“Carnation” (1918) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in her Something Childish collection. I like this one very much — a rare story of blossoming female friendship.
SETTING OF “CARNATION”
Mansfield often opens stories in medias res and grounds us in the setting:
On those hot days
The entire story takes place in a French classroom at a girl’s school on a hot summer’s day. In Mansfield’s stories characters are usually unable to comprehend much beyond their own personal world, however beautiful the natural surroundings and its ‘Stimmung’ (mood). The characters in this story are presented to us wholly within the classroom and its immediate surroundings. There’s no sense of anything existing off-stage.
“Carnation” is a standout example of Mansfield’s synaesthesic sensibilities.
Synaesthesia is a neurological trait or condition that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren’t normally connected. The stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary reaction in one or more of the other senses. For example, someone with synaesthesia may hear colour or see sound.
I wonder how Mansfield experienced senses. Across Mansfield’s corpus of writing she blends and fuses the senses to create a dreamlike space for the reader, and to emulate the trance experienced by a character.
CONNECTION TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE
Mansfield learned French at school, though surprisingly for a world class short story writer, maths was her strongest subject. Students who are good at maths also tend to be very good at languages — both maths and second-language learning rely on an affinity for patterns.
In New Zealand, French has traditionally been the language you take if you’re in the academic stream. Less academically inclined girls were channeled into the secretarial route. This remained true at least until my mother’s generation of girls (the 1960s). If you were in the academic stream you could be a teacher. Otherwise you could be a secretary or a nurse. Girls were of course expected to marry men and become mothers, which turned them into women.
Mansfield’s high school experience preceded my mother’s by half a century and I can’t imagine how stifled she felt as a natural-born contrarian. She did come from a well-off family, and probably knew even at high school that she’d be looked after financially, at least in the basic sense. Her father provided her with 100 pounds per annum. This covered her absolute necessities, though didn’t forestall money worries in Europe.
Mansfield could never be persuaded to study what she didn’t want to study, but she must have enjoyed her French classes. She learned French to quite a high level. Kathleen and her sisters would speak French to each other in front of adult acquaintances and were no doubt insufferable, because they assumed no one else around them was smart enough or worldly enough to understand what they were saying.
The two square windows of the French Room were open at the bottom and the dark blinds drawn half way down. Although no air came in, the blind cord swung out and back and the blind lifted. But really there was not a breath from the dazzle outside.
In Mansfield’s short stories, a constantly shifting perspective gives the reader a series of shocks, as one perspective shifts to another. In these stories, look for windows and mirrors. In “Carnation” the symbol happens to be a window.
Katie is experiencing nascent sexuality. Katie seems less mature than Eve — I gather this from Eve’s name but also from Eve’s relationship to sensory enjoyment. Until Katie looks out that window, it’s almost as if she’s never allowed herself to enjoy looking at a man like that. Yet she’s not fully mature. There’s still a glass pane between herself and that other, adult world.
But it’s not just the man Katie enjoys. This isn’t an eros that focuses on the man —he is incidental to her pleasure. Mansfield only describes the man’s body after describing all sorts of things in the environment, including the drops glancing off the wheel, the sound of the pump and so on. All of these things are quasi-erotic to Katie.
“Roses are delicious, my dear Katie,” she would say, standing in the dim cloak room, with a strange decoration of flowery hats on the hat pegs behind her…
Hats in Mansfield’s stories are repeatedly associated with systems of authority. (This is not stated but unarticulated) e.g. “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. In “Something Childish But Very Natural“, Henry’s story begins with him becoming separated from his hat in a different train carriage. This seems to relieve him of inhibitions. In “The Garden Party” the images of hats are incorporated in the action of the story not only because people wore hats in those days and put a lot of thought into them, but also because they are related to moral values.
What is the hat imagery doing here? Eve is ’embodying’ the flower, with all is overlapping sensory offerings. By putting on a hat covered in flowers she is ’embodying’ the sensory experience of flowers, perhaps. A floral hat is the inverse of stuffy, prim bowler hats and so on.
When Mansfield compares people to animals, beasts, insects, water-creatures or birds, unpleasant emotions are revealed. Insects are helpless, snakes are cunning, spiders are hunting for prey. Rabbits are escaping. They all represent a cruel or suffering aspect of humankind.
Mansfield especially likes bird images. Bird comparisons comprise almost half of all the animal imagery. In some stories, birds represent freedom or happiness (because they fly and seem to sing joyfully).
The bird imagery in “Carnation” is an excellent example of how Mansfield makes use of birds. Katie’s laugh is compared to a bird, which Mansfield describes as scary:
And away her little thin laugh flew, fluttering among those huge, strange flower heads on the wall behind her. (But how cruel her little thin laugh was! It had a long sharp beak and claws and two bead eyes, thought fanciful Katie.)
Over the course of “Carnations” the character of Eve changes in Katie’s eyes, from a scary bird girl (more like a harpy) to a seductive bird girl (more like a siren).
Mansfield uses colour for more than simply describing something. Colour images fall into two basic categories:
Colour images related to the visual experience of the character looking at it
Colour images expressing the atmospheric mood or a character’s mental state.
[Eve] brought a carnation to the French class, a deep, deep red one, that looked as though it had been dipped in wine and left in the dark to dry. She held it on the desk before her, half shut her eyes and smiled.
The carnation is literally deep red, but what of Katie’s reaction to it? She feels it has been ‘dipped in wine’ — an adult drink — ‘and left in the dark’ — where adult/secret acts happen.
Mansfield doesn’t use the colour red very often. Instead she uses purple, green and gentle colours such as mild yellows, greys and blues. She’s more inclined to focus on variations in light.
The colour in this paragraph is more typical:
Even the girls, in the dusky room, in their pale blouses, with stiff butterfly-bow hair ribbons perched on their hair, seemed to give off a warm, weak light, and M. Hugo’s white waistcoat gleamed like the belly of a shark.
So what of the red of the carnation in this story? There is clearly some burning passion going on, even if it’s without a specific target.
The girls don’t want to study French. They want to kick back on this stifling hot day.
At first Eve seems to be going for some strange social capital. That’s obviously how Katie sees her, and we’re encouraged to see her through Katie’s eyes. The weird girl who eats flowers:
On those hot days Eve — curious Eve — always carried a flower. She snuffed it and snuffed it, twirled it in her fingers, laid it against her cheek, held it to her lips, tickled Katie’s neck with it, and ended, finally, by pulling it to pieces and eating it, petal by petal.
I remember the first time I saw someone eating petals. It was on the 1987 movie The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese epic. After the royals are evicted from the Forbidden City the empress is sidelined. The Empress becomes so disaffected the filmmakers depicted her eating the floral displays at her husband’s coronation as emperor of Manchukuo, before moving on to the more diverting pastimes of opium.
The girls are divided in a binary way which feels reminiscent of an adolescent classroom, in which everyone experiences puberty in their own time.
Some of the girls were very red in the face and some were white.
Eventually the other characters are ‘killed off’, leaving innocent Katie counterposed to knowing Eve:
…most of the girls fell forward, over the desks, their heads on their arms, dead at the first shot. Only Eve and Katie sat upright and still.
Mansfield liked the technique of counterposing one character with another. In the same way, excited and searching Bertha is counterposed to the calm and contained Pearl Fulton in “Bliss“. Sabina is counterposed next to the pregnant woman in “At Lehmann’s“. In the “Prelude” trilogy Kezia is set next to Linda, Beryl and Mrs Fairfield. This method of juxtaposing characters’ attitudes and moods give structural unity to stories.
I see Katie and Eve as quasi-romantic opponents. Eve is the more stereotypical masculine figure, showing a sexually inexperienced feminine figure the pleasures of life. Katie is initially resistant, even to something as benign as a flower:
Oh, the scent! It floated across to Katie. It was too much. Katie turned away to the dazzling light outside the window.
The other Oppositional web is that which exists between the French teacher and his students, especially Francie Owen, who is decorating herself with ink. (I suspect if Mansfield lived today she’d be thoroughly inked in sleeves of floral tattoos.)
In Mansfield’s stories characters are often defying societal expectations in some way. Their French teacher is not a manly man, shown with the detail of the floral detail on his small, highly decorative book. The girls mock him, possibly because he defies their expectation of manliness:
How well they knew the little blue book with red edges that he tugged out of his coat tail pocket! It had a green silk marker embroidered in forget-me-nots. They often giggled at it when he handed the book round. Poor old Hugo–Wugo!
The French teacher first wants the students to learn French, but there is resistance due to the heat of the day. M. Hugo acquiesces, and changes his lesson plan; now they will listen to him read French poetry.
The reactions to this news are various.
“Go—od God!” moaned Francie Owen.
So the ‘Plan’ in this story is driven by the teacher, but the teacher is soon released from his position as Oppositional character.
The students listen to their French teacher read poetry. The narrative ‘camera’ zooms in on Katie, who looks out the classroom window and, with all of her senses fusing, she ‘experiences’ the body of the man pumping water outside, looking at him with The Female Gaze. Her experience of looking at him is close to orgasmic.
Now she could hear a man clatter over the cobbles and the jing-jang of the pails he carried. And now Hoo-hor-her! Hoo-hor-her! as he worked the pump, and a great gush of water followed. Now he was flinging the water over something, over the wheels of a carriage, perhaps. And she saw the wheel, propped up, clear of the ground, spinning round, flashing scarlet and black, with great drops glancing off it. And all the while he worked the man kept up a high bold whistling, that skimmed over the noise of the water as a bird skims over the sea. He went away — he came back again leading a cluttering horse.
She saw him simply — in a faded shirt, his sleeves rolled up, his chest bare, all splashed with water — and as he whistled, loud and free, and as he moved, swooping and bending…
The whole room broke into pieces.
This is the ‘Battle’ scene, and an excellent example of how Battle scenes don’t always look like big struggles/fights/skirmishes/arguments.
If we go outside the imagery of this particular story, In ancient Greek tradition, for instance, the carnation represented symbols of love.
What’s happening when Eve gives the flower to Katie? Eve is clearly an intertextual name, associated with temptation. Eve might be giving Katie an apple, in a gender-mix up of the Garden of Eden section of the Bible.
It seems to me that while Katie has been watching the man outside, Eve has been watching Katie. When Eve gives Katie the flower, it feels like permission to enjoy the experience of watching a man in that way. Eve is giving Katie the gift of the flower, but also the gift of permission — to enjoy any sensory experience that comes her way.
Is it sexual? It’s proto-sexual — enjoying sensory pleasures such as the feel of petals and water running across our feet is the first step to enjoying sexual pleasures.
Mansfield’s stories tend to follow a regular pattern with the ‘positive’ theme dominant until the climax (the Battle). Then it comes into decisive conflict and is superseded by the negative theme. In other words, the story often takes a turn for the depressing at this point.
