Gillian Avery

Children’s Books: Cosy Corner

Tales of Little Grey Rabbit

By Alison Uttley

Heinemann 104pp £4.50 order from our bookshop

If one had to guess one would, I think, surmise that Alison Uttley was the townswoman, Beatrix Potter the countrywoman. There is something prettified, over-cosy about the Grey Rabbit stories that is completely lacking in Peter Rabbit and his fellows, even though they too are dressed up like human children. And yet of course Alison Uttley spent her early life in a Derbyshire hill farm while Beatrix Potter was immured until middle age in her parents’ Kensington house. The latter attributed to her north-country blood, her practical matter-of-fact attitude to the brutal facts of nature. Do you remember, for instance, how the foxhound puppies swoop down on Jemima Puddleduck’s eggs and gobble them all up? ‘Jemima was escorted home in tears on account of those eggs,’ said Miss Potter crisply, implying that whatever the reaction of a muddleheaded duck, this is the way the world works, and we would be exceedingly foolish to be sentimental about it.

But Mrs Uttley was also a north-countrywoman, though her flower-spangled landscapes suggest something softer and more voluptuous. Her sagas of Grey Rabbit and her friends are fairy tales where the good are inevitably rewarded, and though many of them are shamelessly derived from Miss Potter (there is a polite red-coated gentleman who is nearly the end of imprudent Hare, and an owl who takes Grey Rabbit’s tail) they are an emasculated version, that seems infinitely removed from the countryside that Miss Potter so skilfully and economically delineates. The Potter landscape is a tangible one, whether she is writing of Gloucester or Sawrey; Mrs Uttley’s is any pretty country, anywhere.

And then Grey Rabbit, little friend of all the world, is such a tiresome body, so depressingly self-sacrificing. She allows Wise Owl to take her tail in return for advice on how to grow carrots for Hare, and blushes and weeps when Hare and Squirrel tell her that this is disgraceful behaviour. Of course, noble little soul, she would never dream of telling them why her tail has been sacrificed. In another society she would be a battered wife, but in Mrs Uttley’s society all is well, and Hare and Squirrel finish up by apologising for being proud and rude. (Grey Rabbit would ruin anybody’s character but the author did not seem to see this.)

Part of the trouble is that Mrs Uttley was essentially a writer in the ‘20s and ‘30s tradition, when society wished to shield the young from the harshness of the outside world. Miss Potter was of the sterner, Victorian cast. And though Grey Rabbit was still giving a spring-cleaning party in 1972 and finding a snow-baby in 1973, by which time the pendulum had swung back and the elders were busily dragging children out from their cosy corners and making them confront ‘reality’, the style of these was still that of 1929 when The Squirrel, the Hare, and the Little Grey Rabbit had first appeared.

Ideas on what children ought to read change from generation to generation; children’s taste remains far more constant. There is an age when they like an easy read, cosy domestic detail, shrink from unpleasantness and refuse to read a book that they suspect will be sad; and are, in short, delighted by Grey Rabbit, where the storyline is never difficult (certain of Beatrix Potter’s plots, like Mr Tod and The Pie and the Patty Pan, are very demanding.) Since no one of the stories is especially memorable, it was a good idea of Heinnemann’s to reissue four in one volume, and an even better one to commission Faith Jaques to illustrate them. Her careful attention to detail, particularly in her interiors, is a constant joy; and the colour plates suggest, but with stronger colours, the Margaret Tempest drawings that the middle-aged associate with the name of Grey Rabbit.

Royal Shakespeare Company

Sara Stewart

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