Catskin is an English Cinderella tale collected by Joesph Jacobs from his book More English Fairy Tales. It is identified as a Cinderella tale as it shares the ‘persecuted heroine’ theme. It tells the tale of a young girl rejected by her own father for simply being born a female. She escapes a marriage to a nasty, old man that her miserable and cold father had arranged for her. She is also punished by the cook that she comes to work for because of her catskin rags and scruffy appearance. Like in the tale of Cinderella, the little Catskin girl wins the heart of the prince by attending the ball and changing out of her rags.
An English Cinderella Tale
WELL, there was once a gentleman who had fine lands and houses, and he very much wanted to have a son to be heir to them. So when his wife brought him a daughter, bonny as bonny could be, he cared nothing for her, and said, ‘Let me never see her face.’
So she grew up a bonny girl, though her father never set eyes on her till she was fifteen years old and was ready to be married. But her father said, ‘Let her marry the first that comes for her.’ And when this was known, who should be first but a nasty rough old man. So she didn’t know what to do, and went to the hen-wife and asked her advice. The hen-wife said, ‘Say you will not take him unless they give you a coat of silver cloth.’ Well, they gave her a coat of silver cloth, but she wouldn’t take him for all that, but went again to the hen-wife, who said, ‘Say you will not take him unless they give you a coat of beaten gold.’ Well, they gave her a coat of beaten gold, but still she would not take him, but went to the hen-wife, who said, ‘Say you will not take him unless they give you a coat made of the feathers of all the birds of the air.’ So they sent a man with a great heap of pease; and the man cried to all the birds of the air, ‘Each bird take a pea, and put down a feather.’ So each bird took a pea and put down one of its feathers: and they took all the feathers and made a coat of them and gave it to her; but still she would not, but asked the henwife once again, who said, ‘Say they must first make you a coat of catskin.’ So they made her a coat of catskin; and she put it on, and tied up her other coats, and ran away into the woods.
So she went along and went along and went along, till she came to the end of the wood, and saw a fine castle. So there she hid her fine dresses, and went up to the castle gates, and asked for work. The lady of the castle saw her, and told her, ‘I’m sorry I have no better place, but if you like you may be our scullion.’ So down she went into the kitchen, and they called her Catskin, because of her dress. But the cook was very cruel to her and led her a sad life.
Well, it happened soon after that the young lord of the castle was coming home, and there was to be a grand ball in honour of the occasion. And when they were speaking about it among the servants, ‘Dear me, Mrs Cook,’ said Catskin, ‘how much I should like to go.’
‘What! you dirty impudent slut,’ said the cook, ‘you go among all the fine lords and ladies with your filthy catskin? A fine figure you’d cut!’ and with that she took a basin of water and dashed it into Catskin’s face. But she only briskly shook her ears, and said nothing.
When the day of the ball arrived Catskin slipped out of the house and went to the edge of the forest, where she had hidden her dresses. So she bathed herself in a crystal waterfall, and then put on her coat of silver cloth, and hastened away to the ball. As soon as she entered all were overcome by her beauty and grace, while the young lord at once lost his heart to her. He asked her to be his partner for the first dance, and he would dance with none other the livelong night.
When it came to parting-time, the young lord said, ‘Pray tell me, fair maid, where you live.’ But Catskin curtsied and said:
‘Kind sir, if the truth I must tell,
At the sign of the “Basin of Water” I dwell.’
Then she flew from the castle and donned her catskin robe again, and slipped into the scullery again, unbeknown to the cook.
The young lord went the very next day to his mother, the lady of the castle, and declared he would wed none other but the lady of the silver dress, and would never rest till he had found her. So another ball was soon arranged for, in hope that the beautiful maid would appear again. So Catskin said to the cook, ‘Oh, how I should like to go!’ Whereupon the cook screamed out in a rage, ‘What, you, you dirty impudent slut! You would cut a fine figure among all the fine lords and ladies.’ And with that she up with a ladle and broke it across Catskin’s back. But she only shook her ears, and ran off to the forest, where she first of all bathed, and then put on her coat of beaten gold, and off she went to the ballroom.
As soon as she entered all eyes were upon her; and the young lord soon recognised her as the lady of the ‘Basin of Water’, and claimed her hand for the first dance, and did not leave her till the last. When that came, he again asked her where she lived. But all that she would say was:
‘Kind sir, if the truth I must tell,
At the sign of the “Broken Ladle” I dwell,’
and with that she curtsied, and flew from the ball, off with her golden robe, on with her catskin, and into the scullery without the cook’s knowing.
Next day when the young lord could not find where was the sign of the ‘Basin of Water’, or of the ‘Broken Ladle’, he begged his mother to have another grand ball, so that he might meet the beautiful maid once more.
All happened as before. Catskin told the cook how much she would like to go to the ball, the cook called her ‘a dirty slut’, and broke the skimmer across her head. But she only shook her ears, and went off to the forest, where she first bathed in the crystal spring, and then donned her coat of feathers, and so off to the ballroom.
When she entered everyone was surprised at so beautiful a face and form dressed in so rich and rare a dress; but the young lord soon recognised his beautiful sweetheart, and would dance with none but her the whole evening. When the ball came to an end, he pressed her to tell him where she lived, but all she would answer was:
‘Kind sir, if the truth I must tell,
At the sign of the “Broken Skimmer” I dwell,’
and with that she curtsied, and was off to the forest. But this time the young lord followed her, and watched her change her fine dress of feathers for her catskin dress, and then he knew her for his own scullery-maid.
Next day he went to his mother, the lady of the castle, and told her that he wished to marry the scullery-maid, Catskin. ‘Never,’ said the lady, and rushed from the room. Well, the young lord was so grieved at that, that he took to his bed and was very ill. The doctor tried to cure him, but he would not take any medicine unless from the hands of Catskin. So the doctor went to the lady of the castle, and told her her son would die if she did not consent to his marriage with Catskin. So she had to give way, and summoned Catskin to her. But she put on her coat of beaten gold, and went to the lady, who soon was glad to wed her son to so beautiful a maid.
Well, so they were married, and after a time a dear little son came to them, and grew up a bonny lad; and one day, when he was four years old, a beggar woman came to the door, so Lady Catskin gave some money to the little lord and told him to go and give it to the beggar woman. So he went and gave it, but put it into the hand of the woman’s child, who leant forward and kissed the little lord. Now the wicked old cook — why hadn’t she been sent away? — was looking on, so she said, ‘Only see how beggars’ brats take to one another.’ This insult went to Catskin’s heart, so she went to her husband, the young lord, and told him all about her father, and begged he would go and find out what had become of her parents. So they set out in the lord’s grand coach, and travelled through the forest till they came to Catskin’s father’s house, and put up at an inn near, where Catskin stopped, while her husband went to see if her father would own her.
Now her father had never had any other child, and his wife had died; he was all alone in the world and sate moping and miserable. When the young lord came in he hardly looked up, till he saw a chair close up to him, and asked him: ‘Pray, sir, had you not once a young daughter whom you would never see or own?’
The old gentleman said: ‘It is true; I am a hardened sinner. But I would give all my worldly goods if I could but see her once before I die.’ Then the young lord told him what had happened to Catskin, and took him to the inn, and brought his father-in-law to his own castle, where they lived happy ever afterwards.
Books Featuring the tale of Catskin