However, “Carnation” does not end like this. I see “Carnation” as a story about the blossoming and cementing of female friendship. When Eve gives Katie the carnation, they are experiencing an “I Understand You Moment”, a necessary component of every love story. (Without this moment the audience won’t believe that two lovers would be any good together.)
And “Keep it, dearest,” said Eve. “Souvenir tendre, [tender memories]” and she popped the carnation down the front of Katie’s blouse.
Keep what? Is Katie’s little epiphany permanent? I think so.
Though Katie may not understand why Eve gave her the carnation, she’ll always remember the moment. She may look at this particular carnation more carefully. She may enjoy its spicy scent and feel its velvety petals, all by way of learning to enjoy sensations, or perhaps by way of holding onto a childlike joy of sensory experience against the stifling environment of the teenage schoolroom.
“Something Childish But Very Natural” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1913, 1924. The story is named after a poem Harry reads in the book-stall. The poem is by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This poem provides Mansfield’s re-visioning with a nutshell emotional arc:
Had I but two little wings, And were a little feathery bird, To you I’d fly, my dear, But thoughts like these are idle things, And I stay here.
But in my sleep to you I fly, I’m always with you in my sleep, The world is all one’s own, But then one wakes and where am I? All, all alone.
Sleep stays not though a monarch bids, So I love to wake at break of day, For though my sleep be gone, Yet while’ tis dark one shuts one’s lids, And so, dreams on.
This is a story of youth and reckless abandon. At times Mansfield seems to be making fun of youthful attitudes:
“If only we weren’t so young” [Edna] said miserably. “And yet,” she sighed, “I’m sure I don’t feel very young—I feel twenty at least.”
Mansfield wrote a number of stories about failed, failing and limited romantic partnerships. “Something Childish But Very Natural” is one of them.
Katherine wrote this story while she and John Middleton Murry were living in France. They had a negative amount of money between them, and Murry was soon to declare himself bankrupt after they inherited debt from Stephen Swift in England (long story).
But during their escape to France:
There were gay excursions with Murry’s old bohemian friend, the writer Francis Carco. Together they explored the bals musetteand the cafes of Montmartre and wandered through narrow streets and boulevards till dawn. It was a happy romantic interlude, something of which Katherine Mansfield captured in the moving story “Something Childish But Very Natural”, written in that Paris flat but unpublished until 1924. Murry’s hope for work in Paris did not eventuate and Katherine Mansfield’s allowance [of 100 pounds per annum from her father] to cover their living expenses. As a result the monthly payments to their creditors ceased.
Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer, Gillian Boddy
Mansfield wrote “Something Childish But Very Natural” in 1913, though it wasn’t published until 1924. By 1924 she would have been very much in love with John Middleton Murry, though past the initial heady days. The pair had been professional acquaintances first. Murry later moved in with Katherine in London and for months they shook hands each night before retiring separately to bed. But eventually Mansfield asked John why he didn’t make her his mistress.
By the time they moved to Paris together theirs was a passionate relationship which had its share of ups and downs. They’d both come to each other from a tough place — after events which had governed the previous three years of her life, Mansfield was undoubtedly dealing with some trauma. As Gillian Boddy says, John and Katherine were unable to give each other what they needed at the time.
The denouement of “Something Childish” — a telegram delivered to Henry, presumably telling him of Edna’s change of heart — recalls Mansfield’s ‘childish’ reaction to Murry’s telegrams in early February 1914, that due to bankruptcy charges he cannot return to France: ‘Im afraid I am rather childish about people coming & going — and, just now, at this moment when the little boy handed me your telegram — the disappointment is hard to bear’.
The two-month visit to Paris of 1913-14, therefore, coincides with her renewed exploration of the subject on the border between childhood and adulthood when awakening sexual desire is enmeshed in fantasy, yet the pull towards childhood remains.
Katherine Mansfield and Continental Europe: Connections and Influences, by Gerry Kimber, Janka Kascakova
STORYWORLD OF “SOMETHING CHILDISH BUT VERY NATURAL”
THE CONCEPT OF ‘ADOLESCENCE’
It is notable that the term ‘adolescence’ was just coming into vogue in the early twentieth century. The creation of this new concept and stage of psychological development was due almost entirely to Stanley G. Hall’s two-volume study, Adolescence, published in 1904. Hall saw childhood in Rousseau fashion as an enactment of early primitive forces and a savage existence, but adolescence as a ‘new birth’, when ‘the higher and more completely human traits are born’: ‘The adolescent is neo atavistic.’ He identifies this stage with purity and idealism, but also as dangerously prone to corruption, and even criminality due to the subject’s lack of emotional control and responsibility towards self and other. Hall also recognises that ‘some linger’ longer in the childish stage’.
Katherine Mansfield and Continental Europe: Connections and Influences, by Gerry Kimber, Janka Kascakova
The carriage smelt horribly of wet india-rubber and soot.
The train had flung behind the roofs and chimneys. They were swinging into the country, past little black woods and fading fields and pools of water shining under an apricot evening sky. Henry’s heart began to thump and beat to the beat of the train.
At that moment the train dashed into a tunnel.
The train slowed down and the lights outside grew brighter.
The train of “Something Natural” is both a motif and a setting. I’ve written before about the symbolism of trains. Alice Munro is another short story writer who likes to make heavy symbolic use of them. Trains are interesting as an example of heterotopia — an ‘other’ space, separate from the regular world. To enter into a heterotopia is akin to going through a fantasy portal (even when the story is not speculative in nature).
Trains are symbolically connected to fatalism. A fatalistic view of the world means you’re all about destiny, and subscription to the idea that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.
Trains are the perfect fatalistic symbol; there’s only one path for a train — its pre-laid tracks.
As a fatalist, you might be pessimistic or you might be optimistic. That aspect can go either way. (I find the idea terrifying — it would mean that choice is a complete and utter illusion… which it indeed might be. Still terrifying.)
The most thrilling day of the year, the first real day of Spring had unclosed its warm delicious beauty even to London eyes. It had put a spangle in every colour and a new tone in every voice, and city folks walked as though they carried real live bodies under their clothes with real live hearts pumping the stiff blood through.
A few details remind us of the era.
don’t eat anything out of a tin
Why does Henry entreat Edna not to eat anything out of a tin? These days, tinned food is about the safest food you can get. But canning hasn’t always been so reliable. In 1845, two state-of-the-art ships sailed from Greenland on July 12, 1845 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Fourteen days later, they were spotted for the last time by two whalers in Baffin Bay. What happened to these ships—and to the 129 men on board—has remained one of the most enduring mysteries in the annals of exploration. But as it turns out — spoiler alert — they were probably killed by botulism after eating poorly tinned food.
When done properly, canning has always been safe, but for the generations used to fresh food, it must have felt wrong to eat goods many months old. Why would anyone naturally trust it?
THE DOLL HOUSE UTOPIA OF LONDON
We already know that Mansfield had a fascination with doll houses. First there’s “The Doll House” (her most accessible work) and then there’s the edible little house in “Sun and Moon“. There’s no actual doll house in this story. But after Edna tells Henry that she’d like to remain in childhood for a good while longer, they turn London into their playground. They both seem to come from upper middle-class families, which partly explains why they see other people’s houses as ‘small’ but I think there’s more to it than that. To them, these houses are doll houses — designed for play — and Mansfield is also playing with scale.
The houses were small and covered with creepers and ivy. Some of them had worn wooden steps leading up to the doors. You had to go down a little flight of steps to enter some of the others; and just across the road—to be seen from every window—was the river, with a walk beside it and some high poplar trees.
“This is the place for us to live in,” said Henry. “There’s a house to let, too. I wonder if it would wait if we asked it. I’m sure it would.”
“Yes, I would like to live there,” said Edna.
Storytellers utilise a number of techniques for playing with scale. Angela Carter makes use of mise en abyme in her re-visioning of “Peter and the Wolf“. Children’s book creators often play around with oversized objects, to memorable and humorous effect. Then there’s The Overview Effect, utilised by Jon Klassen in We Found A Hat.
In “Something Childish”, the setting seems to have shrunk a little in relation to our two lovers. This reflects their emotional state. Nothing seems scary to them. They feel that together they can conquer the world. This perfectly describes the feeling of intense new love.
Beatrix Potter uses a very similar trick in “The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle“. It appears Lucie can drop a pebble down a chimney, even from the top of a hill. This is describing how Little-town looks tiny from the elevated vantage point, like a dollhouse. Lucie is about to enter a world of play.
THE LIMERANCE PHASE OF LOVE
“Something Childish” is a depiction of limerance — the state of mind of being freshly and wildly in love. Limerance is a chemical state and commonly involves the following:
The object of your affection is angelic/perfect/above criticism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this other person.
The object of your affection is very similar to yourself — ‘soul mates’. Everyone else is different from the two of you. No other person has ever fully understood you… until now. Finally you have met this one person who just gets you. No one will ever understand you as this person understands you.
It was inevitable that you two should meet. Everything that has ever happened to you in life has brought you here to this moment in time. Meeting was fate. Even if you’re not an otherwise fatalistic person, it feels like this one thing was fate, even more so if you met by happenstance — being thrust into the wrong carriage after getting carried away in a book-stall reading a poem. The 2001 rom-com Serendipity digs deep into this idea, and like many rom-coms, makes the most of all three One True Love, The Perfection of Strangers and (of course) Serendipity love story tropes. In both the film Serendipity and in Mansfield’s short story, main characters test providence, telling themselves if love is meant to be, it will be.
[Henry] even prayed, “Lord if it be Thy will, let us meet.”
Did Mansfield buy any of these ideas? She lays them down so clearly, one after the other:
Just look at you and me. Here we are—that’s all there is to be said. I know about you and you know about me—we’ve just found each other—quite simply—just by being natural. That’s all life is—something childish and very natural. Isn’t it?”
“Yes—yes,” she said eagerly. “That’s what I’ve always thought.”
“It’s people that make things so—silly. As long as you can keep away from them you’re safe and you’re happy.”
“Oh, I’ve thought that for a long time.”
“Then you’re just like me,” said Henry. The wonder of that was so great that he almost wanted to cry. Instead he said very solemnly: “I believe we’re the only two people alive who think as we do. In fact, I’m sure of it. Nobody understands me. I feel as though I were living in a world of strange beings—do you?”
She lived in a pre-rom com era but were stories of the era full of these messages? I suspect these ideas have always been a part of our culture.
Take the schoolgirl practice of twisting off an apple stalk while chanting letters of the alphabet. This was a playground pastime when I was at school. Wherever the stalk came off, that was the initial letter of your future husband’s name. Naturally, certain stalks were plucked off with great strength, influencing fate somewhat.
Pulling petals off a flower while chanting, “He loves me, he loves me not” is a variant on a similar tradition — one which leaves love to fate.
