The Tale of Tom Kitten was created soon after Beatrix Potter had moved into her farm in the Lake District, which she’d bought with the proceeds earned from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations are recognisably of Hill Top and of the farmstead’s surrounding village. The cats of the illustrations were real cats who lived there.
It was Beatrix’s publisher Harold Warne who thought cats would make good characters for one of her picture books. His own daughter had a pet cat. It seems fluffy mammals are an easier sell. In contrast, Beatrix had a hard time selling the concept of Jeremy Fisher. She made the background illustrations particularly beguiling to compensate for the ick factor of the frog. Contemporary picture books are full of all sorts of lovable animals from every classification, but Beatrix Potter was paving the way and her publisher was testing the waters.
Although Potter succeeded in creating lovable frogs, and hedgehogs, her publisher was right about cats. Consumers do love cats. After the success of Tom Kitten, Warne was approached by a company who wanted to make a musical version.
Beatrix dismissed this idea as “considerable twaddle”.
The story starts off with the child characters constricted by the requirements of polite society, then evolves into an unsupervised carnivalesque adventure. the child characters end up back inside the home, though their freedom has not been fully curtailed — they will find a way to have fun.
The Tale of Tom Kitten is equally the tale of Tom’s sisters, Mittens and Moppet. But Beatrix Potter did not subvert the stereotype that girl children are well-behaved while boy children are mischievous and interesting. It is Peter Rabbit who goes out on his adventure rather than one of his better-behaved sisters.
In a misogynistic pecking order where boys are at the top, Tom is affronted by his mother’s requirement to dress up for guests because dressing up and looking pretty is a girly thing to do. In different circumstances, Mittens and Moppet may be equally rebellious.
Indeed they are, though they appear docile while under the watchful eye of Mother. Beatrix Potter does eventually afford the sisters a little freedom at the end, where we see their true, playful natures. We might consider this a minor gender subversion.
In common with the childlike heroes of any carnivalesque tale, these kittens want to have fun. Their deeper psychologies remain unexplored, though we do get an insight into the insecurities of their mother.
The Opponent is the adult character who wants to make the kittens behave like well-behaved little grown-ups — in this case the mother, Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit. Tabitha is overly-concerned about appearance. When her friends arrive for their fancy party she lies that the kittens have got measles and that’s why they’re in bed.
But for the adventure part of this story, Tabitha is out of the picture. She has turfed her children out of the house.
The kittens want to play without impediment so their clothes become dirty and dishevelled, then come completely off.
Beatrix Potter would have been familiar with the constricting nature of clothing. She lived in an era where women’s clothing was highly impractical, yet she’d just moved to a farm. It’s one thing to sit inside and paint while wearing Edwardian women’s clothing; it’s another to be doing farm work in it.
The climax of these adventures involve ducks. Potter makes the most of the natural comedy of ducks. who are graceful on water but comical on land.
The ducks put on the kittens’ discarded clothes — hat on a dog humour. This sort of gag appeals to preschoolers in particular.
Why is it so funny that the ducks are wearing clothes, when we probably didn’t laugh at kittens wearing clothes?
Beatrix Potter anthropomorphised all of her animal characters, but they don’t all sit at the same place on an animal—human continuum. The cats are more human than the ducks are. Therefore it is more funny to see the ducks wearing human clothes.
In many carnivalesque tales, the story ends with the child back to constricted normality but in this case Beatrix Potter affords the kittens some freedom to continue their fun.
Potter also tells us about the ducks — who she must consider an integral part of the cast. They lose the clothes in the pond and have been looking for them ever since. This is no doubt an etiological tale explaining why ducks are constantly putting their heads under the water.
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.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter was originally called The Roly-Poly Pudding and written as a Christmas present to a child. Potter’s image of the cat rolled up in dough is one of those resonant illustrations which, once seen, can never be unseen. Perhaps this image scarred you, too, as a child.
Perhaps it scars you now.
What makes an image resonant? I’ve explored that question elsewhere. In any case, I’m not surprised Potter originally used the story’s most scarring imagery as the original title, and I’m also not surprised that the title was changed. It wasn’t exactly in keeping with the rest of the Beatrix Potter books.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF SAMUEL WHISKERS
Reading through the Beatrix Potters is like watching a series of wildlife documentaries — watch the one about the lions and you’re rooting for the lions. Watch the one about the deer and you’re rooting for the deer, and mad at the lions for killing the deer.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers places reader empathy firmly with the cats, in contrast to The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse, in which the cats in a big Edwardian house are positioned as horrific enemies.
