The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse cover

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.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, 1910

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.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

So do I approach this story like it’s 1910 or like it’s 2019? Well, let’s not be boring. Let’s see how this story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature has fared.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MRS. TITTLEMOUSE

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.

SHORTCOMING

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.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

DESIRE

Mrs. Tittlemouse is a homebody who only wants to keep her house clean and tidy.

What does Mr. Jackson want? He wants her attention. He wants her labour, her material store, her living space. He wants to intrude; he wants her to notice him.

OPPONENT

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, 1910

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:

  1. Beetles
  2. Ladybirds
  3. 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 Mrs Tittlemouse

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.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

PLAN

Mrs. Tittle mouse ‘bundles the spider out at the window’. Then she sets about getting dinner when she discovers her main opponent, Mr Jackson.

BIG STRUGGLE

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.

Roger Ebert

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.

ANAGNORISIS

It is ultimately Mrs. Tittlemouse who becomes the trickster. She saves her own abode by fetching twigs and partly closing up the front door, before they can come back.

She seems to have realised that although her small size makes her vulnerable, she can also use this to her advantage.

Mrs. Tittlemouse also seems to have realised that she only enjoys the company of other mice — all turned-out nicely and with good table manners.

NEW SITUATION

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.

This is terrible advice.

Mr. Jackson clearly understands he is not wanted, yet he demonstrates highly troubling persistence.

And so the story ends, and apparently all is well in the world. Everyone is happy. Mr. Jackson can still enjoy reciprocation from the target of his attention.

But with that jerk right outside, can Mrs. Tittlemouse be truly happy? Can she ever be truly free?

If you tell someone ten times that you don’t want to talk to him, you are talking to them—nine more times than you wanted to.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

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.

The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse cover

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.

Read Johnny Town-mouse as a prime example of ‘city bad—rural good’ ideology from the first golden age of children’s literature.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JOHNNY TOWN-MOUSE

Johnny Town-mouse has the structure of a mythic journey. The hero never wants to set out on adventure; instead he is thrust out into a dangerous world because he fell asleep inside a hamper.

SHORTCOMING

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.

DESIRE

So Timmy Willie gets taken to town by mistake in a hamper.

One thing you don’t get in Potter’s universe is ‘stock yuck‘ based on green vegetables. Greens are wholesome and good.

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.

OPPONENT

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?

PLAN

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?

BIG STRUGGLE

Apart from the very real threat of the cat, this is a psychological horror. Timmy is so upset he loses significant weight in just a few days in the big, city house.

ANAGNORISIS

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.

NEW SITUATION

After his excursion to the country, Johnny Town-mouse finds the country too quiet. (Despite the cows and the lawnmower.) So he returns. Each mouse is happy in his own environment.

The moral of the Aesop fable is as following:

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.

Is Animalification A Thing?

man surrounded by rock pigeons

In literature, an object with human characteristics is called ‘personification‘.

Granting an animal human-like characteristics is called ‘anthropomorphism‘. (Anthropo = human being, as in ‘anthropology’. ‘Morph’ = change.)

Both personification and anthropomorphism are types of metaphors.

But what do you call it when it’s the other way round? i.e., when a human being is compared to an animal by virtue of animal characteristics? Reverse personification? Animalification?



Someone on Urban Dictionary notes that fantasy lovers have developed their own lexicon for these things:

ANTHRO

An animal with human-like characteristics. A human with animal-like characteristics can also be called an anthro, but technically they are not. An anthro is, technically, an animal that can: a) walk upright, b) talk, or talk somewhat (AKA has human vocal chords), c) has human features (i.e. a centaur, half human, half horse), d) has the bone structure of a human, with some of its animal counterpart (i.e. a cat-anthro that although looks like a human, can jump like a cat). These characteristics separate anthros from humans with cat ears and tail (or something like that).

It’s common in literature to give a human character animal characteristics, even when the genre is not speculative. For instance, in S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This Is Now, one of the main characters is depicted as a lion in preparation for his eventual fate.

We are used to animal idioms in daily life e.g.

  • picky eaters as birds
  • greedy people as pigs
  • thin people as stick insects
  • night owls

In literature, the metaphor may be short-lived e.g. a single observation.

e.g. ‘I love your dress,’ she purred. (Women as cats and birds is cliche in literature.)

As children we get used to picture books where the people are ostensibly animals — they have the heads and bodies of animals but essentially behave like humans. Often there’s no metaphorical reason for this — it’s the ‘hat on a dog’ type humour that children love. Why is Olivia a pig? I have no idea, but it gives Ian Falconer’s illustrations a childlike interest which may not otherwise be there given his limited colour palette and style.

Authors of adult work also make use of people as animals, and can continue animal metaphors across an entire story. It might be limited to a character sketch. Alternatively, character-as-animal may comprise the beef of the story and function as integral to the plot.

EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE DESCRIBED AS ANIMALS

The following examples persist throughout the story and are integral to plot:

  • The Ratcatcher” by Roald Dahl (short story)
  • Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman (horror picture book)
  • Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig — ironically it is the Animal Catcher who thinks like a pig. Here we have a double layer of animalification, because Francine Poulet is also described as a chicken (the big clue is in her symbolic name).
  • Mercy Watson Fights Crime — Kate diCamillo and Chris Van Dusen do enjoy designing opponents with an animal in mind — in this one the cowboy-wannabe burglar is depicted as a weasel. (I know this from listening to Kate diCamillo talk about the character design in an interview — it’s not over-the-top obvious.)