It’s interesting that Mansfield wrote this story from the young man’s point of view. Henry looks with convincing sexual interest upon a young woman on a train. Mansfield was bisexual and therefore able to take on this viewpoint quite naturally, though women don’t need to be sexually attracted to women in order to understand Henry feeling. The dominant culture acculturates people of all genders to look at femme bodies in an objectifying way. It remains far less common for (straight) male writers to depict fictional women who lust after men. I suspect that’s because it’s much harder.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SOMETHING CHILDISH BUT VERY NATURAL”
This was the first time Mansfield used an episodic structure to represent emotional transitions. You’ll see it done to even greater effect in “Prelude“.
Henry is established early as a poseur with a single ironic declarative:
Henry was a great fellow for books. He did not read many nor did he possess above half-a-dozen.
But this is followed by an insight into his character which pulls him out of comic archetype:
By his clean neat handling of [books] and by his nice choice of phrase when discussing them with one or another bookseller you would have thought that he had taken his pap with a tome propped before his nurse’s bosom. But you would have been quite wrong. That was only Henry’s way with everything he touched or said.
That is the sort of character observation that elevates the story. Notice how Henry is described (told to us) via narration rather than shown. This is why advice to ‘show not tell’ is so flawed. The great writers do quite a bit of telling.
Henry is clearly experiencing lust, followed by limerance. This has supposedly been ignited by reading a poem which affected him so deeply he practically memorised it word for word.
Unfortunately he is impatient. He doesn’t realise he’s got his whole life ahead of him and there’s really no need for such haste.
“I have a feeling often and often that it’s dangerous to wait for things—that if you wait for things they only go further and further away.”
COMPARISONS TO CHARACTERS FROM DIFFERENT STORIES
Henry is the childlike and ineffectual character of the title. James Blunt’s hit song Beautiful obviously resonated with a lot of listeners, but also makes him a figure of fun; the man who falls in love with a girl on the train then falls into a depressive slump is not especially empathetic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oofSnsGkops
Criticism of Blunt’s song focused on his initial declaration of having a plan, then never carrying it out. This is because we still expect men to act on their romantic desires rather than sit back with the understanding that, actually, approaching women on public transport can be highly unwanted behaviour.
Commentators have said Henry of “Something Natural” seems to be a preliminary sketch of a character who later splits into Stanley Burnell of the “Prelude” stories (bluff, materially successful, loved but emotionally insecure patriarch) and Jonathan Trout, Stanley’s sensitive but self-defeated brother-in-law. (The female mirror characters of these men are Mrs Harry Kember and Beryl Fairfield from “At The Bay“.)
Henry of “Something Childish” is only 17 years old — much younger than we ever knew Stanley and Jonathan. By today’s standards he seems too young to be stuck in an office job. So many years stretch out before him.
Henry’s attention may seen beguiling. But does Henry really care about what Edna wants?
he saw how her hand in the grey glove was shaking. Then he noticed that she was sitting very stiffly with her knees pressed together—and he was, too—both of them trying not to tremble so.
She stood up to take off her coat and Henry made a movement to help her. “No—no—it’s off.”
Whenever he was with her he wanted to hold her hand or take her arm when they walked together, or lean against her—not hard—just lean lightly so that his shoulder should touch her shoulder—and she wouldn’t even have that.
The close third-person narration homes in on Henry to the extent that we don’t know what Edna wants at all. He seems so caught up in his own manic experience of love that Edna’s wishes exist far down the list. Henry harbours a classic sense of entitlement when it comes to ‘getting the girl’. All he needs to do is pick one, then persuade her that his selection is correct.
Edna is certainly an underdeveloped character. What else might she be afraid of?
HENRY’S EXPECTATION OF EMOTIONAL LABOUR
There seemed to be comfort and warmth breathing from Edna that he needed to keep him calm. Yes, that was it. He couldn’t get calm with her because she wouldn’t let him touch her.
Clearly, for the reader, Henry is moving in too fast. He expects instant physical and emotional intimacy from a girl he met on the train.
A while back someone on Twitter proposed a reason why women stereotypically seem to like ‘bad boys’ — something Nice Guys™ often have trouble with. Women don’t actually like the badness of ‘bad boys’. Within the fantasy space bad boys are attractive because they have zero neediness. And that is extremely attractive, because women are expected to provide all sorts of emotional and physical support. It’s exhausting, especially when it’s not reciprocated.
This particular fear is also known as ‘Fear of Engulfment’. There are many examples from the world of classic fairytales. The stand-out example is “The Frog Princess“, often recast in modern versions with the horrible ideology that ‘girls should always keep their word’, but originally told as an outward representation of a very real fear — a fear shared by young women, especially in a pre-contraceptive age — the fear of becoming pregnant, and being completely overwhelmed by it.
HATS AS MOTIF
What’s with Henry’s hat? Hats are a running motif throughout “Something Childish”. In general, hats denote status. But hats can also be used almost identically to a mask. By putting on a different hat we pretend to be someone else for a while. In this social milieu, hats were mandatory when out in public. One wasn’t fully dressed without a hat. Henry reminds us of this old custom when he expresses his dismay that he’s not wearing a hat. (He’s more upset to be denuded of it than the possibility of needing to buy a new one.)
“She must think I’m mad,” he thought, “dashing into a train without even a hat, and in the evening, too.” He felt so funny.
From the opening sentence, hats are given prominence — Henry feels his head has become too big for his hat.
WHETHER he had forgotten what it felt like, or his head had really grown bigger since the summer before, Henry could not decide. But his straw hat hurt him: it pinched his forehead and started a dull ache in the two bones just over the temples.
“And—I was rather glad to lose my hat. It had been hurting me all day.” “Yes,” she said, “it’s left a mark,” and she nearly smiled. […]
Her marvellous words, “It’s made a mark,” had in some mysterious fashion established a bond between them. They could not be utter strangers to each other if she spoke so simply and so naturally.
Similar to “Prelude“, in which Kezia is constantly restricted and constrained by a series of motif containers, Henry’s hat reminds him of his constriction in general.
Mansfield’s diaries and correspondence show that she was familiar with this feeling. Returning home from school in London, she felt suffocated by her life in Wellington, which back then was a small town. Even when she moved back to England, life didn’t satisfy her. Soon enough she encountered restrictions of a different kind — financial ones. She must have had an epiphany at some point — the life she wanted was economically precariousness, and she could never have both kinds of freedom — financial and intellectual.
Henry doesn’t understand why Edna doesn’t want him to touch her. A lot of Mansfield’s characters live in a kind of dream fantasy, though Henry more accurately lives on an ’emotional cusp’.
“Something Childish” [like “A Dill Pickle“] invokes the formulas of fantasy (dream visions, a vocabulary involving smallness or largeness, an escapist version of nature, repeated motifs, and scenes of transformation, for example), and, as with “Ole Underwood”, the uncertainty about what “actually” happens and what happens “only” in the imagination leads to a decided ambiguity at the close of the story. Here ambiguity seems to be the intent, for that is obliquely what the (left-branching, deferring) opening sentence signals: “Whether he had forgotten what it felt like, or his head had really grown bigger since the summer before, Henry could not decide”.
— Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New
Edna also wears a hat. When she takes her hat on and off she is trying out different personalities, or different ways of being in the world. This is a girl very new to the world of adult women. It appears to me that she is indeed terrified of Henry — not of Henry per se — but of the way men see her. She has no control over this.
THE MOTIF OF THE SHADOWS ON THE WALL
As Henry and Edna explore London, using it as their playground, they experience the setting as a utopia but what of the big shadows?
It was too late for them to see the geese or the old men, but the river was there and the houses and even the shops with lamps. In one a woman sat working a sewing-machine on the counter. They heard the whirring hum and they saw her big shadow filling the shop. “Too full for a single customer,” said Henry. “It is a perfect place.” […]
And then we shall change our candles and she will go up first with her shadow on the wall beside her, and she will call out, Good-night, Henry—and I shall answer—Good-night, Edna. […]
The garden became full of shadows—they span a web of darkness over the cottage and the trees and Henry and the telegram. But Henry did not move.
There is a spoken word segment at the end of the soundtrack version of a song by Paris Wells, read by an elderly Jewish New York man who has since died.
My heart and brain concur. I love but one more than you, the one I thought you were.
(You’ll find this line at 3:13 on the track “No Hard Feelings”.) In issue #383 of The Brag, Paris Wells explains this is poetry by a guy they met in a Jazz club in New York — “this old lovely Jewish guy in a wheelchair.” His name is Marvin Wildstein and she just had to put him in the album. (Here’s another of his poems.) Marvin died of pneumonia early April 2015.
Marvin observes the (minimum of) four characters of every new relationship: The real people and their idealised doubles.
Paris Wells makes use of similar symbolism in her music video of the same song. The authentic version of herself sits in front of footage depicting herself and a boyfriend in the throes of limerance. Listen to the lyrics — a love letter to this past boyfriend. She tells him ‘I’ve lived two lives over yours’. Yet he calls her ‘kid’, suggesting she is younger than he is, in years.
What does she mean ‘two lives’? Initially she seems to be saying ‘I have more life experience than you despite our age’, but when coupled with Marvin Wildstein’s lines of poetry at the end, we might reconsider. Perhaps the ‘two lives’ refer to her idealised self, juxtaposed against her pragmatic self. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npZMHD-b6us
Back to Mansfield’s story. These doubles are the darkness creeping around the edges of a new and blissful attraction — at some level we know — we just know — that this person can’t be as wonderful as they seem.
And in cases where one person falls hard, leaving the other in a more pragmatic kind of love, that pragmatic partner knows — disconsolately — that the other is in love not with themselves, but with the other, idealised version.
This explains why it feels so horrible to be objectified, whether for your looks, your race, or simply because you are a certain look and demographic.
Yet it is also intoxicating to be objectified, especially when you are young and it is new. This is where Edna is at. But those shadows loom large.
Here’s another thing about trains — they are iterative in behaviour. Henry knows how he can meet this young woman again. The train runs at a certain time and he knows when the girl will be on it.
So he’ll arrange his life to coincide with Edna’s. After a while she’ll see that the two of them are meant to be together. He’s seen their future first — for her it’s simply a matter of time. That’s his plan, anyhow.
Were this story written from Edna’s point of view, how different might it be? She may well tell the creepy tale of a guy who she can’t shake. Is she perhaps even appeasing him? We don’t know — this is told through Henry’s rose-tinted version of events.
It would appear Edna enjoys Henry’s attention. No doubt about that. But she is only 16. She seems to be testing her own sexuality, testing it out on a stranger, seeing how far it can take her without actually going there.
One Sunday at a concert Henry tries to touch her. She leans away. Henry’s perplexed. Edna explains, ”Somehow I feel if once we…held each other’s hands and kissed…I feel we wouldn’t be free like we are—we’d be doing something secret. We wouldn’t be children any more…”
Perhaps at play are The Erotics of Abstinence, evident in stories from Pride and Prejudice to the Twilight series. But it started much earlier than that with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Don’t eat the apple! The apple becomes more delicious. Reverse psychology? Maybe. In almost any love story, love too easily won is not held so dear.