Samuel Whiskers has its own version of horror, not least the ‘spatial horror‘, which needs its own entry on TV Tropes. Spatial horror is very much a part of Beatrix Potter’s oeuvre. I’d hazard a guess Beatrix did not like to be locked up in tight spaces and hated feeling giddy and disorientated. The onomatopoeic ‘roly poly’ of the pudding is in itself a type of spatial horror.
The story of Samuel Whiskers starts off with the problem of a mother cat, who is anxious and cannot keep tabs on her kittens. You’d think her anxiety would help her to keep tabs on them, but no. This is Tabitha Twitchit, who readers will know from The Story of Miss Moppet, The Tale of Tom Kitten and so forth.
The kittens want to have fun; their mother wants to keep them out of mischief; the rats want to make a roly-poly pudding out of one of the kittens; John Joiner the dog wants to complete whatever job he’s charged with.
Parents and children are natural opponents — the kittens want to make mischief; Tabitha wants to know where her children are.
This house is also infested with rats. Functionally, these rats are the ghosts which haunt the big house — I’m thinking of a film such as The Others. You sort of know they’re there, but you only hear them scuttling. There’s a veneer between the two worlds.
The ‘old father rat’ is the most fearsome rat of all. He has yellow teeth and is too much for the cats. He appears occasionally like a ghost. He steals the rolling pin and pats of butter.
According to the other kitten, there is also an old woman rat who steals dough.
The reader should deduce at this point that the rats are stealing supplies to make their own pudding. It’d be easier on the rats if they simply waited for the cats to make the pudding and then steal the entire thing, but perhaps they like it made a certain way?
Tabitha goes off looking for her kittens. This is where the spatial horror is introduced:
It was an old, old house, full of cupboards and passages. Some of the walls were four feet thick, and there used to be queer noises inside them, as if there might be a little secret staircase. Certainly there were odd little jagged doorways in the wainscot, and things disappeared at night—especially cheese and bacon.
As if old houses aren’t creepy in their own right, the creepier thing about them is that you can get lost in them — not just in the rooms themselves, but in the spaces between.
The Rats In The Walls, as well as Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves In The Walls encapsulate this particular fear. A Lovecraftian fear of passages, corridors and spaces in between may be more common than I realise. Jeff Kinney even makes a gag out of it in Wrecking Ball (2019). Greg can’t stand the thought of creatures poking about in the walls, so his future dream house will be made entirely of glass. The illustration shows Greg sitting downstairs, looking straight through the floors into an upstairs toilet.
Point of view switches to the kittens — stand-in children for child readers. Moppet and Mittens are all about mischief. That’s their ‘plan’. They are playing bakers, making ‘dear little muffins’ out of dough.
Point of view switches back to the adult cats. Cousin Ribby has arrived. The two adult cats lament the mischief made by kittens. It is revealed that Thomas has gone missing. Together the lady cats search.
Now there’s another sequence of spatial horror, with Tom Kitten stuck in the chimney of an old house, ‘where a person does not know his way, and where there are enormous rats. [Cats are not people, but we are not supposed to think about that.]
It was most confusing in the dark. One flue seemed to lead into another.
There was less smoke, but Tom Kitten felt quite lost.
Eventually, John Joiner the dog is brought in to sniff Tom Kitten out.
The Battle between Tom Kitten and the rats culminates in that horribly memorable image of the kitten inside the dough. The build up is reminiscent of fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, where a formidable male creature orders his wife to make him a very particular sort of meal — one which includes our main character:
“Anna Maria,” said the old man rat (whose name was Samuel Whiskers),—”Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner.”
“It requires dough and a pat of butter, and a rolling-pin,” said Anna Maria, considering Tom Kitten with her head on one side.
But Potter adds a cosy addendum to the end of this story, bringing herself as narrator. She tells the reader how the carpenter dog cannot stay for tea with the cats because she herself has charged him with the task of building chicken coops.
