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Columnist Nicola Miller finds a Suffolk link to a timeless children's nursery rhyme

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Soon, our grandson will arrive for a sleepover. He’s barely three, and although I feel sure he will have a ball, I can’t help remembering family stories about my first night away from home.

“I’ll come back when I am four,” I told my grandparents after an entire evening crying in my bed resulted in their calling my father at near midnight to come fetch me. I didn’t go back when I was four. Instead, I emigrated thousands of miles away with my parents and sister, and now, having my own grandchildren, I gasp when I imagine the heartbreak my grandparents went through as they waved us goodbye at Heathrow Airport.

At bedtime, ‘he just needs a story and a bottle of water, and a round of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’, his mother reassures me. How incredible is it that this nursery rhyme continues to enchant to this day?

Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller

Moreover, the nursery rhyme has a connection with the Suffolk village of Lavenham, whose composer Jane Taylor (1783–1824), an English poet and novelist, lived with her family at Shilling Grange in Lavenham’s Shilling Street. Twinkle, Twinkle was initially published under the title ‘The Star’ in ‘Rhymes for the Nursery’, a collection of poems by Taylor and her older sister Ann.

The book was a special commission by the publishers Darton and Harvey.

The simple verse
of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ belies the skill required to capture the tender relationship between a mother and her child as she introduces it to a universe beyond the nursery walls. In her autobiography, Ann, Jane’s sister, alludes to this skill as she reminisces about Jane describing her own writing process: “I try to conjure some child into my presence, address her suitably, as well as I am able and when I begin to flag, I say to her, ‘There love, now you may go’.”

It is unknown if the poem was written in Lavenham or inspired by its West Suffolk night skies. Many scholars claim that Jane Taylor wrote the poem in Colchester after the family moved there.

Jane did have an interest in astronomy, though and would have had fine views of the Lavenham skies from the attic windows, which her brother Isaac noted in 1825: “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.”

The two little girls attended dance lessons at the Swan Inn (now the Swan Hotel) tutored by an 18-stone dancing master from Bury St Edmunds.

Their father, a noted engraver, painted both children against the rural backdrop of their garden back in 1792. The National Portrait Gallery now owns this portrait, although it is on long-term loan to the Bath Preservation Trust, where it has been hung in the Georgian setting of the drawing-room at 1 Royal Crescent, Bath.

The Taylor sisters were reasonably prolific, publishing several volumes of tales and rhymes for infants. Still, Jane died early, aged 40, of breast cancer on April 13, 1824,

‘Twinkle’ continues to attract visitors to the village.

The Taylor’s former home is now owned by the National Trust, which has staged exhibitions at the nearby Guildhall.

When our grandson is older, we plan to take him to Lavenham for a visit; we can only hope the night skies remain dark enough so that he too might gaze upon the star that Jane Taylor captured so beautifully and timelessly.

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