After Edna rejects Henry’s invitation into hasty partnership, he seems to decide to turn London into their playground. But he has the ulterior motive of showing Edna what seems to be a dollhouse, then trying to persuade her to set up house with him. Unfortunately he is a fantasist and has no money. And when Edna points this out, he comes up with another fantasy plan:
“But, Henry,—money! You see we haven’t any money.”
“Oh, well,—perhaps if I disguised myself as an old man we could get a job as caretakers in some large house—that would be rather fun. I’d make up a terrific history of the house if anyone came to look over it and you could dress up and be the ghost moaning and wringing your hands in the deserted picture gallery, to frighten them off. Don’t you ever feel that money is more or less accidental—that if one really wants things it’s either there or it doesn’t matter?”
Mansfield herself was a fantasist who indulged in exactly this kind of trick. As a high school student she dressed up as someone’s mother and actually came in for an interview, pretending to be interested in enrolling her daughter. I mean, that’s quite unusual, right? Especially for that era.
Henry’s view on money is also shown to be fatalistic — as if money is outside one’s control — it’s either there or it isn’t (exactly the sort of attitude that these days would lead Henry into significant credit card debt).
The first big struggle sees Edna running away from Henry crying.
“Henry!” She stopped suddenly and stared at him. “Henry, I’m not coming to the station with you. Don’t—don’t wait for me. Please, please leave me.”
“My God!” cried Henry, and started, “what’s the matter—Edna—darling—Edna, what have I done?”
“Oh, nothing—go away,” and she turned and ran across the street into a square and leaned up against the square railings—and hid her face in her hands.
“Edna—Edna—my little love—you’re crying. Edna, my baby girl!”
Via her dialogue, Edna doesn’t seem to know exactly why it is that she’s crying. Of course she doesn’t. She’s sixteen.
“Oh,” she sobbed, “I do hate hurting you so. Every time you ask me to let—let you hold my hand or—or kiss me I could kill myself for not doing it—for not letting you. I don’t know why I don’t even.” She said wildly. “It’s not that I’m frightened of you—it’s not that—it’s only a feeling, Henry, that I can’t understand myself even. Give me your handkerchief, darling.”
This is why Alice Munro loves to write stories of older women looking back. Older women have the psychological insight that sixteen-year-olds could never realistically achieve. Nor can Henry explain it, being just a year or so older.
Because of Mansfield’s narrative choice to keep close insight the heads of these two characters — despite initially offering us an astute narrative overview of Henry’s psychology via some unnamed omniscient presence — it is up to the reader what to make of all this.
What have these characters realised about themselves? About life?
Henry clearly doesn’t get it. He thinks it’s a single thing he’s done wrong rather than his overall approach. Apologising for the single thing would be far easier than changing entirely, so he grasps at concrete reasons:
“Edna—stop—it’s all my fault. I’m a fool—I’m a thundering idiot. I’ve spoiled your afternoon. I’ve tortured you with my idiotic mad bloody clumsiness. That’s it. Isn’t it, Edna? For God’s sake.”
Other commentators settle upon the following as Edna’s reasons for not wanting a relationship. She says,
“We wouldn’t be children any more silly, isn’t it?”
Clearly, Edna has the insight to know she doesn’t want to enter the adult world yet. But which part of the adult realm is she rejecting? I put it to you that it is specifically the expectation of emotional labour that she rejects. Men and children receive this labour from women; women give it. Those are the rules of patriarchy. But Edna does not have the words to express this. How could she? I’m using the language of modern feminism. The phrase ’emotional labour’ didn’t come about until 1983. (The term “emotional labor” is often used today to refer to women managing other people’s emotions. But the concept was meant to describe the way workers must manage their emotions while on the job, and the kinds of jobs where that behavior is expected.)
But the story continues after the initial Battle, when Edna doesn’t want to be touched outside the theatre. Significantly, Mansfield uses the word ‘playground’. They turn settings around London into their childlike play arena.
Henry is your archetypal needy Nice Guy and I can see exactly why Edna is cautious. He’s sensitive, attentive, offers to take her coat and brings her flowers. Yet he’s also ditched, flabbergasted. How can he be doing everything ‘right’ yet still not get the girl? This baffles him.
Hopefully it doesn’t baffle the reader, though. We are left to guess what Edna had to say in that telegram, though I think the shadow motif tells us all we need to make the extrapolation. Also, were you paying attention to Edna’s body language?
“Something ChildishBut Very Natural” has exposed the folly of dreams and romantic idealisation. A later story “The Little Governess” expands on these themes.
“Pictures” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1919. The London Evening Standard said of the story ‘it is stark realism from first word to last and yet it gives an impression of infinite understanding and pity’.
The character Ada Moss was inspired by a woman Mansfield met three years earlier. They had sat in the same cinema. We know this because Katherine Mansfield wrote in her diary on January 27, 1915: ‘her old yellow teeth [?] and pink roses in her hat and hollow lovely [lonely?] eyes and battered hair. I shall not forget her. No, no. She was wonderful.’
The indomitable Ada Moss, drawn with humour and compassion, is one of the first of a remarkable line of middle-aged women that Katherine Mansfield created and with whom the reader sympathises. Alone and embig struggled she soldiers on — though the solution to her problems was not to be followed by Miss Brill, Ma Parker or the Lady’s Maid!
Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer, Gillian Boddy
Mansfield was very interested in the plight of older women, though she never became one herself.
Like the young protagonist of “The Tiredness of Rosabel“, Ada is in a precarious situation, right on the edge of poverty. She is so hungry she’s dreaming of food. Food is becoming a preoccupation. She’s constantly cold. As an opera singer, Ada’s ideal body is one with a good covering of fat but the fashion has since changed. She’ll soon learn that the film industry is after younger, thinner women.
Starting with children’s books, fiction is harsh on characters who lose sight of their ‘true selves’. In all types of stories from thrillers to comedy, characters who wear metaphorical masks will have the mask ‘ripped off’, and the uncovered face is the real face.
What did Katherine Mansfield think about masks? She left us an insight, actually. And I believe this quotation sums up Ada’s situation in “Pictures”:
It’s a terrible thing to be alone — yes it is — it is — but don’t lower your mask until you have another mask prepared beneath — as terrible as you like — but a mask.
The idea that there is a true self and a false self is a peculiar ideology. Modern psychology does not subscribe to the concept of the ‘one true self’. Our private, public and secret selves are all equally valid.
In fiction, one way of losing one’s ‘true’ self is to conflate public self with the private and secret selves.
Artists live by profession in imaginary worlds and are especially prone to this. In The Wrestler, Randy the Ram leaves our company as a tragic figure because he is unable to extricate his job from his self-identity. When his work lets him down (as work inevitably does) he has nothing left. Randy the Ram is juxtaposed against his stripper girlfriend. Significantly, the girlfriend keeps her work name separate from her legal name. Randy the Ram is always Randy the Ram, no matter the context.
And what of Mansfield’s Ada Moss? Like Randy the Ram, Ada Moss is an opera singer, by profession and by identity. She has been forced to take acting work lately, and only with the threat of mid-winter eviction does she consider less prestigious, menial work. Throughout “Pictures”, Ada subscribes to the idea that you ‘fake it til you make it’. She approaches strangers and acquaintances as a theatre professional and exaggerates her busyness in Moira Rose fashion. But unlike Moira Rose of Schitts Creek, Ada doesn’t have an erstwhile millionaire husband to support her.
Moira Rose is known for saying to her children, “You are blind to reality, and for that I am most proud.” For Moira, her theatrical persona is a work of art in its own right. Such characters make excellent comedy fodder, and Ada Moss of “Pictures” is one of Katherine Mansfield’s rare comedic creations, showcasing the author’s sense of humour.
Is Ada’s ability to reimagine her status a shortcoming or a strength, though? It’s certainly a coping mechanism. When you’ve got nothing else, is a fantasy-self so bad? Take the two has-been theatre ladies of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Miss Miriam Forcible and Miss Spink live entirely in a world of fantasy and this serves them well.
Ada must leave her bed and embark upon a mythological journey where she will meet a variety of people of varying degrees of helpfulness. She’s trying to find work, but no can do, partly because it’s a Saturday, and partly because people see through her pretensions. She is simply not welcome in the working class world.
The Battle scene involves the technique of pathetic fallacy:
There was a high, cold wind blowing; it tugged at her, slapped her face, jeered; it knew she could not answer [the questions].
Ada sits down and looks at herself in the mirror. Then she begins to cry. It seems she’s had some sort of anagnorisis at this point, though I think this is more of a ‘revelation of circumstance’, rather than some insight into herself. She has realised she’s not going to get work in the film industry. Her theatre skills don’t translate. She is too old for aviating, high-diving, driving cars, buck-jumping and shooting.
Ada’s cultivated ability to imagine another self will help her to dissociate her ‘self’ from the sex work.
Perhaps as part of her coping mechanism, she imagines herself and the stout man she’s about to have sex with as yachts:
And she sailed after the little yacht out of the cafe.
Mansfield used this technique in “The Wind Blows“, in which Matilda becomes the coal hulk. In both cases, the imagined self as water vessel seems to signify inevitability as well as vulnerability, because a ship/boat is very small compared to the vastness of the sea, and also at the whim of weather (environment).
Which mouse are you? Fight, flight, freeze or appease? Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910) is inclined to appease, as perhaps you must, if you are small and vulnerable.
Except every mouse I have ever met is a bolshy, ‘sit on this and swivel’ type. In winter they hang out behind the dishwasher and will hurtle their brown little bodies across the kitchen, even with me, the rightful inhabitant, standing right there. Contrary to literary depictions, mice are definitely not the appeasing type. A realistic personification of mice would render them stunt doubles and heist criminals.
But what of Mrs. Tittlemouse? Mrs. Tittlemouse is the 1910 epitome of the perfect, uncomplaining housewife. She is also the epitome of a partner violence victim.
Just as rapport-building has a good reputation, explicitness applied by women in this culture has a terrible reputation. A woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both. A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness. It is considered attractive if she is a bit uncertain (the opposite of explicit). Women are expected to be warm and open, and in the context of approaches from male strangers, warmth lengthens the encounter, raises his expectations, increases his investment, and, at best, wastes time. At worst, it serves the man who has sinister intent by providing much of the information he will need to evaluate and then control his prospective victim.
Mrs. Tittlemouse is a classic domestic story, which were aimed at girls — not exclusively read by girls, of course. Stories aimed at boys tended to be adventures in which the boy character left the home, had fun away from the home, then returned at the end.
The Shortcoming of every single mouse in children’s literature ever (well, not quite) is: smallness, shortcoming, vulnerability. The mouse is the animal stand-in for the child. Within that archetype there are many variations, but vulnerability is the standout feature.
Morally, there’s no fault on the part of Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse. There is nothing in this tale which sees Mrs. Tittlemouse treating another creature badly. That’s exactly what makes the story boring. Not all main characters of children’s stories have a moral shortcoming, but the most interesting ones do.
