The Magic Fishbone


Cover of edition printed in 1911, with illustrations by Susan Beatrice Pearse

The Magic Fishbone is the second of four stories, written in 1867, for a series called Holiday Romance. The series was published in the children’s magazines:  All the Year Round and Our Young FolksBoth magazines can be found in The Osborne Collection, along with the edition of the story that is shown here, which was published in 1911 and illustrated by Susan Beatrice Pearse.

I had planned to do a post about A Christmas Carol, also by Charles Dickens, because I have Christmas on my mind and the recent press surrounding the new Muppets movie reminded me of their movie/musical version of A Christmas Carol (1992). I was 11 years old when that movie came out and I loved it! It was several years before I read the original story but by that time it felt like an old friend. I knew The Osborne Collection would have several gorgeous editions that I could share on the blog and I was looking forward to seeing a few of them. When I arrived, Martha brought me the books I had asked for from their catalogue, but she also brought out a less well-known Dickens story that she thought I would like: The Magic Fishbone. I had never heard of it before and I thought there was a good chance it would be new to others who read this blog as well, so I’ve decided to share this story instead.

Each of the four stories are purportedly written  by a child during the holidays, which explains how playfully nonsensical this particular story is, as you will see.

The fictional author of  The Magic Fishbone is a seven-year-old girl named, Alice Rainbird.  She tells the story of King and Queen Watkins, who have nineteen children, aged seven months to seven years. The eldest, Princess Alicia helped care for her brothers and sisters, especially because her mother was often ill and her father works in an office all day.

The Watkins Children

The king is in a melancholy mood one morning because quarter day is a long way off  and many of his children are growing out of their clothes. Nevertheless, he stops at a Fishmongers to purchase half a pound of salmon on his way to work one day, to be sent home to his wife for their dinner that night. The errand-boy from the shop quickly catches up with and asks if he noticed the strange old woman in the shop while he was there. The king did not, but the old lady is following closely behind. She introduces herself as Good Fairy Grandmarina and has strict instructions for the king.  He must allow Princess Alicia to eat some of the salmon he has just purchased.

Grandmarina treats the king like a child when he protests and  insists that he does not ask questions, but “be good” and do as he is told. She tells him at the end of the meal Princess Alicia will leave a bone on the plate and he is to tell her to dry it, and polish it until it shines. The fishbone will grant her a wish—any wish—provided she ask for it at the right time.

The king does as he is told and relates the instructions from Grandmarina to Princess Alicia. Her mother, “the Royal Momma” promptly faints and falls ill. Princess Alicia finds her mother’s smelling salts and revives her. Princess Alicia is relied upon to nurse her mother and care for her siblings.


Several things happen, while her mother is ill, that makes Alicia think about using the magic fishbone. One of her young brothers is badly bitten by an ill-tempered pug dog next door, but she manages to stop the bleeding and piece together some old rags to make a proper bandage for him. When the cook runs away with the tall tipsy soldier, Princess Alicia steps in to do the cooking. But, while she is peeling turnips for their  soup, the baby of the family falls out of her lap and under a grate. His face is badly bruised and swollen and he will not stop crying, which upsets the rest of the children. But, Princess Alicia distracts them by having them pretend to be cooks, making caps out of old newspapers. She nurses the baby’s wounds and soothes him while supervising the rest of the children, who finish making dinner. Once they finish eating and cleaning up, she has them entertain the baby (and themselves) with “the dance of eighteen cooks.”

The King is perplexed by the fact that his daughter does not use the magic fishbone and asks her several times if she has lost it or forgotten about it. My favourite part of the story is Alicia’s friendship with the Duchess, her doll, who only Alicia knows is actually alive. I like it because Alicia’s imagination brings the doll further to life, each time she confides in the duchess. When the King looks at her crossly for not helping her mother with the fishbone, Alicia tells the duchess about it and the little doll nods and smiles. As time goes on and Alicia continues to confide in her, the duchess winks, laughs and tosses her hair, and eventually, carries on a conversation.

When the King sees his children dancing for the baby he sighs heavily and sits down miserably. Princess Alicia asks what is wrong and he confides in her about his financial problems. She asks if there is any way of getting more money, and when he assures her there is not, she explains why she has not used the fishbone in the past: “When we have done our very, very best, papa, and that is not enough, then I think the right time must have come for asking help of others.” Then, she takes out the fishbone, kisses it, and the King’s pay comes rattling down the chimney.

The wish is followed promptly by Grandmarina, who arrives in a carriage that is pulled by four peacocks. She is there to scold the king and ensure he has learned a lesson from his daughter. Once satisfied, she provides clothing for the children and heals their wounds before asking to be introduced to the duchess. They request the family’s presence at the church in half an hour. Together, Grandmarina, the duchess, and Princess Alicia search out Prince Certainpersonio. They find him “sitting by himself and waiting to be ninety.” Grandmarina tells him she has brought his bride and the duchess serves as bridesmaid at their wedding.

Thanks to Grandmarina, there will be eight quarter days each year from then on, except leap years, when there will be ten. Which is  a very good thing for Princess Alicia and Prince Certainpersonio; they are told they will have thirty-five children (eighteen girls and seventeen boys). All of their children will all be good and beautiful, with naturally curly hair. “They will never have the measles, and they will have recovered from the whooping-cough before being born.”

Grandmarina’s last order of business is to get rid of the fishbone. When she takes it from Princess Alicia, it magically flies down the throat of the pug dog next door, choking him to death.

It is a strange story, but I could easily imagine a seven year old girl telling it, especially the part about having eighteen girls and seventeen boys. It was surprising in parts and I enjoyed it. It won’t take the place of A Christmas Carol, in terms of a favourite holiday story, but I am glad Martha thought to share it with me.

All photos were taken at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library:

1. Dickens, Charles. The Magic Fishbone. London: The Saint Cathedral Press and James Nisbet & Co., 1911. Illustrations by Susan Beatrice Pearse.



Filed under Mel Rhodes Gray

2 responses to “The Magic Fishbone

  1. Ruth

    I have to wonder about someone like Charles Dickens trying to write from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl. Sure, having thirty-five children isn’t something any sane adult would consider, but what about a seven-year-old coming up with “Prince Certainpersonio”? It’s very cute, but would a seven-year-old think up a name like that? I found in “Twenty and Ten” (how does one underline etc. ?) by Claire Bishop, the narrator uses words far too sophisicated for someone her supposed age. Did you find Dickens’ seven-year-old diction overall believable?

  2. Ruth

    Sophisticated (not sophisicated) but I suppose you already knew that. Gosh, hope I spelled it right this time.

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