Nellie Sloggett and North Cornish folklore

Simon Young, ‘“Her room was her world”: Nellie Sloggett and North Cornish Folklore’, Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics 11(2) (2017), 101-136.

Nellie Sloggett lived from 1850 to 1923. She was a Cornish author who published around 18 books from 1885 to 1911 under the pseudonyms of Nellie Cornwall and Enys Tregarthen, with another three books appearing posthumously. What make this output especially remarkable is that Nellie had been paralysed from the waist down in her teens from an unspecified illness. This left her bed-ridden for the rest of her life. Consequently, her books were all written in the bedrooms of a succession of houses in Padstow and Little Petherick, with her view confined to that from her window.

Simon Young sets out in this article to provide a detailed biography of her life and works and, more importantly, to restore Nellie Sloggett’s importance to the study of Cornish folklore, where he argues she has been unduly neglected by folklore scholars.

Young explains how Nellie, the only daughter of an ordinary working couple at Padstow, was able to devote her life to literature. Her father was a seaman who died in 1857, after which she and her mother relied on the support of her aunt. Fortunately her uncle, Charles Rawle, who had also been a mariner, prospered. He established a boatyard in 1874, became one of the town’s principal employers and even achieved the dizzy heights of the magistrates’ bench by 1901. This meant that, with no financial worries, Nellie was able to read widely and voraciously. Young describes how she taught herself Hebrew and learnt Greek, while consuming the major classics and corresponding with other literary figures of late nineteenth-century Cornwall.

Nellie’s output was of two starkly different types. As Nellie Cornwall she wrote a series of ‘Christian novels for adolescents and young adults’. Most of these were set in Cornwall and were what Young calls ‘waif novels’, with the neglected or abandoned child eventually being saved through God’s grace and their religious faith. The principal theme was one familiar to readers of Cornish dialect stories, religious simplicity trumping scholarly Christianity.

This may have reflected Nellie’s religious background, being baptised as a Bible Christian. Although she seems to have drifted towards Anglicanism over the years (perhaps influenced by her Conservative and Anglican uncle’s family) and her novels bridged Methodism and low Anglicanism. Then, after the turn of the century, Nellie’s output took an abrupt turn, away from sermonising and towards the supernatural.

Piskies galore? An illustration from one of Nellie Sloggett’s books on folklore.

Simon Young is more interested in this second phase of folklore stories. Significantly coinciding with a renewed interest in ‘Celtic’ Cornwall, from 1905 to 1911 she published three books of folk tales. These were followed by another three books after her death, amounting to a total of 42 folk tales. Yet this considerable output has been largely ignored by folklore specialists. For instance, she’s not cited in Deane and Shaw’s classic Folklore of Cornwall (1975). Neither does she get a mention in Brendan McMahon’s recent A Wreck Upon the Ocean: Cornish Folklore in the Industrial Revolution (2015), although Young reports that she will appear in Ron James’ forthcoming The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation.

Nellie as Enys Tregarthen has posed a problem for folklorists. By the early twentieth century folklore studies had adopted a discipline of meticulously recording the source, the location and the plot of tales as they were given to them. In contrast to this pseudo-scientific approach, Nellie to a greater or lesser degree fictionalized the folk tales in order to entertain the reader.

But, as Young points out, we have no alternative, systematic nineteenth-century recording of folklore from this part of Cornwall to match the earlier collections of Hunt and Bottrell in the west. He makes the case that, while Nellie herself was not explicit about the background of the tales she used, it’s possible to assess which of those tales were ‘traditional’ through their content, motifs and location. For example, he concludes that the tales of piskey-led travellers (common in Cornwall at the time) ‘feel’ traditional and based on oral accounts.

Simon Young concludes that Nellie Sloggett, writing as Enys Tregarthen, has been unfairly neglected by folklorists of Cornwall. In contrast, he suggests her work is as important as that of Hunt or Bottrell. The article finishes with a valuable list of Nellie Sloggett’s works, including short summaries of all her books.

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