Important: Mrs. Tittlemouse’s ‘kindness’ towards her intruders is a survival strategy:
Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.
Mrs. Tittlemouse’s opponents comprise the various creatures who come into her dwelling, creating chaos and messing up her good work. In they come, one after another:
A big fat spider (who mistakenly thinks the house belongs to Miss Muffet).
Notice how Beatrix Potter has made use of the Rule of Three in Storytelling. As usual she got a bit of intertextuality in there, with reference to the nursery rhyme:
Little miss Muffet she sat on her tuffet, eating her curds eating and whey Along came a spider who sat down beside her And frightened miss Muffet away Little miss Muffet she sat on her tuffet, eating her curds eating and whey Along came a spider who sat down beside her And frightened miss Muffet away
In his analysis of Little Miss Muffet, Albert Jack writes: Arachnophobia is clearly not a modern compliant. Although cobwebs have traditionally been used as a dressing for wounds (and, scientifically tested, have turned out to contain all kinds of antibiotics), spiders have long been seen as malevolent. Richard III, presented by William Shakespeare as the most evil English king, is described as ‘a bottle spider’, which comes from the belief that spiders were inherently toxic — if one were dropped into a glass of water, every drop would be poisoned. It is therefore entirely understandable that this particular little girl from days gone by would have been frightened away by one…
Pop Goes The Weasel
Beatrix Potter has subverted the trope of the scary spider in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, because the spider is not scary at all. In a story with a succession of opponents, some of these will at first appear to be opponents but will turn out to be benign, or possibly even mentors. (Otherwise a succession of baddies gets boring.)
Next come the bumble bees, and finally Mr. Jackson, the epitome of unwelcome guests. (Though is he entirely unexpected? Methinks he’s intruded before.)
Mrs. Tittlemouse know exactly who he is, but when we first meet Mr. Jackson he has his back to us, which makes him appropriately ominous.
Mr. Jackson’s shortcoming is that he doesn’t hear a woman’s ‘no’.
I’ve successfully lobbied and testified for stalking laws in several states, but I would trade them all for a high school class that would teach young men how to hear “no,” and teach young women that it’s all right to explicitly reject.
Instead of telling him to get the hell out, Mrs. Tittlemouse gets on with pleasantries. She even offers him dinner. Then I suppose she wonders why he won’t leave.
Life is made up of challenges that cannot be solved but only accepted.
Mr. Jackson is a Cat In The Hat character (or maybe we should say it the other way round). The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse is now a carnivalesque comedy in which an intruder comes into a tidy house and creates havoc. He drips all over the place and blows thistle-down all over the room. He pokes through her cupboards in search of honey — he’s a bit of a Pooh Bear character.
Since Mrs. Tittlemouse is obsessed with tidying up, and therefore a boring character, Mr. Jackson meets a variety of insect foes as he explores the mouse house.
As animals are wont to do, they eventually leave of their own accord. Mrs. Tittlemouse has been holed up all that time, waiting for them to get the hell out.
Perhaps this story could not end in any other way, but when Mr. Jackson turns up, gatecrashing the mouse party, Mrs. Tittlemouse hands him acorn-cupfuls of honey-dew through the window even though her door is too small for him to come in.
This is a story of archetypal appeasement: A character ignores your boundaries, so you do the bare minimum to pacify them. You hope they won’t retaliate or become violent if only you give them a little.
Pair this children’s picture book with “The Little Governess“, a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, likewise about a female character who is obliged to be ‘nice’ to a man who invades her space. In the case of the little governess, she is out on a mythic journey, but the case of Mrs. Tittlemouse shows another reality: Women don’t have to even leave their homes in order to suffer the imposition of entitled men. Therefore, it’s not up to the woman to take measures to avoid such men, such as avoiding public (male coded) spaces.
Certain animals are coded as industrious and others as lazy. Another animal coded as industrious when anthropomorphised is of course the bee.
Leading up to 1918, Beatrix Potter’s publishers were asking her for a new story. This was wartime. Austerity all around. Frederick Warne and Co. were affected alongside everyone else and required something new from their bestselling children’s author. But Beatrix had moved to the country and the country was keeping her very busy. Rather than come up with something wholly original, she chose to rewrite an Aesop fable: The Town Mouse & The Country Mouse. Potter personalised the mouse by giving him a name: The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse.
Is it ironic that Beatrix Potter glorified the country even while country life made her so busy she barely had time to write and illustrate anymore? Probably not ironic, given how post-purchase rationalisation works. Beatrix had moved the country and she’d enjoy every minute, dammit. And if she couldn’t convince herself on a daily basis, she’d write a book about it.
Actually, I have no idea what Beatrix Potter was thinking. That’s what I’d be thinking if daily chores left me with no time to write and illustrate. In any case, what’s writing for if not to cement your own ideologies?
…there was no quiet; there seemed to be hundreds of carts passing. Dogs barked; boys whistled in the street; the cook laughed, the parlour maid ran up and down-stairs; and a canary sang like a steam engine.
The ideology expressed in Johnny Town-mouse was echoed over and over throughout the 20th century by authors such as Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit. Towards the end of the 20th century children’s literature started to offer similar commentary on video games, connecting video games to the city, supposedly absent in rural areas. (I have news for those authors.)
More recent children’s books have turned the tables and as a member of Gen X I feel personally vilified — now children’s books feature parents staring at screens while the children are ignored, sometimes to disastrous effect, sometimes simply to allow modern kids an adventure.
First up, why mice? We’d have to ask Aesop. Shame. He’s dead. However, we can guess why mice are so popular in children’s books. People have studied this stuff.
The Shortcoming of a mouse is the same as that of the Every Child — mice are small and vulnerable, though full of life, bravery and mischief. Mice will happily go off on an adventure. This also gets them into strife. In a children’s book, if a mouse leaves home, you can guarantee it’ll meet with life-and-death danger.
The opening of this story is a little bizarre (by today’s standards). Potter basically summarises the entire narrative in two opening sentences. These sentences feel disjointed to my ear:
Johnny Town-mouse was born in a cupboard. Timmy Willie was born in a garden. Timmy Willie was a little country mouse who went to town by mistake in a hamper.
There’s also the unpleasant word echo of ‘hamper’. I get the feeling this story really was rushed out. I suppose in war time there are bigger problems than a bit of word echo.
So Timmy Willie gets taken to town by mistake in a hamper.
Presumably he does not want to go to town. He’s horribly disorientated inside his wicker cage, borrowing from that cosmic horror trope we now have a word for: spatial horror. I’m noticing children’s stories use it frequently. Children (and mice) are so small they can get bundled up inside things and thrown around from movement, against their will, outside their control.
He awoke in a fright, while the hamper was being lifted into the carrier’s cart. Then there was a jolting, and a clattering of horse’s feet; other packages were thrown in; for miles and miles—jolt—jolt—jolt! and Timmy Willie trembled amongst the jumbled up vegetables.
The “Minotaur Opponent” in this story is the cat, whose smell lingers as a pervasive threat. The cat doesn’t make for great dinner-time music, either:
“Why don’t those youngsters come back with the dessert?” It should be explained that two young mice, who were waiting on the others, went skirmishing upstairs to the kitchen between courses. Several times they had come tumbling in, squeaking and laughing; Timmy Willie learnt with horror that they were being chased by the cat. His appetite failed, he felt faint. “Try some jelly?” said Johnny Town-mouse.
Between the mice themselves, there is another sort of Opposition: The stereotypical opposition that occurs between ‘cultured’ and polite city folk when they rub up against the working classes from the country. Timmy is naked, wearing only his fur, whereas the city mice are wearing expensive clothes. In this case, with sympathies so fully lying with Timmy, these expensive clothes are coded as a type of deceptive mask — who do these city mice think they are, dressing up fancy like that? Underneath, we are all just plain old mice.
So are these mice allies, or are they false allies?
Timmy’s Plan is to make it back home to the country where he feels safe. The entire story is about that. He is stuck in this big house where everything is supplied, but it might as well be a haunted horror house. Potter makes use of death metaphors, for example the ‘smears of jam’ (blood). Is this a Hotel California situation?
Timmy’s journey back home is surprisingly easy and underwhelming — the hamper goes back to the country weekly. All Timmy needs to do is get back in it. So that’s what he does, resolving the plot.
Potter tacks an extra story onto the end of this one: Seasons change and Timmy gets a visit from Johnny Town-mouse. We learn that the cat has killed the canary inside the house of horrors. So, there was a big big struggle scene after all, but Potter decided to recount it via a hypodiegetic narrator rather than turn it into a horrifying bloodbath of a scene.
In this illustration there’s no dead canary, but I assume it’s inside the cat’s belly. Cat sits on windowsill, currently digesting, looking godlike upon the chaos while the cook turns her back, oblivious to the animal stories happening all around her.
Johnny finds the country just as noisy and startling as Timmy finds the city, with the cows mooing and the lawnmower engine running.
Poverty with security is better than plenty in the midst of fear and uncertainty.
This is a fairly complex message. In bowdlerised versions of this fable, the message tends to get simplified by the younger audience: country life is fun; the city is a child cage. And so it is here. Potter vastly simplifies the message, and offers readers her own personal opinion:
One place suits one person, another place suits another person. For my part I prefer to live in the country, like Timmy Willie.
In case we didn’t pick it up.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Other authors and illustrators have adapted this tale for children.
As you read “The Tale of Pigling Bland” (1913) imagine Beatrix Potter sitting in a pig shed with her art gear and muck boots on, because that’s how she spent one summer, diligently rendering pigs (and then decking them out in clothes). Apparently she struggled to knock this one out. She’d had a big year.
Despite her illness, her engagement and her Escape To The Country, I’m not surprised she had trouble with this story. It’s a jumbling mess of a plot. Compare Pigling Bland to the tidy narrative of Peter Rabbit. What the hell is even happening in this one? I don’t pretend to even know, but Halloween recently passed, Beatrix did create decent talking-animal body horror fiction, so I’ll give it my best shot and enjoy every minute.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF PIGLING BLAND
(The plot summary quoted below is snagged from the Gutenberg website.)
Pigling Bland begins as Potter’s stories often did — with what sounds like an omniscient, third person narrator. Then boom:
Aunt Pettitoes and I dragged him out by the hind legs.
(Harsh.) At first I’m like, who is this first person narrator? One of the other two pigs?
We soon learn this is Beatrix Potter talking. She’s put herself in the story. She’s in the illustrations as well (but presumably not in this one).
A hugely successful pair of Australian children’s book creators do the same thing in their Treehouse series. Inserting oneself in your fiction must be a useful tactic for authors and illustrators doing the publicity rounds, visiting schools and whatnot. Extra stardom! I assumed that’s mostly why Andy and Terry do it. But Potter did it first! (Was Potter required to do publicity rounds?)
