Reviewer: Ian M. Slater "aylchanan" (Los Angeles, CA United States)
It's a surprise and a shame that this charming little book is apparently out of print in the U.S. I first encountered "Hobberdy Dick" in a library copy of the original, British, Eyre and Spottiswoode edition of 1955, having noticed it in the card catalogue (remember them?) while looking up Katharine M. Briggs' several academic works on English folklore in Tudor and Stuart literature ("The Anatomy of Puck," 1959; "Pale Hecate's Team," 1962; now out of print, although there were expensive "Selected Works" reprintings in 2002). I remembered it with pleasure, and wished that it were still available.
Some years later I was fortunate enough to see and buy a copy of the 1972 Puffin edition (the Penguin Books children's imprint), complete with Scoular Anderson's evocative illustrations, when it was reprinted in 1976 -- coinciding with the publication Brigg's excellent "An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures." (This does seem to be in print, and is both easy to read and authoritative; in British editions, it is "A Dictionary of Fairies." Brigg's "The Fairies in Tradition and Literature" (1967) carries the story into the twentieth century, and likewise currently is in print.)
The Puffin paperback seems to have had a limited distribution (including unofficial imports) in the U.S., but there was a Harper (now HarperCollins) Greenwillow edition in the U.S. the following year, when the "Encyclopedia" was clearly a success. This edition often can be found in (or through) libraries. So far as the United States is concerned, that seems to be it. (I would be glad to learn otherwise.)
"Hobberdy Dick" has, so far as I know, always been marketed as for children, but in my experience adult readers of fantasy find it at least enjoyable, and certainly worth the time it takes to read it. The main complaint I heard from those to whom I recommended it in the 1970s was "too short." Briggs (1898-1980) was a distinguished as a folklorist and a literary historian; her learning gives the book a solid foundation, but the abundant detail enriches an engaging story without smothering it.
The main plot could have been a fairly conventional Romeo-and-Juliet re-tread, set in the aftermath of the English Civil War; *She* is from a dispossessed Cavalier family, *He* is the heir of a Parliament Man. But the story is seen largely through the eyes of the title character, a household spirit, or "hob." Hobberdy Dick is one of class of spirits who protect a place and its inhabitants, giving aid to the diligent and tormenting the slothful and slovenly until they mend their ways. (They are also known, among other names, as "lobs," and, more widely, at least until the term was trivialized, "brownies.") The more energetic hobs may intervene to aid the humans of whom they approve in larger ways; and Hobberdy Dick favors happy endings.
In 1652, Dick's home -- complete with its ghost, as well as the hob -- is taken over by disbelieving Puritans from London, who bought the estate when the last known (male) heir died. The new owner and his family start as caricatures, but are quickly fleshed out. (Well, not the additional ghost they inadvertently bring with them, to Hobberdy Dick's even greater annoyance; but the resourceful hob finds a use even for it.) Dick's basic loyalties are to the place, to the children, and to the impoverished young gentlewoman who is hired to attend the new mistress. But even an annoyed hob comes to see that the newcomers may have significant virtues to go with more objectionable qualities. Rigid scruples can be real scruples, even when property is at issue; a matter of some interest to a hob whose duties include guarding a buried hoard....
Hobberdy Dick himself has a wide acquaintance among other local spirits of the hearth and countryside, most of them benign, a few potentially dangerous, all brought to life from a variety of period books and modern folklore studies. These are solitary types; the "trooping fairies," the inhabitants of the fairy hills, are present, but kept off-stage. A witch makes a passing appearance, practicing real seventeenth-century magic (Briggs elsewhere published the text of the ritual), to the alarm and dismay of the local hobs and boggarts, and the rage of a genuinely impressive Church Grim. The calendar customs and immemorial (even in the 1650s) practices of the English countryside provide a chronological framework, with political events and other disasters like epidemics (a fair equation in the book's terms) a rumor in the distance.
There have been several British editions since the 1970s, including one, from Jane Nissen Books, with both the Anderson illustrations and a new introduction, in 2000; it received admiring reviews, and apparently is in print.
There is even an animated version, apparently in German (or at least described on German websites, where the detailed descriptions are a set of "spoilers"), so it has hardly dropped into obscurity.
But it does not seem to have been readily available in the U.S. for a good many years. All in all, a treasure that should not stay lost for American readers.