A Little Tale's Tale
By Jonathan Woodrow

Review by Yorgos Maragos

In the mid 17th century, 150 years before Edgar Alan Poe conceived and wrote “The Purloined Letter”, the Briton, Jonathan Woodrow, had already written a not so extended novel, titled “A Little Tale’s Tale”, whose opening words were exactly the same as the title of Poe’s detective story. If the similarities ended there, they wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but they do not. The narrator of this novel, which is written in the first person, is a private investigator (or exercises the profession that in the future would be called “private investigator”) who took, on the request of a friend, this “purloined” letter out of the house of one of His Majesty’s Ministers, who, in his turn, had stolen it deceitfully from the queen’s bedroom. Further analogies between the two stories don’t seem to exist, since each takes its own path from that point.
If many analyses have been written about Poe’s “Purloined Letter”, Jonathan Woodrow’s novel is rather unknown in the literary circles of our time, because it never acquired the publicity it deserved. Its writer, a renaissance man of his era (amongst other things he was a doctor and a goldsmith), passed away, after having lived a full life, leaving to his heirs over twenty thousand hand-written pages with poems, criticism, philosophical essays, recipes for medicines, observations upon animal behavior and his novel, “A Little Tale’s Tale”. The only educated enough to understand the value of the novel was Woodrow’s grandson, Jonathan Woodrow III, who decided that “A Little Tale’s Tale” should be published. The only publishing house that accepted the novel was “Livrenon and Bookmore Editions”, a rather eccentric firm, which went bankrupt three years after this publication. The almost a century old novel was printed in 1742 in 400 copies, but without any success. The second and third edition occurred in 1904 and 1984, respectively, by the University of Cambridge and these are the only editions accessible to the public, usually in university libraries, nowadays.
There isn’t any other information about “A Little Tale’s Tale” or, at least, there isn’t any other information in the introduction of the Cambridge editions and in Jorge Luis Borges’ critical essay “Writers and Weaponsmiths”(1) (the essay’s title is in English, even if the text is in Spanish), where the Argentine author presents some fairly unknown but interesting works written by English writers. For “A Little Tale’s Tale” Borges concludes that it is quite improbable that Poe had ever read Woodrow’s novel, since no copy of the first edition ever left Great Britain. He places Woodrow, though, among the predecessors of Herbert Quain’s “April March” and this seems to be true, as the letter inside the novel in question doesn’t have only one version, but according to the varied content of the letter, the fate of the narrator changes. A rather impressive find of the writer is that each version of the letter is a complete story itself; hence the title of the novel. Woodrow didn’t go any further and he didn’t create even more complex forking paths by writing multiple versions of each story inside the letter. In the same context, the writer-doctor, writes the last sentence of the novel in the third person, even though, as mentioned above, the whole novel is written as if narrated by the protagonist. “And nobody in Bristol ever heard of Mr. Hawkins again” is this last sentence, with Mr. Hawkins being the private investigator. What is quite interesting is that the outcome of the story is the same in the end, no matter what kind of adventures the different versions of the letter have caused Mr. Hawkins. This is not completely due to a fatalism, imposed by the Anglican Church of Woodrow’s time, but rather to a determinism, quite popular among English scholars of the 17th century, though somewhat forgotten by the time Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes his “Biographia Literaria”, in which there is the first (very brief) account of Woodrow’s works and of “A Little Tale’s Tale” in particular. Woodrow, a seemingly romantic writer far before Romanticism, appears to be the first to question these two concepts, by undermining the linearity of a narration, though he doesn’t have the courage to escape their influence completely. One would not take much risk saying that Woodrow prophesied the burst of experimental writing that would take place during the 20th century, even though he himself lived in the beginning of the era of the great novels, the death of which, conducted by the superb –novels, nonetheless– “Ulysses” and “In Search of Lost Time”, gave literature a new form.
Unfortunately, the story’s linguistic virtues are very few, a fact that can explain the little public acceptance of the novel and the oblivion into which it has fallen. Apart from some really beautiful phrases that remind of Robert Louis Stevenson, the text is filled with complicated, though exaggerating and unequal sentences, especially when it comes to questions about the choice of words: “The purloined letter and my mood would prove to be my doom” is the novel’s first sentence, which proves our point. Furthermore, there are also sentences that seem simplistic and childish –far away from an appealing simple way of writing some 20th century writers have adopted–, which give the novel an unwelcoming variety of style.
In general, ‘A Little Tale’s Tale” is an unknown, but very interesting novel, whose 200 pages are not going to frustrate the reader, especially if he or she can accept the, from time to time, pseudo-Kafkean and pseudo-Joycean style of Jonathan Woodrow. Poe’s “Purloined Letter” is undoubtedly superior, but then again, a library with one thousand copies of Virgil’s Aeneid is inferior to a library with one copy of the Aeneid and 999 other books.

(1) “Writers and Weaponsmiths” belongs in the third part of Borges’ Ficciones, a third part added after the third edition of the book and taken out again, when the Collected Works were to be published.

(Entry by Yorgos Maragos)