Pigling Bland begins in carnivalesque fashion, with a series of images depicting the fun mischief of piglets. First Potter lists the fun names of the piglets (by the way, Chin-Chin in Japanese is a colloquial, cutesy word for ‘penis’, a problem also for anyone reading “The Three Pigs” to Japanese kids.) Stumpy has had an accident to his tail, so it’s not all fun and games.
The piglets get stuck in things, they eat soap, they get into baskets of clean clothes, root up carrots…
Aunt Pettitoes, an old sow, can no longer cope with her eight troublemaking offspring and thus makes them leave home, with the exception of a well-behaved sow named Spot.
But suddenly the story turns dark.
Two of them, boars named Pigling Bland and Alexander, go to market.
Pigling Bland is now a mythic journey.
In a mythic journey you’ll probably find images of roads. (Or rivers.)
The point of view switches to the piglets and away from Beatrix Potter and Potter’s sow alter ego, Aunt Pettitoes.
Let’s call these little piglets the main characters. I reckon this is a harrowing story for young readers. I still remember a nightmare I had as a kid. I came home to find my entire family gone. For some reason we lived in a forest, but I knew it was meant to be home. I had to drive the family car to try and find them. (How they were meant to have got to where they’d gone without the family car, I will never know. I awoke before finding any answers.)
The illustration of the little pigs in the wheelbarrow is heartbreaking, actually. I shall never enjoy bacon again. (Or wheelbarrow rides.)
As befits a mythic journey, the pigs meet a variety of characters along the way: allies, enemies and not-sure-yets. The pigs themselves have different personalities and I imagine Pigling Bland is cracking the shits with Alexander. If you’ve ever been abroad with a flake you know what I mean. They lose tickets and burn through all their money (or their ‘conversation peppermints’).
Now Alexander has scoffed all his own peppermints and wants Pigling’s.
Basically, Pigling Bland has more advanced executive functioning skills.
Pigling Bland is very sensible but the more frivolous Alexander loses his pig license and, when he fails to produce them to a passing policeman, is made to return to the farm.
Now Pigling Bland is all alone in the world. This is basically a mish-mash between The Three Little Pigs and that nursery rhyme, quoted by Potter in this, in which one little pig goes to market, etc. (then runs wee wee wee all the way home). Because which of the Three Little Pigs was the most sensible? The one who built his house of bricks (not just cheap ass brick veneer, either). Pigling Bland is basically Sensible Brick Pig.
The policeman accuses the disenfranchised child pigs of… stealing pigs. This feels like a gag, except for an associated dark history. I’m reminded of several ridiculous laws:
During the era of slavery in America, an escaped human being would be accused of stealing themselves from their ‘owners’.
Even today, sex workers can be legally tried for ‘trafficking’ themselves, most at risk when crossing international borders.
The policeman takes Alexander back to Beatrix Potter, who re-homes him nearby. (Why did she not do that in the first place?) Apparently Alexander gets used to it after a while. Let’s not ask further details.
Reluctantly going on alone, Pigling Bland later finds the missing papers, which ended up in his pocket as a result of an earlier scuffle with Alexander.
Well, shit. How guilty would you be?
In any good mythic journey the main character will end up in their deep, dark Jungian subconscious (ie. the woods).
He tries to find his brother but ends up getting lost in the woods and has to spend the night in a stranger’s chicken coop.
Hey, weren’t the pigs told to keep away from hens/chicken coops whatevs?
And is this gruff farmer gruff in general, or only gruff on the outside? Appearances can be deceptive… but never trust a beard, kiddies:
He is found in the morning by a gruff farmer, Peter Thomas Piperson, who allows him to stay in his house, but Pigling is not sure the farmer is trustworthy.
Sure enough, the beard is a baddie and the poor little piglet has waded into a house of grisly horrors. He doesn’t just have a beard — he is ‘offensively ugly’. Now we have Hansel and Gretel in the mix, the archetypal fairytale of cannibalism and famine.
All Pigling wants right now is food to eat, which is weird because as I mentioned in my take on “Singing My Sister Down”, appetites tend to disappear when our lives are at stake.
But Mr Peter Thomas Piperson seems to realise this ain’t no ordinary pig. For starters, the pig’s in pants. So he lets the pig sleep on the rug. Maybe he’s going to keep Pigling as a pet, like a dog. Or maybe not. There’s not enough food here, either. For a murderous individual, Mr Piperson has a typically English way of ousting his uninvited visitor: “You’ll likely be moving on again?” But then he threatens to skin Pigling if he doesn’t leave the house without meddling.
Instead of getting the hell out, Pigling decides to have a leisurely, tidy breakfast at Mr Piperson’s. He’s singing to himself while wiping the dishes when another voice joins in. Creepy much? This scene reminds me of Roland the Minstrel Pig. (Maybe it’s just the singing-pig combo.)
Pigling discovers that Piperson has a second pig in his house who was stolen from her owner and whom he intends to turn into bacon and ham. The second pig, a beautiful black Berkshire sow named Pig-wig, suggests they run away so that they won’t be sold, or worse, eaten. Pigling Bland has in any case decided to avoid the market and become a potato farmer instead.
Like Hansel and Gretel, Pigling and Pig-wig make their escape:
At dawn the pair sneak off but in the course of their escape they come across a grocer in a cart who recognises Pig-wig as the recently stolen pig for whom a reward has been issued.
Thusly, Pigling Bland (basically a porcine Walter White) turns from a bland sensible guy trying to make his own way in the world despite terrible odds into a sneaky trickster to get what he wants. Which is to not be eaten, thank you.
This trick reminds me of an episode of The I.T. Crowd(Roy in the wheelchair). Not positive fake disability gags really fly in the year of our Lord 2019, however…
By being co-operative [Anagnorisis], and with Pigling Bland faking a limp, the two pigs manage to gain time and, once the grocer is at a safe distance, flee to the county boundary and finally, over the hills and far away, where they dance to celebrate their new-found freedom.
The ending is more like The Three Little Pigs than like the most enduring versions of Hansel and Gretel because the pigs never go home again. They find a new home. Mythic journeys can go either way but they all end with some version of home. But we knew Pigling Bland was never returning to his original home, didn’t we? First we were told there’s not quite enough to eat. Then Potter the Narrator says “if you once cross the county boundary you cannot come back”.
I think these two are going to get on like a house on fire because they both love to sing and dance.
Overall, I found the authorial insertion weird by today’s standards. And the mythic journey of Pigling Bland feels episodic. The modern reader wants a more integrated journey than is offered here. However, there is something fun about Pigling’s chaotic journey, and the randomness of events. We never really know why that psychopath Piperson goes from ‘let’s eat the pig’ to ‘let’s keep the pig for a pet’ to ‘I’m gonna skin the pig’ to ‘affable’, but that hardly matters, does it?
“The Lumber-Room” by H.H. Monro (Saki) is one of the short stories from Beasts and Super-Beasts, published 1914, though it was first published in a newspaper. He died two years later in the war. Significantly for this short story, Saki was gay.
There’s something very Peter Rabbit about this short story for adults. Peter Rabbit was widely read to children at the time Saki’s story was published. It’s conceivable that the fictional adults in “The Lumber-Room” believed all children (as proxy rabbits) want to get up to mischief in gardens because they had read Beatrix Potter’s tale over and over.
SETTING OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”
Saki’s stories are set in upper-class Edwardian England.
A lumber-room is a room in an upper-class English house where items are stored when not in use.
Jagborough is a fictional seaside resort but has a likely-sounding English name.
Nicholas wants to go into the deepest, most secret part of the house (rather than outside in the garden) to see what’s there. This is his inner-world, his imagination, his subconscious.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”
“The Lumber-Room” is a carnivalesque story, or certainly would be if it were written for children. A child goes on an adventure, has fun without adult supervision, then returns to the safe but restrictive adult world by the end of the story. Except in this one, there’s no return to safety. The child main character of Saki’s short story understands that adults can’t be trusted. This is not a message you typically (or ever) see in picture books for children, unless it refers specifically to ‘adults can’t see the same magic’.
Notice that the aunt manufactures a ‘carnivalesque’ adventure (‘something of a festival nature’) for the other children, but this is unlikely to be fun in the slightest. We can deduce this because the girl-cousin hurts herself getting into the car and cries loudly. When supervised and arranged by adults, especially in the spirit of punishment for the ostracised, carnivalesque adventures are nothing of the sort. Sure enough, we learn the other children had a terrible time. The boy’s boots were too tight (his conservative, mainstream life too constrictive), and the tide had been up, leaving no space for play.
Saki opens “The Lumber-Room” in an interesting way, by telling us a self-contained story in the first paragraph. This mini story describes why Nicholas is in disgrace. Hitchcock might have called the frog in the bread-and-milk a McGuffin — we never hear about the frog again, but it kicks the real story off. This initial micro-story lets Nicholas have his Anagnorisis upfront. The story now progresses with a wiser, more knowing, less trusting child, because Nicholas has learned that adults can turn a blind eye to what’s right in front of them, insisting things are one way when they decidedly are not.
Nicholas is your classic trickster — very intelligent but believably so. Readers love tricksters. We identify with tricksters immediately.
Nicholas’s Shortcoming is that he is a child. This is true for almost all children in stories, because their freedom is severely limited.
Not only that, Nicholas is a misunderstood child. We know from this particular episode of his life story that he wants to look at a narrative tapestry while the adult assumes he wants to get into the gooseberries, but this must only scratch the surface of all the ways in which he is misunderstood.
Nicholas is an aesthete rather than an athlete — the two main types of man as decided in the 19th century. He likes to walk around and look at nice things, inhaling their scent, considering the stories behind them.
Nicholas might therefore be considered a proxy for a gay adult man living in the Edwardian era. This man is expected to like ‘gooseberries’ but is in fact drawn into the hidden, secret pleasures of the locked room, which contains many beautiful treasures.
Nicholas wants to get into the forbidden lumber-room and explore all the wonderful things hidden to him.
The off-the-page gay man can’t necessarily explain why he loves the forbidden treasures so much, but he does love it and takes every opportunity to go there. When he does go there, he hurts no one. And the things that are in there are off-limits for no good reason.
The aunt-by-assertion was one of those people who think that things spoil by use and consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them.
This is not a story of someone who is acting in the world, where there is danger, but someone who is content to watch on, which is bearable so long as he understands his own inner self.
There’s something very fairytale about the Battle scene, in which Nicholas knows full well the ‘aunt’ stuck in the tank is exactly who she says she is, but he makes us of superstition and folklore to pretend naïveté, cracking on that he really believes she’s a changeling of some sort.
As mentioned above, this story structure is a bit unusual because the mini-story upfront gives Nicholas his revelation.
The big reveal for the reader is that Nicholas is not interested in gooseberries, but in the more adult, less understandable pleasures of the treasures in the lumber-room.
Nicholas didn’t know what he’d find inside this forbidden room, but once he entered it, the pleasures were more than he could have imagined, especially when he found the book of beautiful birds.
