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Posts Tagged ‘Beatrix Potter’

The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne 1989)

Is Beatrix Potter the greatest of all children’s writers? No, I don’t think so. But she might be the greatest of all children’s authors. She didn’t simply write: she wrote and drew, creating very clever and funny stories that almost have the quality of folk-tales or myths. C.S. Lewis said that Squirrel Nutkin (1902) “troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.” It was his “second experience” of the bittersweet longing that he described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955).

The other Potter books, although he “loved them all”, he found “merely entertaining”. Squirrel Nutkin is one of my favourites too, but I don’t find the rest “merely entertaining”. There is something epic, on a miniature scale, about Peter Rabbit’s adventures in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Those are in the book that began everything, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902). I was disturbed by the fate of Peter’s father – “put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor” – and by the cat staring at the goldfish when I was young, so I’m almost glad that I never read The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912) until I was grown-up. It’s the darkest and deathliest of Potter’s stories and I wonder if she had the German word Tod in mind when she named the eponym, as Evelyn Waugh did when he created a character called Mr. Todd for A Handful of Dust (1934).

The story was certainly meant as something new, as the opening two lines make clear:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.

Tommy Brock, a “short bristly fat waddling person with a grin”, is a badger and Mr. Tod, “of a wandering habit” and detectable by odour “half a mile off”, is a fox. Mr. Tod wanders through the story too: it’s Tommy Brock who’s on stage more often. His affability and his joke about “not hav[ing] a square meal for a fortnight” disarm a rabbit grandfather called Old Mr. Bouncer, who is looking after his “rabbit-baby” grandchildren while his daughter Flopsy and son-in-law Benjamin are out. Mr. Bouncer invites Tommy into the family rabbit-hole “to taste a slice of seedcake” and a glass of his “daughter Flopsy’s cowslip wine”. But he falls asleep as Tommy smokes a “cabbage leaf” cigar, only to wake and discover that both Tommy and his grandchildren have disappeared.

Tommy has carried them off in a sack. When his daughter gets back: “He was in disgrace; Flopsy wrung her ears, and slapped him.” Benjamin sets off to track Tommy, helped by the deepness of his footprints under the weight of the sack. It turns out that Tommy has carried the babies off to one of Mr. Tod’s many residences: “something between a cave, a prison, and a tumble-down pig-stye” that stands in the middle of a wood. Benjamin and his cousin Cottontail see how the “setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame”. When Benjamin peeps through a window, he sees “preparations upon the kitchen table that made him shudder”: “an immense empty pie-dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper”, plus “a plate, a tumbler, a knife and fork, salt-cellar, mustard” – “in short, preparations for one person’s supper.”

But that one person, Tommy Brock, has gone to bed in Mr. Tod’s bed “in his boots”, leaving the rabbit-babies still alive, but “shut in the oven!” There’s a sinister atmosphere in this story and it’s as close as Potter got to the Brothers Grimm. But the sinister atmosphere is part of the black humour, which gets even stronger when Mr. Tod turns up, not at all pleased to discover that Tommy has, yet again, taken over one of his homes. He decides to take revenge on the loudly snoring – and apparently deeply asleep – Tommy, but his cunning plan backfires. That’s why Benjamin is able to get his children back. He, like Flopsy and Cottontail, had appeared before in a Potter story: she created a world, not just individual stories.

Black humour had appeared before in her stories too, particularly in “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, or the Roly-Poly Pudding”. It’s about Tom Kitten, who has a narrow escape when he goes exploring the old house he lives in:

All at once he fell head over heels in the dark, down a hole, and landed on a heap of very dirty rags.

When Tom Kitten picked himself up and looked about him – he found himself in a place that he had never seen before, although he had lived all his life in the house.

It was a very small stuffy fusty room, with boards, and rafters, and cobwebs, and lath and plaster.

Opposite to him – as far away as he could sit – was an enormous rat.

“What do you mean by tumbling into my bed all covered with smuts?” said the rat, chattering his teeth.

“Please sir, the chimney wants sweeping,” said poor Tom Kitten.

“Anna Maria! Anna Maria!” squeaked the rat. There was a pattering noise and an old woman rat poked her head round a rafter.

