A good time to remember Jane Taylor, our local shining star
- Credit: Archant
Conceived in Lavenham and written in Colchester, one of the best known verses in the English language has echoed through space - spoken by a woman astronaut about to return to earth.
Don Black, hearing ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ as it was sung from space, wonders why its creator, our very own Jane Taylor, is forgotten once again
Samantha Castoforetti, a 38-year-old pilot in the Italian air force, recited these words after 199 days aboard a man-made star hurtling around earth:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
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Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
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Instead of repeating the rest of Jane’s poem, Samantha then went on to voice this cosmic version:
Twinkle, twinkle star so bright,
Winking at me in the night,
How I wish that I could fly
And visit you, up in the sky.
Little child, your wish come true,
Here I am, right next to you,
I’ll take you on a magic ride,
So come with me, I’ll be your guide.
There’s so much you will see and do
On this adventure made for you
Out your window through the sky
Up above the world we’ll fly.
Higher than a bird will go
To places only rockets know,
Beyond the planes that soar up high
Is where we’ll travel you and I.
Look around you, little one
There’s the moon and there’s the sun
See the planets – count them all
Some are big and some are small.
Can you name them, one by one
As they orbit round the sun?
Those additional verses were written by Iza Trapani, a Polish-born woman who lives in New York State and writes and illustrates children’s books.
Like Jane Taylor’s words, they are delightfully simple, rhyme well and don’t go against any religious belief or absence of faith. My only regret is that, in their first ever extra-terrestrial context, Jane is given no credit for them.
The same goes for a an exquisite “lullaby book” I bought in Ipswich long ago that plays the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and lights a make-believe star. It claims copyright and gives credit to numerous people, except Jane.
Chance led me into this elevated field of poetry, starting on June 10. While Samantha sped homeward, I was static in a West Suffolk Hospital operating theatre.
Two Filipina nurses showed me how to access gas-and-air, explaining that it was also used in childbirth and, in reply to my question, that they began learning their excellent English with nursery rhymes. Only later did I learn that these included The Star.
Early the next morning I switched on my bedside radio to the BBC World Service.
Still half asleep, I heard the words Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in a news bulletin that otherwise I did not catch.
Next day I discovered that I had not been dreaming.....
Who was Jane Taylor?
Jane Taylor lived in what today are some of England’s most attractive places, but much of her life was hard and sad.
A further sadness is that most books featuring her poem The Star do not say who wrote it and some attribute it to others.
Jane’s elder sister Ann was also a gifted poet. The Star appeared in their Rhymes for the Nursery, among 93 others, that they published in 1806.
They helped to inaugurate a new style of writing, being two of the earliest authors to write what children readily understood, rather than highly moralistic work.
But only The Star has survived to be recognised worldwide from their massive literary output.
That alone is an achievement. The fame of many a poet rests on a single poem. Here is Jane’s.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, Twinkle, all the night.
Then the traveller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark;
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.
In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye
Till the sun is in the sky.
As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveller in the dark,
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, Twinkle, little star.
There have been numerous updated versions, some of which couldn’t be repeated in a family newspaper. Jane Taylor herself, though, was a dab hand at parody.
She took a poem by William Cowper, “To Mary” – a man’s lament for lost love, and turned it into “The Disillusioned Bride”, a wife’s regret at her marriage going wrong just 20 weeks after the wedding.
Its 12 verses show a feminist trait at odds with Jane’s other writings. One verse in particular bitterly condemns both a fictional husband and an all too real obstacle to separation:
Safely thou shew’st a tyrant’s heart.
For Hymen’s chain with cruel art,
Hath bound us so we must not part
Jane never married. She had many friends and admirers, but perhaps ill health and a reserved nature kept her natural exuberance in check and put difficulties in the way of any serious romance.
Her father, moreover, was deeply religious and a disciplinarian, to the extent of recommending expulsion for members of his congregation who did not attend enough services.
Although Isaac might have daunted suitors, Jane’s elder sister Ann and four younger siblings all married, happily as far as we know. Four others died in infancy.
An engraver and artist before and during his chapel ministries, Isaac and his wife first lived in an apartment near Islington parish church in what then was countryside outside London.
Jane was born there on September 23, 1783. Isaac paid an annual rent of £20 and inquired about somewhere cheaper within 100 miles of central London. He found a house in Lavenham for £6 a year.
Moving in 1786, Isaac and his family found Suffolk much healthier than the smoky, insanitary capital. They quickly discovered a bonus - the big, clear Suffolk sky that still, despite light pollution, turns into a sparkling dome at night.
There can be little doubt that the seed of “The Star” was planted in Jane’s mind when she was a little girl, or that she actually wrote it in her next home, Colchester. No matter. Lavenham is so picturesque that one feels that the poem ought to have been written there.
The Taylors’ home in Shilling Street looks so romantic, it has occasionally been nicknamed Twinkle House. Not that Lavenham had much romance at that time.
Its streets were muddy and the ancient houses had seen better times. The heyday of the wool industry had gone, although in warm weather people continued to sit outside at their spinning wheels.
Isaac Taylor, as a firm Dissenter, became a deacon, but was not so strict as to forbid dancing.
Jane and Ann enjoyed going to the Swan Inn for lessons given by an 18-stone dancing master from Bury St Edmunds.
Isaac somehow found time to paint the girls in their tranquil Lavenham garden. This picture, owned by the National Portrait Gallery, is on long-term loan to Bath Preservation Trust and can be seen in the fine Georgian setting of the drawing room at 1, Royal Crescent, Bath.
It was painted around 1792, when the Taylors moved from their first Lavenham home to one next door. It was also the year the French Revolution was at its most ferocious.
The fear it aroused extended far into the English countryside. The Taylors’ loyalty to “Church and King” was questioned and a mob threatened to burn their home.
It appears that only the timely intervention of the Lavenham Church of England parson saved the house from destruction.
He persuaded the rioters to go home.
The family moved in 1796 to Colchester where Isaac was accepted as the Independents’ minister. Their house next to St Martin’s church in West Stockwell Street has a wooden plaque recording that they lived there.
Twenty-year-old Jane and the younger children returned to Lavenham for a time because Colchester, then as now a garrison town, was thought to be threatened by a Napoleonic invasion.
Back at Colchester, the sisters’ “day job” was helping their father in his engraving business.
An early star gazer
Jane learned astronomy and is said to have composed The Star looking through an attic window.
“The window commanded a view of the country and a tract of sky as a field for that nightly soaring of the fancy of which she was so fond,” wrote her brother Isaac in 1825.
Her sister Ann married an Independent clergyman, the Rev Joseph Gilbert, and thanks to research by a great-great-grandson, Robin Taylor Gilbert, we can definitely locate the origin of The Star to Colchester.
Books and picture postcards located Jane’s star-gazing and composition of her famed poem to a certain window at Lavenham, but Mr Gilbert argues that this could not be correct; the window was not installed until 1930.
The Taylors’ descendants ensured that Suffolk and Essex record offices have the family archives. They also concentrated a collection of his girls’ gowns, tea sets and other memorabilia in what was the Taylor Room at Lavenham Guildhall, a National Trust property. This is, however, currently stored in the Guildhall attic, its space taken by a Francis Lingard Ranson exhibition commemorating the man who did more for Lavenham preservation than any other.
Jane died aged 40, from breast cancer on April 13, 1824, and is buried with her parents in Ongar churchyard. “Let her works praise her,” concludes the inscription on her grave. They do, even if to most of us they comprise no more than the words of one verse of one poem.