And in a comic twist, Beatrix Potter sees the evil rats running off with her wheelbarrows. They have piled their luggage into the wheelbarrow and are moving into Farmer Potatoes’ barn (presumably because of the dog, though they haven’t been scared of the cats). They do very well in the barn and all the rats there today are descended from Samuel Whiskers and Anna Maria.
Moppet and Mittens grow up into ‘very good rat catchers’. They earn their living as such, tacking tails onto the wall as proof. This in itself is a horrifying scene to me.
But Tom Kitten is forever scared of anything bigger than a mouse.
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.
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 Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) is one of Beatrix Potter’s more popular stories, and is an excellent example of how to write a sympathetic main character. Publishers had been telling Potter since she wrote it in 1893 for her last nanny’s son that frogs aren’t cute and fluffy enough to warrant main character status in children’s literature. This feels almost unbelievable today, but Potter helped pave the way for non-fluffy stars in picture books.
STORYWORLD OF JEREMY FISHER
Jeremy Fisher lives in a part human, part animal dwelling, which looks like a regular house but with water slopping all around the corridors and larder. (Just this week I’ve had the washing machine overflow, which calls to mind Jeremy Fisher.)
Beatrix sold Jeremy Fisher partly on her beautiful scenery to compensate for the unappealing amphibian. So The Tale of Jeremy Fisher is one of Potter’s most beautiful books. The flora, the mountainous background with its misty aerial perspective and the reflections in the water are beautifully rendered. Jeremy Fisher himself is patterned in what looks (to the modern eye) like camo pants, but they’re actually his own skin.
SYMBOLISM OF WATER
Potter is making doubly symbolic use of the water. Consider bodies of water two separate realms in storytelling: The water’s surface and the water’s depths. The water surface functions more like a vast plain (a la the Wild West) whereas the depths are more like outer space — you never know what can come out of it. You can’t see things coming, either. Humans have a natural fear of the ocean, and the further down we go, the more gruesome the fish life appears to us.
Through my contemporary lens, Jeremy Fisher is sympathetic in his own right, even without the help of lush scenery. Potter did a great job of his body language and face. The illustration below succeeds in making him look super cute, don’t you think? It’s all in the tilt of the head and perhaps in the underbite jaw.
Jeremy’s Shortcoming is that he is a low down on the food chain. Potter depicts him as fully a part of it — Jeremy plans to eat minnows, which he catches with worms. He invites to dinner a creature who only eats salad. The reader is made fully cognisant of the food chain and Jeremy’s place within it. There’s nothing sentimental about these stories.
Potter makes Jeremy sympathetic with subtle injections of humour. For instance, his ‘boat’ looks ‘very like the other lily-leaves’. In fact it’s just a lily leaf, not a boat at all. So Jeremy thinks of himself as a human. I know when my dog does things that appear human, I find him very cute. (Curling up in my bean bag, making use of a blanket to keep warm, learning how to open the door etc.) This tends to compensate for the annoyance.
Jeremy Desires minnows (small fish) for his dinner. Ideally he wants to catch more than he needs so he can entertain his friends at his house. This is a likeable sort of desire — we can see Jeremy is a generous ‘person’. Like actual animals in the wild, his relationship with killing isn’t about power (with humans it’s often about power), but about sustenance.
The Battle is beautifully set up, because Potter’s unseen narrator (Potter herself) tells us before the dire moment that the situation would have been dire had he not been wearing his macintosh. This leads us to expect less than what happens: We think he’s going to get terribly splashed.
But we’re given a nice cosy New Situation, with the three friends enjoying a (disgusting) meal together around Jeremy’s dinner table. The original plan didn’t work out, but Jeremy came up with a modified menu.
Beatrix Potter wrote Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle specifically to appeal to girls. She thought that Lucie’s feminine garb, with its emphasis on the lost clothing items (o, calamity!), would appeal to girls especially.
Even today, authors and publishers are creating children’s books for the gender binary* e.g. this book will appeal to boys because X; this will appeal to girls because Y.
*Gender binary is not an ideal term, though it’s used widely. We don’t live in a gender binary — that suggests two categories which are equal. We live with gender isomorphism, in which there are ‘men’ and ‘failed men’.