All in a minute she rushed upon Tom Kitten, and before he knew what was happening–

He’s trussed in string and the enormous rat, Samuel Whiskers, is telling Anna Maria “to make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner”. The text goes perfectly with the drawings and I can read that single line – “‘Anna Maria! Anna Maria!’ squeaked the rat.” – again and again, because it’s so simple and so funny. Tom Kitten, like the rabbit-babies in The Tale of Mr. Tod, escapes his impending doom, but he gets nearer to it than they did: he’s been rolled in dough, with only his head and tail sticking out, when the terrier John Joiner, called in by his mother to find her missing son, manages to interrupt proceedings by sawing through the floorboards under which the two rats are living.

The rats flee, although Samuel Whiskers has first remarked to Anna Maria that he doubts the pudding would have been good: “I am persuaded that the knots would have proved indigestible, whatever you may urge to the contrary.” That’s funny and formal English, not funny and simple: Potter has the same variety and delicacy of touch in her writing as she has in her drawing. There’s another good example of a funny line in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910), when the toad Mr. Jackson encounters another of Mrs. Tittlemouse’s uninvited guests:

He met Babbity round a corner, and snapped her up, and put her down again.

“I do not like bumble bees. They are all over bristles,” said Mr. Jackson, wiping his mouth with his coat-sleeve.

“Get out, you nasty old toad!” shrieked Babbitty Bumble.

Again the line is perfectly set up and very funny. Potter’s animals are antagonistic as well as amicable. Her stories might sometimes be simply written, but they’re not saccharine or soppy. Even in the first, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), there’s comi-tragedy: remember that Peter’s father was “put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor”. Potter had a sad story herself, as the biographical notes and introductions to each story describe: her parents educated her at home and kept her away from other children. She found consolation in art and animals, then the two brought her success and fame through her books.

Then they seemed to bring her a husband too: her publisher Frederick Warne proposed marriage; she accepted; and they became engaged. But he died only a few weeks later of “pernicious anaemia” and although she did eventually marry, she never had children of her own. Instead, she became perhaps the greatest of children’s authors, combining life and death, sunshine and sadness, in stories that have delighted millions of children for over a century. This collection brings all of those stories together, from the famous to the obscure, from the ones that display literary genius to the ones that aren’t so successful.

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George Orwell: A Life in Letters, selected and annotated by Peter Davison, (Penguin 2011)

Christopher Hitchens was influenced by George Orwell rather in the way Leon Trotsky was influenced by the Buddha. That is, Hitch no more followed Orwell’s literary example than Trotsky followed the Buddha’s ethical example. Hitch was a highly pretentious and verbose writer, not a master of clarity and concision like Orwell. But the former did make a good point about the latter in his book Why Orwell Matters (2002): Orwell was not extraordinary in intellect or learning, but he managed to write two extraordinary books, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). That is part of why these letters are valuable and interesting, because we can see those books in gestation, in production, and in publication. Here is Orwell explaining his motives for writing Animal Farm:

I don’t think I could fairly be described as Russophobe. I am against all dictatorships and I think the Russian myth has done frightful harm to the leftwing movement in Britain and elsewhere, and that it is above all necessary to make people see the Russian regime for what it is (ie. what I think it is). But I thought all this as early as 1932 or thereabouts and always said so fairly freely. I have no wish to interfere with the Soviet regime even if I could. I merely don’t want its methods and habits of thought imitated here, and that involves fighting against Russianizers in this country… The danger is that some native form of totalitarianism will be developed here, and people like Laski, Pritt, Zilliacus, the News Chronicle and all the rest of them seem to me to be simply preparing the way for this. (letter of 11th December, 1945 to Michael Sayers)

