Real Life: Charming drawings, but where's the story?: Someone should have told Beatrix Potter that whimsy is no substitute for plot, says Brian Cathcart, sick of baffling and boring his children
Sunday 03 July 1994
Potter is fashionable. It is not just the charming drawings and merry titles that make the books popular and the ephemera valuable, the very name of Beatrix Potter triggers a whole basketful of warm Edwardian- English-summer-wildlife-garden responses. The little square books are five-star nostalgia in a handy pocket size.
But have you read any of them lately? No? Well, try this: There is this naughty squirrel who accompanies his many cousins on visits to an island where they gather nuts. An owl lives on the island and the cousins give him presents of dead mice, minnows and so on, but the naughty squirrel just gives him cheek.
Five times they visit the island; five times they hand over their gifts; five times the naughty squirrel chants irritating (and long) rhymes in an attempt to provoke the owl; five times they collect nuts while the naughty squirrel plays and five times they sail off again.
On the sixth day the naughty squirrel sings another of his rhymes, which goes like this:
Arthur O'Bower has broken his band,
He comes roaring up the land]
The King of Scots with all his power,
Cannot turn Arthur of the Bower]
At this the owl, who has hitherto suffered these odd provocations with patience, grabs the naughty squirrel in his claws and pins him to the ground. The final passage runs:
'This looks like the end of the story but it isn't. Old Brown (the owl) carried Nutkin (for it is he) into his house, and held him up by the tail, intending to skin him; but Nutkin pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two, and he dashed up the staircase and escaped out of the attic window.
'And to this day, if you meet Nutkin up a tree and ask him a riddle, he will throw sticks at you and stamp his feet and scold, and shout: 'Cuck-cuck- cuck-cur-r-r-cuck-k-k]' '
Am I missing something or is this just plain bad? The rhymes are obscure, the six visits repetitious, Nutkin is genuinely (and not amusingly) irritating and the ending is plain daft. Yes, there is a moral - cheeky Nutkin loses half his tail - but morals are ten-a-penny (as Potter might say); the tricky bit is the story and as a story Squirrel Nutkin is a complete dud.
My young son listened in complete bafflement as I read it to him, and all my efforts to interpret it and make sense of it were frustrated by the sheer perversity of it all. Never again.
It is unfair, you will say, to mock a story intended for children; Nutkin was never meant to be deconstructed. And anyway, what about Peter Rabbit?
The Tale of Peter Rabbit and its sequel, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, are very good. They have in Mr McGregor a terrific bad guy; there is a chase, tension, structure, motivation, a well-written, flowing narrative and all the usual trappings of a proper story. But many of the other Potter tales are simply terrible.
It is as though, after her first successes, nobody at F Warne & Co ever dared or bothered to take the author out to lunch and say: 'Wonderful new book, Beatrix, but would you rewrite the story?'
Take The Tale of Tom Kitten, for example. A charming character, but couldn't he have done something more interesting than sit on a wall while some ducks tried on his clothes?
Or The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse. Are we supposed to like this fusspot who repays Mr Jackson the frog for a favour by making her front door smaller so he can't get in?
Or The Tale of Mrs Tiggy- winkle. This is the story of little Lucie, who loses three handkins and a pinny, wanders off up a country path and finds an out- of-scale hedgehog washerwoman who happens to have the missing articles. After staying for tea, Lucie accompanies Mrs Tiggy-winkle (whom she has still not recognised as a hedgehog) on her delivery rounds and eventually returns home.
As she turned to say goodbye, Mrs Tiggy-winkle ran off. 'She was running running running up the hill - and where was her white frilled cap? And her shawl? And her gown - and her petticoat? And how small she had grown - and how brown - and covered with PRICKLES] Why] Mrs Tiggy- winkle was nothing but a HEDGEHOG.'
Well, I'll be. Reading this aloud to my son, I would go through a complete pantomine of fake excitement in the attempt to make it sound interesting, but it never worked. He could never see the point. It was perfectly obvious from the pictures 30 pages back that she was a hedgehog, and so what anyway? When, he must have been wondering, was the plot going to begin?
This is not mere prejudice; my own youth was not scarred by an unhappy encounter with the works of Potter. I was not brought up on them, although I do recall Peter Rabbit, but as an adult I have always felt I should know them and like them. So when my firstborn reached the appropriate age I was glad of the chance and disappointed by the outcome.
Now I have a second son, and I will not be troubling him with Squirrel Nutkin. As for the older boy, we're on to Roald Dahl. Now that man can tell a story.
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