Before that he observes a tapestry meant as a fire screen. Saki describes it for the reader. When writers describe a painting or photo within a story this is known as ekphrasis, which was a popular Greek pastime. Short story writers make use of it even now, and the tapestry in “The Lumber-Room” seems to function as an indirect way of arriving at a character’s Anagnorisis.
What does Nicholas understand by looking at the hunters and the stag?
A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some remote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow; it could not have been a difficult shot because the stag was only one or two paces away from him; in the thickly-growing vegetation that the picture suggested it would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag, and the two spotted dogs that were springing forward to join in the chase had evidently been trained to keep to heel till the arrow was discharged. That part of the picture was simple, if interesting, but did the huntsman see, what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were coming in his direction through the wood? There might be more than four of them hidden behind the trees, and in any case would the man and his dogs be able to cope with the four wolves if they made an attack? The man had only two arrows left in his quiver, and he might miss with one or both of them; all one knew about his skill in shooting was that he could hit a large stag at a ridiculously short range. Nicholas sat for many golden minutes revolving the possibilities of the scene; he was inclined to think that there were more than four wolves and that the man and his dogs were in a tight corner.
There are plenty of interpretations, but here’s mine:
‘It would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag’ and it would not be difficult for heteronormative society to work out what’s going on right under their noses if only they were to look.
But when they do look, it is very dangerous for the stag.
It is pleasurable in this forbidden room but it is also dangerous. Perhaps danger is part of the pleasure itself.
There’s no easy way to win the big struggle when you are the stag.
Nicholas’s secret is now a safe thing. He comes up with a way the story on the tapestry could end that could be all right. Will Eaves, on the Neuromantics podcast says this crops up a lot in Greek myth: How can these sexually irresponsible labile figures have an effect in the world that ends up restoring balance? (Myth is very important to Saki’s literary world. A lot of the macabre stories have roots in green man figures and whatnot.)
The aunt who is — significantly — not Nicholas’s own aunt doesn’t really know him. So she is obliged to believe that perhaps he was naive enough to think that she had been swapped out by some evil witch. We don’t get to know of any further consequences for Nicholas but we can extrapolate that the aunt has either got the measure of him now (that he is much smarter than he cracks on) or else much dumber. I bet she’s keeping a close eye on him, to work out which of those it is.
The gay man sort of gets away with entering the metaphorical lumber-room because people simply assume he wants something else entirely. While they are assuming that, they aren’t looking for him in there. But he doesn’t get away with it entirely. Others know something is up. They know that he is tricking them in some way, though can’t quite get the measure of him, in a society where sexuality and orientation isn’t discussed. People don’t even have the language to discuss it. In that way, the adult gay man is similar to a child — children know things, but are often ill-equipped with language to describe these things.
Credit goes to Episode 3 of the Neuromantics podcast for alerting me to the gay subtext of this story. I’d otherwise have missed it. (At 29 minutes) The Neuromantics talk about “The Lumber-Room” in a discussion about people’s inner-world. Nicholas’s inner world is so much more important and satisfying to him than anything else.
Clovis the prankster gets up to tricks. This is a twist on the transgression comedy. In order to write a story like this, the writer must embody the prankster. The satisfying thing about writing this kind of story is that the writer’s pranks always work on our fictional victims.
But it’s not so easy to satisfy the readers with a prank plot… How did Saki do it?
Because this is a comedy, there’s no need for character growth.
So far, Bilsiter has been trying to crack on that he is more knowledgeable and worldly and magical than he is. Usually in a transgression comedy like Tootsie or About A Boy, everyone in the liar’s orbit is fooled for a while (or successfully suspends disbelief).
In this particular story, no one around Bilsiter believes his stories for a second. So a flip occurs at this point: People who did not believe him before do believe him now. People who did not believe him before appear to believe him now.
Clovis and Mary, our pranksters, not only scare Bilsiter but Clovis makes sure he doesn’t leave Bilsiter with any social prestige. So he takes the mantle of magical transmogrifier for himself.
The reader is not let in on the extent to which Bilsiter truly believes in the magic he blusters on about, but we do know this for sure: Bilsiter hates Clovis.
Wild animals gatecrashing aristocratic parties isn’t new. There’s clearly a carnivalesque enjoyment going on here, in which propriety takes a back seat at parties. ‘Letting loose’ is itself symbolised by the appearance of the wild animals.
Beatrix Potter was already popular by the time she published The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes (1911). The introduction to our 110th anniversary copy says the tale was created specifically to appeal to a new, American audience, with the inclusion of chipmunks.
Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen a chipmunk in real life. She must have relied upon photos when illustrating the chipmunks, but good reference photos wouldn’t have been easy to come by in England at the time.
The publisher pointed out that Potter’s chipmunks looked more like rabbits. She initially insisted chipmunks DO look like rabbits, but was required to re-do them regardless.
This story is notable for its depiction of bird calls set to words. Like the riddles found in other Beatrix Potter books, and like nursery rhymes in general, my generation of parents may be skipping the teaching of these bird calls set to words. e.g. “A little bit of bread and no cheese” to describe the call of a yellowhammer, introduced to New Zealand by Acclimatisation Societies between 1865 and 1879. My own father taught this to me, but I remain unfamiliar with the calls of European birds.
The calls in Aristophanes’ Birds (produced in 414 bce) must be some of the oldest examples of this on record: Torotorotorotix, Epopoi popopopopopopoi and so on.
Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds North America, Britain, and Northern Europe is a book by John Bevis. Its marketing copy reads: The distinctive and amazing songs and calls of birds: a meditation and a lexicon.
We do have a few New Zealand-specific bird calls set to words, most notably from Denis Glover’s famous poem “The Magpies”, which I learned in school. My parents’ generation were required to memorise poetry and this was one that New Zealanders over about 75 will be able to recite for you, but the skill of poetry recital had died by the time I went through primary school in the eighties. I didn’t memorise a single poem (outside Bible verses).
New Zealand’s magpies are from Australia. Now I live in Australia, surrounded by an array of outstandingly noisy birds. The magpie barely makes an impact against the cockatoos, so it’s no surprise the poem was written in New Zealand, where the magpie remains distinctively loud.
The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes is a remarkably violent story of the kind you won’t see published anew today. The scene where Timmy is wrangled through a very small hole leaves him close to dead. This is Tony Soprano stuff.
A MODERN THEORY
But it’s also a tender story of two male characters spending time together, one looking after another in a way far more typical of feminine caring. I just did an Internet search in case my thoughts on this are already done to death in literary circles, but found nothing. I may plough a lonely furrow, and this may sound facetious, but through my contemporary lens Chippy Hackee reads as a gay man, perhaps gender queer, or some related combo.
STORY STRUCTURE OF TIMMY TIPTOES
This story is written in classic mythic structure. Timmy leaves home, encounters baddies and goodies, must decipher which is which and eventually returns home slightly changed. Beatrix Potter mixes things up a bit by switching the squirrel main character out for a chipmunk, who continues this same linear journey into darkness. It is the chipmunk who faces the biggest big struggle (with the bear). Potter’s empathetic character remains safe.
Timmy Tiptoes and his wife want to collect enough nuts for winter.
Chippy wants a different lover from the one he’s got, or maybe he only wants the freedom to express the feminine-coded act of caregiving in an era where that’s not permitted for men. But that’s just my reading. (It would not have been Potter’s intention.)
Something must happen to upset Timmy’s idyllic life. Turns out this is no utopia at all — only an snail under the leaf setting. There are baddies in these woods. Thieves.
If you are a hibernating creature and your food store gets stolen, that’s a life and death matter.
The birds are unwitting opponents by outing where the Tiptoe couple are hiding their stash.
Squirrels go to great lengths to hide their nuts — they meticulously arrange leaves to make them look undisturbed. (I think Potter would’ve seen that herself.)
Chippy is also an opponent to Timmy despite his caregiving — Timmy just wants to go home to his wife, but Chippy keeps offering up all this delicious food. He becomes too fat to fit back through the hole.
Our main character has no plan other than to get on with his happy, day-to-day life, so in this case the baddies are the ones with the plan — they steal the Tiptoes’ nuts.
Silvertail is a forgetful squirrel, so his plan is to just dig up whosever nuts he finds. Potter was right about squirrels forgetting the location of some of their nut stores, but their memory is far more amazing than even naturalists knew back then:
Depending on the squirrel species and the type of nut, squirrels are generally able to retrieve up to 95 percent of their buried food, research shows.
Timmy has his near-death moment when he is squeezed through the hole in the tree. He lies semi-conscious upon his own store of nuts. Meanwhile we are subjected to the heartbreaking scene of Goody, his wife, searching everywhere for him. This Battle happens at about the midway point in the story. But Timmy is saved by the tender care of an (at first) non-gendered, unidentified chipmunk (referred to as the distancing ‘it’), who tucks Timmy into his own bed and even lends Timmy his night cap. Then he keeps Timmy captive by feeding him nuts so he will never make it back out through the woodpecker’s hole. This is Emma Donahue’s Room mashed up with Se7en mashed up with Brokeback Mountain.
Conveniently for the story, wind blows Chippy’s tree over. This allows Timmy to escape and the mythic journey now switches to the chipmunk, whose name we learn is Chippy Hackee, but only after the wives get together to lament their missing husbands.
Mrs Chippy Hackee has been abandoned for reasons that remain unexplained within the world of the story. Nor are we given any clues — she seems a perfectly adequate wife — everything one would want in a chipmunk. I deduce the setting reason for Chippy leaving his wife must be this: Timmy has been busy filling their marital home with his nut store and Chippy is dissatisfied because his wife fails to keep their house clean — the main job of a wife in 1911, and perfectly obvious to Potter’s contemporary audience. An obvious plot hole: Chippy’s new hiding place is no less full up with nuts. The nuts are not the problem in that relationship, people.
We learn via Mrs Chippy Hackee that her husband ‘bites’; i.e. he bites her. She assumes he bites everyone. But we have seen the opposite behaviour from Chippy in his tender loving care for the larger, injured (male) squirrel.
Chippy refuses to go home to his wife even when the tree blows over, leaving him exposed to the elements. He would rather CAMP OUT IN THE ACTUAL RAIN than go home to his wife, who pleads with him nonetheless. He’s in a total slump. He had a soul mate in Timmy — now Timmy has gone home, arm in arm with his own wife, and if Chippy can’t have Timmy he would rather have no one.
The only thing that shoos Chippy home is the appearance of a hangry bear.
And when Chippy Hackee got home, he found he had caught a cold in his head; and he was more uncomfortable still.
More uncomfortable because of the head cold? His wife is nursing him back to health despite his previously biting her. Perhaps Chippy is more comfortable in the caregiver’s role. He’s had a taste of his gender expansive freedom and now he’s stuck being someone’s reluctant husband forever in the strict gender binary of 1911.
I don’t believe for one second that this was Beatrix Potter’s intent for the story. So what is the 1911 Anagnorisis of her Timmy Tiptoes tale?