Potter’s concept was a hard sell — publisher Norman Warne (about to become her fiancé) couldn’t see the appeal but he must’ve conceded he wasn’t a girl himself so Beatrix would know better, and Beatrix won (as she often did).
But Beatrix was wrong about the appeal of Lucie. Everyone who sets out to write ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is always completely wrong, of course. Lucie didn’t garner much of an audience at all — everyone preferred the character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.
Norman hadn’t been keen on a ‘hedgehog book’, either. He didn’t think dirty hedgehogs would appeal to kids — probably because they’re not fluffy. (The spines are modified hairs, Norman.) Perhaps it was Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle herself who paved the way for an entire raft of animal children’s books featuring non-cute creatures. Now we see reptiles, naked mole rats, fish, likeable insects and almost anything you can think of in picture books.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MRS. TIGGY WINKLE
Since Potter intended Lucie to be the main character, that’s where I’ll go with it.
This is a carnivalesque story, so the Opponent is replaced by a fun creature who allows the child to enter fully into a world of fantasy.
Any sense of danger comes only from the ‘hair-pins’ poking through Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s bonnet, wrong end out. This suggests she could snap at any time… though she doesn’t, of course! She’s a working class woman and remains deferential to Lucie, who comes from a middle-class household. (Back then it was very easy to tell socio-economic status from clothing.)
Although I’m sure most readers won’t bring the story of Chicken Little to front-of-mind when reading Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Chicken Little exists in a corpus of scary folk and fairy tales in which children go off looking for something, enter a wild creature’s house and come to a messy end. Goldilocks and The Three Bears is another example. So with those tales as palimpsest, there’s an ominous atmosphere to Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, despite the fact that Lucie is always very safe with the hedgehog, despite her dagger-like spines.
There are elements of many classic tales here, not only Chicken Licken, which involves a character going from character to character asking the same question. (Also birds. Lots of birds.) In this case Lucie is looking for her handkerchief as a kind of McGuffin. (Not technically, because she does get her things back at the end.)
Eventually Lucie’s plan is to follow a particular bird, who appears to be leading her somewhere — to the top of a hill where she has a revelation. See: The Symbolism of Altitude.
Potter is also making use of the Miniature in Storytelling technique, starting when 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. She is about to enter a world of play.
When Lucie finds the footprints she follows them, almost in spite of herself. This has the vibe of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — she eventually finds a portal — not a rabbit hole but a door straight into the hill. (Pied Piper, anyone?) The Alice imagery continues when Lucie enters the hedgehog’s house and seems to shrink, though she hasn’t literally changed size within the setting — it’s just that the ceiling is low and everything is in miniature. This is the wish fulfilment fantasy of shrinking down and entering your own dollhouse. I can imagine this appealed, though not just to girls.
Although this story begins as a mythic journey, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is still a pretty standard Domestic Story, set inside the home, with female characters doing feminine things. But because this is a hedgehog washer-woman, this alone is enough to thrill the young audience of its era, and the carnivalesque ‘fun’ involves watching Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle wash clothing items belonging to a variety of woodland creatures.
When Lucie is excited to meet Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, this is a clear early example of intertextual marketing. You’ll see the same thing done today. For instance, some of the later Babymouse books make sure to mention the authors’ ‘boy book’ companion series about the amoeba.
Finally, the visit concludes when Lucie and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle sit down and drink tea.
In a carnivalesque story like this, the Anagnorisis phase is replaced by a stage that marks the end of fun and passage back into the real world. In this case, the stile marks the portal back into the real world.
The inevitable message: Magic must be real. If you can imagine it, perhaps it might come true. Lucie realises this, and so might the reader.
(Now some people say that little Lucie had been asleep upon the stile—but then how could she have found three clean pocket-handkins and a pinny, pinned with a silver safety-pin?
And besides—I have seen that door into the back of the hill called Cat Bells—and besides I am very well acquainted with dear Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!)
Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is an early example of what TV Tropes calls “Or Was It A Dream?” Potter is very clear about what she’s doing, with a note at the end. These days the reader is given no such hand-holding. You see an example of this trope in a picture book like The Polar Express, in which the child seems to go off on a fantasy adventure but is left with a token of proof.
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). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96VZpN5xtMM
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?)