EXPANDED EXAMPLE

OLDER WOMAN COMPARED TO GREY FIELD MOUSE

Roald Dahl uses a rat in “The Ratcatcher” but mice are considered really quite different from rats. Rats are sinister; mice are more often harmless, vulnerable due to their size, cute. The idiomatic expression ‘timid as a mouse’ doesn’t represent the reality of mice — whenever I’ve had them in the house I’ve been struck by how brazen they are.

Robin Black opens her short story “Tableau Vivant” with real mice, which have come into a house. She then focuses on one (actual) bolshy mouse who won’t leave the house even though it’s no longer winter. Next, we get a thumbnail sketch of the woman who lives in this house. The focus is on her physical resemblance:

Jean Kurek looked a bit like a field mouse herself, with her close-cut gray hair, in her shapeless gray dress—no zippers, no buttons. Stroke clothes. Her appearance was no more or less distinguished than it had been all her sixty-eight years, the most likely description of her a string of negatives. Not really tall or short, you wouldn’t say she’s heavy but she isn’t particularly thin, not ugly, not at all, but not pretty either, her hair is that color that isn’t blond or brown. Arguably, her most striking feature was the absence of any striking feature—though her hair had finally claimed a color, gray.

“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This

But Black doesn’t stop at the physical resemblance:

Jean had spent a lifetime trying to be inconspicuous, appreciating that nature had given her a good start. As she stepped out from the kitchen now and crunched her way over the garden’s gravel pathways, even the briskness of her pace seemed designed to make her presence as little disruptive as possible, and the arm hanging loose by her side, like something she would soon remember to gather up. [She has lost the use of one arm due to a stroke.]“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This

Note that not every aspect of the human character needs to resemble the chosen animal. Mice don’t ‘crunch’ when they walk across gravel, for instance, but they do walk like that, just in their miniature way.

Header photo by Caitlyn Wilson 

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by Michaela Muntean

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea is a Little Golden Book first published 1983. The illustrations are by Lucinda McQueen. There is a series of stories about Theodore the Mouse.

I find this particular picture book an unremarkable read, and since I took a close look at The Sailor Dog earlier in the week, it’s worth examining what makes the ‘animal goes to sea’ story by Margaret Wise Brown so much more effective.



STORY STRUCTURE OF THEODORE MOUSE GOES TO SEA

SHORTCOMING

Like a lot of children’s stories, Theodore Mouse starts from a place of boredom. He goes to sea because he wakes up and every day is the same. The only thing that changes is the sea. We infer from that, as does the mouse, that the sea holds great adventure.

The symbolism of altitude is utilised here, with Theodore sitting in a high place (on the roof), gazing as far as his eyes can see, contemplating his adventure. Windows are used in the same way.

Mice as child stand-ins are common throughout children’s literature.

DESIRE

Theodore Mouse wants something to happen. So, like a superhero who sets out to save the world, his desire for something comes from within. Boredom.

This is the narrative used by advocates of screen-free childhoods, based on the theory that if children are deprived of stimulation they will make their own fun.

OPPONENT

Unlike Wise Brown’s story, Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea  is a more classically mythic structure, in which both the environment (the storm) and the ‘human’ pirates form joint opposition. Wise Brown’s story is a parody of the Robinsonnade; this is a straight sea adventure for the preschool set. I’m sure the preschool set doesn’t know that Wise Brown’s book is a parody, which probably makes these two Little Golden Books equal in their eyes. The difference is that the adult co-reader gets more out of Wise Brown’s book.

PLAN

First, Theodore uses his bed and sheets to make a bed and go out to sea.

The bed as ship trope is fairly common in children’s literature (I’ve used it myself, in The Artifacts). Perhaps most famously, it’s used by Margaret Wild and Jane Tanner in There’s A Sea In My Bedroom.

When he comes up against the pirates his plan is to beat the baddies with his pillows.

BIG STRUGGLE

The unintended consequence of beating the pirates with pillows is that the burst open and the baddies become covered in feathers, which humiliates them by making them look like chickens. (Whoever decided ‘chicken’ meant ‘coward’ didn’t once meet a live chicken, methinks. Chickens are the bolshiest animal I know.)

The ‘feather as weapon’ has been utilised since by Australian children’s band The Wiggles. Captain Feathersword has a sword made of feathers. This is acceptable to any gatekeeper of children’s media because no one could possibly be hurt with a feather. The feather as weapon is therefore at the extreme ‘benign’ end of the Chekhov’s Toy Gun continuum.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis is of the proxy, pathetic fallacy variety.

The sky cleared. The sun shone.

We’re never told what that revelation is, because I don’t think there is one. This is more of a carnivalesque adventure, in which a child character goes off on an unlikely, fantasy adventure away from authority figures, overcomes adversity, then returns to safety. The entire point of such stories is to have fun.

NEW SITUATION

One of the main human desires/needs is to be taken seriously by our peers. Theodores is richly rewarded in this regard. He sits on the roof with all his mousy peers, who listen wrapt as he tells his tales of adventures at sea.

The mythic structure of this tale, as well as this particular ending, make this a typically masculine story, though the mice friends do help him to put his bed back in his bedroom, which lends a co-operative (traditionally feminine) vibe. Wise Brown’s book is masculine in some ways — Sailor Dog is a ‘real’ sailor only once he’s wearing the masculine sailor uniform. But Wise Brown hasn’t used a masculine story structure — her big struggle scene is not the point.

The illustrations in Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea are very functional but otherwise unremarkable. There is an unnamed little friend who accompanies Theodore — the bird — a common illustrator trick to add extra narrative to the story. Apart from that, these illustrations are completely hygge, which is probably why they were chosen — a scary illustrator would turn the pirate rampage into something terrifying.