That home with your wife is better, because wives take care of you. Go home to your family. Be loyal to your heteronormative family.
As for the Tiptoes, they buy a lock for their nut stash. Moral: If you don’t want your stuff nicked, lock it up. Hey, that’s what Chippy thought. (‘Lock up what you love’ doesn’t apply to living creatures, Chippy. You can’t just force feed a lover so he can’t escape through the hole, Chippy.)
The Tiptoes have new babies, which makes Goody’s earlier scene all the more upsetting — she was pregnant with at least three when she thought she’d been abandoned by her husband.
The final illustration suggests the chipmunks remain unhappy. Their discord is symbolised by the bird who swoops down, poked at angrily by the wife with that battered and broken umbrella, to symbolise the battered and broken relationship.
The Tale of Mr. Tod by Beatrix Potter (1912) is a child-in-jeopardy crime thriller. See my post on thrillers and also my post on secrets and scams.
Note alo, crime stories appeal disproportionately to women — for whatever reason, this is a female genre. Beatrix Potter was the perfect candidate to create such a work.
Also, if you want to see what sort of sociopathic, philosophising white man Peter Rabbit turned into, go no further than Mr. Tod — the unexpectedly dark sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Potter wrote this mindfully and opens with direct address:
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.
Actually, Potter did not use the word ‘nice’. What she wrote was this:
I am quite tired of masking goody goody books about nice people.
The publishers made her change it.
I wonder if, by 1912, Potter had become weary of people’s assessment of her work. Even today, I feel Beatrix Potter is mischaracterised as a spinster who wrote cosy tales about bunnies dressed in coats. But you’d only believe that if you hadn’t actually read any of her stories. More recent made-for-TV bowdlerisations don’t help. Is the opening to Mr. Tod a note to the people who underestimate her darkness?
Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.
If Potter were alive today, I can guess what she’d say to people who insist people — women in particular — write likeable characters as role models for children. I think she’d tell them where to stick their opinions.
LANGUAGE IN MR. TOD
coppice — an area of woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber. This suggests humans are living nearby, though the animals in Beatrix Potter stories are referred to as ‘people’, so it could’ve been maintained by the animals themselves.
to cut a caper — to make a playful skipping movement (it does not mean to slice a pickle, of the sort I’ve only ever encountered at Subway sandwich restaurants)
spud — I thought it referred to potatoes, but now I realise it’s a small spade, and potatoes probably came to be called spuds after the spade used to dig them up. (Looks like no one really knows if that’s the connection — before it was a little spade it was a Nordic dagger. I imagine these were used to cut tubers up. Vikings didn’t have potatoes, however. I’m stumped!)
pig nuts — One of the more palatable wild foods. The tuber can be eaten raw and is very tasty. In flavour and consistency pignuts are something like celery heart crossed with raw hazelnut or sweet chestnut and sometimes have a spicy aftertaste of the sort you get from radishes or watercress.
flags — in this contest it means flagstone, used as flooring.
coal scuttle — a bucket-like container for holding a small, intermediate supply of coal convenient to an indoor coal-fired stove or heater.
counterpane — an old-fashioned word for a bedspread
bedstead — the framework of a bed on which the mattress and bedclothes are placed
warming-pan — A bed warmer was a common household item in countries with cold winters, especially in Europe. It consisted of a metal container, usually fitted with a handle and shaped somewhat like a modern frying pan, with a solid or finely perforated lid.
persian powder — Persian powder is a green pesticide that has been used for centuries for the biological pest extermination of household insects.
kitchen fender — Here’s a picture of one. It’s made of steel but what is it for? Looks like a guard for the stovetop.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Tommy Brock — a vile badger who sleeps all day and is therefore considered lazy (the curse of shift workers everywhere)
Mr. Tod — a fox who likes to eat rabbits, rats etc. Sly.
Mr. Benjamin Bouncer — terrorised by Mr. Tod, old, too old for proper babysitting but there we have it. Because he is old he is the designated dolt — easily tricked by a badger carrying a bag full of his grandbabies. I mean, Brock even stops to have a chat with him.
Benjamin Bunny — Benjamin Bouncer’s son
Flopsy — married to Benjamin. She cleans when she’s had a gutsful.
The bunnies — they spend the entire story in a sack, pretty much. They’re more goods than characters.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF MR TOD
Potter intends two main characters: Tommy Brock and Mr Tod. These guys are nemeses. The rabbits end up functioning as viewpoint characters as well as victims (mostly viewpoint characters). But they have their parallel plot, more reminiscent of a sprawling contemporary crime TV series than of a picture book.
Fairytale elements, such as from Hansel and Gretel are utilised in this story, as well as the classic character archetypes typical of Aesop (especially the sly fox). Then there’s the Goldilocks reference, with someone breaking in to some fierce creature’s house and accidentally falling asleep in their bed. But the forest and the trickery would be at home in almost any European fairytale.
Mr Tod’s shortcoming is also his strength, as explained above:
Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.
(He has ‘foxey’ whiskers because he is an actual fox, which is an interesting way of telling us that.)
I love the thumbnail character description of Tommy Brock:
Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up.
Only from the illustrations do we know for sure that Tommy Brock is a badger, though brock is a British name for a badger, so if you know that you didn’t need the illustration.
Does the badger really mean to kidnap those tasty little bunnies? I don’t think he meant to until he saw the opportunity. Remember he’s high on something potent — whatever ‘cabbage leaf’ cigar stands for. Ditto ‘seed cake’. I mean, he goes to the fox’s house, probably thinking it’s his own home. He sleeps and doesn’t move even when a fox comes into his house, probably thinking it an hallucination. He doesn’t give a shit, does he. He’s put the bunnies in the oven but forgot to turn it on. He’s off his face.
That fox isn’t off his face though. He comes home after a bad night of hunting and he’s wanting some breakfast. When he finds the badger in his bed, he only means to wake him up with a cold water surprise.
Potter was familiar with the dietary requirements of a badger:
They can eat several hundred worms each night. But being omnivorous, they will eat almost anything, from flesh and fruit to bulbs and bird eggs. … They will eat nuts, seeds and acorns along with crops like wheat and sweetcorn. Badgers are known to eat small mammals mice, rats, rabbits, frogs, toads and hedgehogs.
When Potter’s narrator tells us that badgers only occasionally eat rabbit pie and only when there’s nothing else around she is setting up a hierarchy of opposition, with the fox as the most dangerous of all.
But even the rabbits have their own conflict. It strikes me what an absolute asshat Peter Rabbit has turned into — the returned and bereft Benjamin Bunny is worried sick — as you would be — that his babies are about to be consumed, the entire lot of them. But what does Peter do? Constant deflection and circumlocution. He’s in no hurry whatsoever. In fact, Peter Rabbit almost gives one the impression that he’d like the bunnies to be eaten. That experience in Mr. McGregor’s garden ruined him for empathy.
Look at how deliberately unhurried he is. Who cares how many? Who cares how hard caterpillars kick? I mean, under the circumstances!
“Whatever is the matter, Cousin Benjamin? Is it a cat? or John Stoat Ferret?”
“No, no, no! He’s bagged my family—Tommy Brock—in a sack—have you seen him?”
“Tommy Brock? how many, Cousin Benjamin?”
“Seven, Cousin Peter, and all of them twins! Did he come this way? Please tell me quick!”
“Yes, yes; not ten minutes since … he said they were caterpillars; I did think they were kicking rather hard, for caterpillars.“
“Which way? which way has he gone, Cousin Peter?”
“He had a sack with something ‘live in it; I watched him set a mole trap. Let me use my mind, Cousin Benjamin; tell me from the beginning.” Benjamin did so.
“My Uncle Bouncer has displayed a lamentable want of discretion for his years;” said Peter reflectively, “but there are two hopeful circumstances. Your family is alive and kicking; and Tommy Brock has had refreshment. He will probably go to sleep, and keep them for breakfast.”
Ben’s plan is to chase the dude with the sack full of bunnies. This is a classic thriller chase, with near misses, hazards on the way (Mr. Tod’s house), snags (the sack has gotten caught on twigs, leaving bits of thread).
The second half of this story mainly comprises the elaborate scheme the fox gets up to — a prank, basically, designed to rouse the badger, who has accidentally fallen asleep in his bed. The fox is scared of the badger’s teeth, so doesn’t want to do anything violent at close range.
The badger is onto him and replaces himself with the fox’s rolled up dressing gown, safely escaping a wet fate. But he’s not going to get out before enjoying the look on fox’s face when his prank fails.
(The badger is a proxy for the baby rabbits. The baby rabbits never genuinely come near death. It was always the badger who was for the chopping block.)
Peter and Benjamin have spent the night digging a tunnel under the house, hoping to rescue Ben’s children that way. This plan is interrupted when the fox returns home after a night hunting.
Notice how Potter depicts Benjamin and Peter on both sides of the window — once from their point of view, once from the point of view of the bunnies in the oven.
When they came near the wood at the top of Bull Banks, they went cautiously. The trees grew amongst heaped up rocks; and there, beneath a crag—Mr. Tod had made one of his homes. It was at the top of a steep bank; the rocks and bushes overhung it. The rabbits crept up carefully, listening and peeping.
This change in pace, the emphasis on detail at the life-and-death moment, that is typical of a thriller.
The fox’s house itself is the set of a horror or a thriller:
This house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pig-stye. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked.
The setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame; but the kitchen fire was not alight. It was neatly laid with dry sticks, as the rabbits could see, when they peeped through the window.
But this is still a children’s book, after all. Potter does lighten the tone in several ways.
First, it happens Peter Rabbit is right. (I don’t think this absolves him of his sociopathy) and the young reader will sympathise with Peter Rabbit from having read Potter’s initial story starring him. So we are meant to believe him when he says don’t worry, the bunnies will be fine, just fine.
Second, the comical snoring. The description of Mr. Tod’s snoring seems designed to provide comic relief, though I’m not sure it works much.
If I didn’t know this video had been dubbed over with a woman’s snoring I would’ve assumed the snoring was a part of the original foley. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrydCVGvA48
The Battle scene includes a tantrum, as children’s stories often do — the fox seems to want to control his temper. He takes a moment to go outside and have a bit of a meltdown. He decides a coal-scuttle and walking stick won’t do for weapons. The badger has quite fearsome teeth. (This reminds me of Little Red Riding Hood.)
Peter and Benjamin come near death when the fox trips over their shallow burrow.
While the fox and badger are having an actual fight, the bunnies escape.
Now everything is cosy again. Well, sort of. Things will never be the same now that Mr. Bouncer has proven himself a totally irresponsible grandfather, letting in a monster, getting high together, basically handing over his own grandbabies.
But when the men arrive home with the rescued babies, Flopsy forgives her father-in-law and he is rewarded with a pipe, even though the misdemeanour of negligence hasn’t changed. (I wouldn’t hire him again, would you?)