The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter is a story of utopian, idealised capitalism, first published 1909. This is how we’d all like capitalism to work — small local businesses provide goods and services; those friends providing the best goods and services win out, those ill-suited to small business find other, more suitable occupations. All is fair and just.
We see this micro-capitalist retail structure even in contemporary children’s books published today. We also see it in toys — the Sylvanian Families line of dolls offers for sale a utopian smalltown market, with tiny pastries, pots and pans and a world populated by nuclear families of animals in clothes.
Ginger and Pickles is also a bit like a contemporary vampire story a la Twilight, focusing on the repression of one’s natural desires, and eventual escape into the wild where these can be satiated.
STORYWORLD OF “GINGER AND PICKLES”
The book is illustrated in a mixture of colour and black and white line drawings. The colour illustrations are very detailed while the line drawings aren’t very detailed at all, compared to how Potter sometimes rendered her line work.
My parents’ generation grew up with an old-fashioned supplies store as described in Ginger and Pickles, and I’ve been told that when supermarkets first opened in New Zealand, many customers (mostly women) were reluctant to use them. It felt like theft to walk around and pick your own thing from the shelves. Asking a grocer to take things down for you seemed more polite, somehow, as if the act of ‘giving’ provided a kind of permission to buy. I think of supermarket food as owned by a faceless corporation but, back then, shopping must have felt more like walking into someone’s kitchen and requesting to have some of their own food.
I’m thinking of a sketch by The Two Ronnies from 1976. By this time in England, the old-fashioned shopkeeper was on his way out and the background of the gag below is that “Nothing is too much trouble.” These places remained in existence precisely to keep serving the customers who had grown up with the village grocer as a local friend and personality. This exact culture can be seen in 1970s comedies such as To The Manor Born but we still see it today in the pharmacy scenes of Doc Martin. Butchers and pharmacists still operate like those old-fashioned shops. There are few other examples where the customer needs to interact with the shopkeeper.
Meanwhile, the smaller Ronnie really tests this maxim. All the while, the shopkeeper tries to keep up the facade of jovial companionship, providing not just the service of goods but also the social service of ‘an outing’. He ultimately fails to keep his cool, leading to carnivalesque chaos. And if an old-fashioned grocer can’t manage to keep his cool, he proves himself redundant in the late seventies era of supermarkets.
The characters of Ginger and Pickles, as depicted by Beatrix Potter, are providing the ultimate grocery service — no one pays for anything. She describes the concept of ‘credit’ for young readers in the text, who aren’t meant to ask, well, where are all these products coming from, then? Rather than go into that, Potter mentions the terrier of the pair can’t afford a dog licence. I would’ve thought the dog licence is the least of their financial worries, but this is a payment the young reader can identify with.
I wondered if it were true that terriers needed dog licences in England but collies didn’t. I’m yet to find an answer to this so if you know the answer, flick me an email.
VOCABULARY OF GINGER AND PICKLES
A wigg is a kind of bun or small cake made of fine flour, less sweet than your regular sweet bun. The seeds used in sweet baked goods were probably caraway seeds. Potter has spelt it with a single g, but it was often spelt with two. Perhaps Potter knew this but wanted to retain the imagery of hair, and that’s why she put the word in speech marks.
A self-fitting candle means that it has been designed to fit into a standard sized candle-holder, which came in a variety of sizes. In the early 1900s people would’ve been as familiar with these sizes as we are familiar with bulb types today (though I still often manage to buy the wrong one).
£3 19 11 3/4 is read “three pounds, nineteen shillings and eleven pence three farthings. This is the equivalent of advertising a product at 99p instead of a pound because this is 1 farthing short of four pounds, so it’s mildly humorous that the ‘rates and taxes’ have come to this exact amount, which seems like a grocer’s special.
“Send us all the bills again to everybody ‘with compts‘,” replied Ginger. This appears to be a shortened form of ‘with compliments’.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE TALE OF GINGER AND PICKLES”
Ginger & Pickles is a small supplies store specialising in sweets. The shop is named after its cat and dog owners.
In picture books and in idiomatic expressions such as ‘fight like cats and dogs’, cats and dogs are often depicted as living at loggerheads, but I’ve noticed that in reality a well-fed cat and a dog living in a domestic household together are just as likely to get on as two cats or two dogs (who quite often despise each other). In my experience, cats in particular can really hate each other, even if they’re from the same litter. (Bear that in mind if you get yourself two kittens thinking they’ll automatically be best buds.)