Orwell described in “Why I Write” (1946) his “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He also said that what he had “most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” In Animal Farm, he achieved that art. But just as no book can be entirely free of political bias, so no work of fiction can be purely political. Peter Davison, the editor of this book, notes that “one of the origins of Animal Farm was Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland, a favourite of Orwell’s” in his childhood (“1946 and 1947”, pg. 281). Davison is a good editor, setting the context of the letters and explaining even minor references as the obscure Eric Blair becomes the world-famous George Orwell. There are also a “biographical list” of important figures in Orwell’s life, a chronology of that life, and a comprehensive index. Finally, Davison introduces some “New Textual Discoveries” from Orwell’s novels A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). These discoveries, about changes to the novels in proof, will disturb and even shock some readers, because the “most significant” in A Clergyman’s Daughter are to “the character of Mr Blifil-Gordon, the Conservative Candidate, so as to remove any trace that he is a Jew who had converted to Catholicism.” Davison then lists the changes, with the original text in bold. These will be the most disturbing to some devotees of Orwell:

Even more Jewish in appearance than his father ] Given to the writing of sub-Eliot vers libre poems… And to think that that scum of the ghetto ] And to think that that low-born hound… For the beastliest type the world has yet produced give me the Roman Catholic Jew. ] And that suit he is wearing is an offence in itself. (pg. 491)

Moreover, some of the final letters are to or by Celia Kirwan (1916-2002), who was Arthur Koestler’s sister-in-law and worked for the Information Research Department, a government organization that tried to counter communist propaganda. Orwell passed recommendations to her about those he felt should or should not be allowed to participate in this work. And in his now famous, or infamous, list of unreliable people, he sometimes noted the ethnicity of a suspected or probable communist sympathizer or agent. Yes, the secular saint George Orwell was saintly in more ways than one, because there is, of course, a long tradition of anti-semitism in Christianity and among Christian saints.

Your reaction to these parts of the book will be a test of your goodthinkfulness and of whether or not you need to be watched by Big Brother. I must confess that I wasn’t disturbed by them. Orwell’s prejudice against Catholicism and Catholics is a much stronger motif in any case:

Mrs Carr [a friend of Orwell’s from Southwald] sent me two books of Catholic apologetics, & I had great pleasure in reviewing one of them for a new paper called the New English Weekly. It was the first time I had been able to lay the bastinado on a professional R.C. at any length. (letter of 14th June, 1932 to Eleanor Jaques)

That sort of thing doesn’t disturb me either, but this did, in a letter to an editor who had enquired about Orwell’s life:

After leaving school I served five years in the Imperial Police in Burma, but the job was totally unsuited to me and I resigned when I came home on leave in 1927. I wanted to be a writer, and I lived most of the next two years in Paris, on my savings, writing novels which no one would publish and which I subsequently destroyed. (letter of 26th August, 1947 to Richard Usbourne)

I was sorry to read about the destruction of those novels. They would certainly be published now and would shed more light on the development of Orwell’s writing. His pre-war fiction was not special and Orwell himself disowns A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying here, not wanting them to be re-published with Burmese Days (1934) and Coming Up for Air (1939). But each novel is powerful in some way and I’ve read all of them several times. Coming Up for Air, for example, contains what seems to me an accurate and moving re-creation of a semi-rural, part-Victorian life Orwell himself had never led. None of his pre-war fiction does more than hint at the excellences of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it all helps explain how Orwell came to write those classics. So do these letters. I haven’t yet given them the attention they deserve, because the book is more than five hundred pages long, but anyone who wants to understand Orwell better should start here. There’s even food for biological thought, because Orwell was part French on his mother’s side and that heredity, which you can see in his face, may be relevant here:

It has been a few years since I lived in France and although I tend to read French books I am not able to write your language very accurately. When I was in Paris people always said to me “You don’t talk too badly for an Englishman but your accent is fantastic.” Unfortunately I have only kept the accent. (letter of 9th October, 1934 to R.N. Raimbault)

In a much later letter, Orwell describes a lunch-appointment with Camus at the Deux Magots in Paris: “but he was ill and didn’t come” (20th January, 1948). He then analyses another of France’s literary giants: “I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot” (22nd October, 1948). These letters illuminate his literary tastes, his linguistic skills, his love-life, his gardening, cooking, and DIY, and reveal his interest in everything from nursery rhymes, political pamphlets and ethnology to newts, boots and fungi. And milking goats. Orwell didn’t have an extraordinary intellect, but he wasn’t an ordinary man and his letters prove it.

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