By Richard Sandomir – October 30, 2017
Iona Opie, a British folklorist who worked with her husband, Peter, to produce major studies of nursery rhymes as well as the oral traditions of games, jokes, nicknames, taunts and pranks among schoolchildren, died on Oct. 23 in the town of Petersfield, in Hampshire, England. She was 94.
Her death, in a nursing home, was confirmed by her son James.
The Opies, inquisitive lovers of reference books who did not attend college, were nearly inseparable for almost 40 years. Their partnership began in Bedfordshire, where the publishing firm Mr. Opie had been working for was evacuated during World War II. He was bored. She was pregnant. They were looking for something to do together.
While on a walk in the countryside, they came upon a ladybird (the species of beetle known in North America as a ladybug) and recited a nursery rhyme that begins: “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire / And your children all gone.”
They had known the rhyme as children but had not thought about it since. “And the next time we were in London,” Mrs. Opie said in a speech at the University of Sheffield in 1998, “the first thing we did was go to the public library and ask for a book about the histories of nursery rhymes. And the book we were given was Halliwell’s `Nursery Rhymes of England,’ 1842.”
What they gleaned from James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps’s collection set the Opies on a seven-year hunt into the etymological and historical roots of nursery rhymes.
In “The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes” (1951), they traced parts of “Hey diddle diddle / The cat and the fiddle / The cow jumped over the moon” to the 16th-century playwright Thomas Preston (“They can play a new dance called hey-didle-didle”) and to a 1597 poem by Alexander Montgomerie (“Of your own fidle take a spring / And dance when ye have done”).
And when they delved into the familiar short verse that begins “Jack Sprat would eat no fat” (which appeared in print as early as 1639), the Opies discovered that “Jack Sprat” was “a term for a dwarf” in the 16th and 17th centuries, and that the rhyme might have been used against “a contemporary cleric of small proportions.”
Some of their collected rhymes were “too rude and rumbustious,” for their book, Mrs. Opie said, but they provided part of the foundation for their next big study. In “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren” (1959), they surveyed 5,000 students in 70 schools throughout Britain and revealed that a type of secret childhood code of interaction is perpetuated through songs, rhymes, games, jeers and bullying.
“Like the savage,” the Opies wrote of schoolchildren in that book, “they are respecters, even venerators, of custom; and in their self-contained community, their basic lore and language seems scarcely to alter from generation to generation.”
Leonard Marcus, a children’s book historian and critic, said in a telephone interview that “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren” “captured on paper and showed the emotional complexity of children once they moved from family into the world of their peers.” It also offered a glimpse, he said, into the tribal behavior of children that explained, in part, the cruelty exhibited by boys in William Golding’s 1954 novel, “The Lord of the Flies.”
Mrs. Opie did not stop observing children at play with that book. She and her husband continued to collaborate, and she continued their studies after his death in 1982. She traveled to British towns and villages, stopped at schoolyards that were enlivened by the shouts and screams of children, and asked the teachers to let her observe and talk to the students.
“And the head teachers were just so unalarmed in those days,” Mrs. Opie said in her Sheffield speech, “and usually they would say, ‘Well, come in, of course!’ And then, ‘Do you want to keep any of the children? Just help yourself!’”
For “The People in the Playground” (1993), Mrs. Opie watched children ages 7 to 11 and recorded their activities like a naturalist watching primate behavior in Tanzania. In a review in The Independent, Paul Barker wrote that Mrs. Opie “speaks of the playground as a scene of Hobbesian conflict” in which “more or less everyone is playing something at which they are trying to win.”
Iona Margaret Balfour Archibald was born on Oct. 3, 1923, in Colchester, Essex. Her father, Robert Archibald, was director of the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratory in Khartoum, Sudan. He was rarely at home. Her mother, the former Olive Cant, was a homemaker.
Mrs. Opie attended the Sandecotes School in Parkstone, Dorset, and rather than go to college during the war as she had planned, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and worked as a meteorologist.
She met her future husband by writing him a fan letter about a book he had written. They married in 1943.
“I did this very stupid thing of letting myself get fascinated with Peter,” her obituary in The Guardian quoted her as saying.
She added, “I was 19 and knew it was the end of my independent life.”
They pursued their work in austere fashion, but they amassed a huge collection of children’s playthings and books, 90 tons of which were moved from their former home in Alton to one they bought in West Liss in 1959, and where she continued to live.
They worked in side-by-side offices.
“We led this curiously reclusive life,” Mrs. Opie said at the University of Sheffield. “We worked unsocial hours.” They did not have a television. They did not go to pubs, restaurants, concerts or plays. They did not ask friends to join them for evenings at the house.
“We were expected to amuse ourselves,” her son James said. But, he added, “We fondly remember our day trips to the beach.”
James attended boarding school, as did his brother, Robert, and his sister, Letitia. This let their parents focus on their work.
Besides James Opie, his siblings survive her, as do five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Well after her husband’s death, Mrs. Opie found a second collaborator in Maurice Sendak, the master of terrifying, haunting children’s books. In 1992, he illustrated a new edition of “I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book,” a collection of rhymes that the Opies had published 45 years earlier.
“Sendak’s works were very rooted in folklore,” Mr. Marcus said, “so he naturally would have turned to the Opies’ book for material and inspiration.”
Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Opie was an expert on Mother Goose, the prolific and unknown author of children’s rhymes and stories. In “My Very First Mother Goose” (1996), which was illustrated by Rosemary Wells, she named the reasons Mother Goose remained so appealing and her rhymes so enduring (calling them “astonishing,” “golluptious” “pomsidilious” and “yo-heave-ho-ish”).
“There they lie,” she wrote, “the nursery rhymes so much at the back of our minds that we can’t remember when we first learned them. What did they give us, so long ago? A suggestion that mishaps might be funny rather than tragic, that tantrums can be comical as well as frightening, and that laughter is the cure for practically everything.”