Potter doesn’t get into any antagonism that you often see between cats and dogs — Ginger and Pickles get along fine, sort of like a married couple. They know each other well and rib accordingly. But there is another Shortcoming — Potter’s animal characters hover in that awkward space between ‘humans in animal form’ and ‘proper animals’ — although they own a shop and speak English like humans, they are driven by their baser instincts and would quite like to eat the customers. The terrier would like to eat the rabbits and the cat would like to eat the mice. They acknowledge this shortcoming in themselves and have developed strategies; the cat serves the rabbits and the dog serves the mice. (In fact terriers also like mice and were bred as ratters. I doubt terriers make a fine distinction between rodents.)
Here’s what I think. I think Ginger and Pickles Desire the parade of edible customers who visit their little store. In fact, they are basically enticing them there with free sweets. They are setting up traps, and they enjoy the hands-off fantasy parading in front of them all day.
Because WHY THE HELL ELSE would they do this entire thing? They’re not making any money.
The customers themselves are set up as opposition, though what Ginger and Pickles are not receiving in financial reward they are receiving in some other kind of gastro-porn buzz.
The off-the-age Opponent is the other shopkeeper — opposition not just for these shopkeepers but for the patrons as well, as Tabitha Twitchit is a much better business person and doesn’t give credit, knowing exactly how that would end.
They try to extend their credit, for example by asking for credit on the dog licence at the post office. They ask their customers to pay for what they owe, but never follow up.
This the extent of their business acumen. They don’t change the rules to ‘no credit’. They don’t visit their customers at their homes and ask to be paid. No threats, no violence. Their baser instincts therefore remain in check.
The Battle scene involves the German police doll — were Germans more scary in 1909 perhaps? Would an English-made doll have seemed safer? The bead eyes have inherent horror, utilised also in a horror middle grade story like Coraline (where the eyes are buttons). The policeman’s helmet has been sewn onto his head. Ginger points out that this renders him harmless, whereas Potter knows this is exactly the stuff of horror. This tiny, spindly policeman doll is therefore formidable and scary enough to warrant Ginger and Pickles closing up shop and heading back into nature.
Well, since Ginger and Pickles have been forced out of their business by circumstance, this didn’t lead to any Anagnorisis — only the grim realisation that they were not cut out for independent retail.
Instead, Potter gives us the Anagnorisis of the rest of the village. The closure sets off a chain of events and the narrator explains to the reader what the customers will have realised: By taking advantage of the free goods at Ginger & Pickles’, the very existence of another grocery store was keeping the price of Tabitha Twitchit’s goods down.
At this point, Potter gives us the mini-plot of the Dormouses (Dormice?), who unsuccessfully sell candles, ‘which behave very strangely’. The images of the drooping candles are spooky even in black and white, standing about as high as the mice themselves and therefore looking like hooded figures come to collect the dead.
This is an unusual place to put a mini-plot, but the preface to this edition tells us that:
The storyline was slightly altered from Beatrix’s original conception, as she wanted to include a character representing her local shopkeeper, John Taylor, who was now bedridden. He suggested he might pass as a dormouse, and so John Dormouse appears in the tale.
I haven’t seen Beatrix’s unedited manuscript but I can guess John featured in the main part of the story, Beatrix was asked to remove him as it complicated the plot unnecessarily, and knowing what we’re told of Beatrix’s personality she would’ve refused to remove him completely, so it was agreed she tack him on at the end as she has done here.
I don’t think this is an ideal story structure. As a result, this is not the most resonant of Potter’s books, but she was already very popular by 1909 and she had a certain amount of sway on her own products. Thusly, we get the story of the candles and John Dormouse in an odd place. I do think the candle story is itself pretty cool, but not at this point in the plot, when the reader is expecting a summary of the main narrative.
This is a happily-ever-after tale — Sally Henny-penny re-opens the abandoned store, calls it something new and obviously knows how to run a business properly because she draws the customers in with specials and only accepts cash (as opposed to credit). Chickens are obviously harmless, to everyone but slugs and worms and insects, that is.