Grammar School days:

Dear Mr Weigall: Permit me to congratulate you most heartily on the distinction conferred upon you by His Majesty, of which I have just heard from my brother Sydney. As one of the oldest of your ‘Old Boys’ I feel that I have a small share in the joy it must have given you. I always look back to my School days under your charge as the happiest times of my life, and perhaps the most successful in intellectual acquirement. Whatever I have of scholarly tendency and method, I owe to your influence and training.

“You may be interested to know that about ten years ago I left England to carry through a big ’Jewish Encyclopedia,’ in twelve volumes, which I succeeded in doing in about five years which was regarded as a great triumph of constructive scholarship, as the materials for such a work had never been gathered together. In recognition the University of Pennsylvania conferred upon me (at the same time with the Emperor of Germany!) the degree of Doctor of Letters (Litt. D.), and I was thereupon appointed Professor of English and Rhetoric at the great Jewish Seminary here. This, with the Editorship of the American Hebrew, the chief Jewish weekly published in this country, occupies my time so fully that I am afraid I cannot look forward to much literary work for the rest of my life. … I thought you would be interested in these details of the fate of one of your oldest pupils, and with the kindest regards to yourself and any of my old fellow-students who may happen to remember me,” – Yours very sincerely, JOSEPH JACOBS.

It is difficult to offer much about the man, Joseph Jacobs as, apart from a short biography written by his daughter, May (Hays, 1952), it has been left to obituarists to speak of his wit, warmth, humility, gentleness, kindness.

Mathilde Schechter (1916, 354) recalls a conversation with a friend: “A Cambridge lady friend once said to me of Jacobs who was an Australian by birth: ‘You see, he is a Colonial, and a Colonial has all the nice English traits, but in addition he is more free and warmhearted.” Schechter (1916, 354)

Dr Donald McAlister (Schechter, 1916, 354) one time tutor at St John’s, Cambridge “spoke of Jacobs’ kindness” … “how he had tended a student through a dangerous infectious illness and insisted on doing any number of kind little things for him.”

Jacobs cheerfulness, wit, and lively intellect won him many friends in many countries – many of whom worked with him closely on various projects and had known him almost thirty years. Throughout his life, he retained his passions and his warm personality. He died at his home in Yonkers, New York State on 3 February, 1916 at aged 61.

As his daughter records (Hays, 1952, 392): “People age in different ways – the lucky ones age only on the surface and keep the sensitive core of childhood within. After his death, the editorial the family treasured most was one that read:

1 Anne Jarvis (Feb.March, 2003) Assistant Archivist, Sydney Grammar School, NSW for her patience and help in getting me started in the search for information about Joseph Jacobs early years
Helen Bersten, Honorary Archivist, Sydney Jewish Historical Society and Tinny Lenthen, Librarian at the Sydney Jewish Museum for providing resources rich in relevant information.

Benjamin, David (1949), “Joseph Jacobs” in The Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, Vol.111, Part 11, December 1949, pp.72-91)

Bergman, Dr G.F.J (1978), “Australia’s Forgotten Jewish Historian” in Australian Jewish Times, September 28, 1978, p.41.

Brasch, R. (1955), The Star of David, Angus and Robertson, Sydney pp. 267-269

Editorial (1916), “Death of Joseph Jacobs” in The American Hebrew, February 4, 1916, Vol. 98, No. 13, p. 352)

Hays, May Bradshaw. “Memories of My Father, Joseph Jacobs” in Horn Book 28: 385-392 (1952)).

Marx, Alexander (1947), “The Jewish Scholarship of Joseph Jacobs” in Alexander Marx (ed), (1947), Essays in Jewish Biography,

Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America.

Ramsey, Eloise (1952), Folklore for Children and Young People, American Folklore Society, Philadelphia

Schechter, Mathilde (1916) “Salute from Mrs Solomon Schechter” in The American Hebrew, February 4, 1916, Vol. 98, No. 13, p.354

Seal, Graham (1986) “Joseph Jacobs and ‘English’ fairy tales in Australia 1860” in The Australian Children’s Folklore Newsletter, No.10,
May, 1986)

Shaner, Mary E.(1987), ’Joseph Jacobs’, in Jane Bingham (ed.),(1987), Writers for Children: Critical Studies of Major Authors Since the Seventeenth Century, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, pp. 309-316

Stewig, John Warren (1987) ‘Joseph Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales: A Legacy for Today’ in Perry Nodelman (ed), Touchstones Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature: Fairy Tales, Fables, Myths, Legends and Poetry, Vol. 2, pp. 128-139

Sydneian, March, 1910, 15-16

(Published 2003. Updated 2009)

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