Let’s begin by finishing off that bird contest: Congratulations, Janet, on winning! Congratulations, also, to April and Laura, winners of the Gaston and Quackers giveaway. Let me just note that it felt awfully good, in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, to have my own quiet way of saying “no” to hate and “yes” to love. Thanks to those of you who participated or wrote in to affirm that you felt the same way. If you have older readers who need something to read and you want to give them something that says “yes” to all the right things, can I just recommend Marvels, by Brian Selznick?
Moving forward, this week is going to be dedicated to Beatrix Potter. I’ve noticed several new and beautiful books about our Lady of the Lake District, and since I’ve, erm, acquired a few favourites, we can have a week composed of one Beatrix Potter original and a couple of books about the lady herself. We’ll be experts by the time the week is out. (Well, no, but I hope it will be fun.)
Have you read The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse?
I ask because I get the distinct impression that not everyone has– it’s not Peter Rabbit or Tom Kitten. Neither is it Pigling Bland, but it’s still not one of the most popular books, and I wonder why. I think, if I may anticipate my own conclusions, that it might be because this one really feels like it’s written for the parents rather than the children (although, well, the Changeling currently loves it). It’s definitely not one of the books I remember well from my own childhood. But, reading it these days, I find myself thinking that Mrs. Tittlemouse reflects life very truly: sometimes she seems a representation of my aspirations, sometimes a reflection of my own life, sometimes of my fears, sometimes of my hopes. But let’s talk about the plot a bit now.
Mrs. Tittlemouse (who is, by the way, a recurring character in the Beatrix Potter universe– she also appears in the Flopsy Bunnies) is “a most terribly tidy particular little mouse” (p. 12). She is forever cleaning her little house and resents any signs of “little dirty feet,” as she repeatedly describes them throughout the book. One day she notices little footprints in her house and smells some honey where it shouldn’t be. It turns out that one Babbitty Bumble has moved into her house uninvited, accompanied by her family, and filled a storeroom with “untidy” dry moss (“untidiness” being the ultimate crime, of course). A certain Mr. Jackson, a particularly untidy personage, who “lived in a drain below the hedge, in a very dirty wet ditch” then turns up in search of the honey he’s smelled from the house, due to the intrusion of Babbitty Bumble. Mrs. Tittlemouse handles the additional intrusion as politely as she feels she must, but clearly objects to Mr. Jackson’s large wet footprints and dripping coat tails. (She goes around with a mop, of course.) Ultimately, following the scent of the honey, Mr. Jackson evicts Babbitty Bumble, Mrs. Tittlemouse is left with her tidy house in an utterly ruinous state, and her spirits in the depths of misery. She reduces the size of her doorway (“I will make it too small for Mr Jackson!”) and spends two weeks cleaning her house to perfection. And that’s the story.
I see two things about this story: a) Like many of Beatrix Potter’s stories, I think a modern editor would sniff and say, “Not much story here.”; b) At the same time, it’s a pretty substantial mouthful of a plot once you accept the premise that a messy house is a story. That is to say, the plot really is that a housewife is made miserable when her house is messed up, and spends a long time cleaning it again. Not much story there, no. But when you get into the emotions of the thing, it is really, really quite rich, and even a little disquieting. It’s about a housewife who sets her heart on a clean house, but whose peace of mind is disturbed when her house is invaded consistently by a sequence of uninvited intruders. The final intruder evicts all the others, but leaves her house, and, consequently, her feelings, in a complete shambles in the process. She then obsessively cleans and puts everything back in order, and, in the process, rediscovers her peace of mind, particularly by tightening her home security against the intruders.
I hope you’re beginning to see why I think this is a book which is pitched at adults in a very real way, and also, perhaps, why I think it’s so reflective of reality: of hopes, aspirations, and, perhaps most of all, fears.
“Aspirations” is easy: hell, don’t you wish that you had a tidy house? Don’t you want to be tidy and particular and live in harmonious cleanliness? (Answer: yes, but not enough to actually clean properly. Also, I know that at least a few of you reading this are puzzled: you already are “tidy” and I salute you! I, alas, am not.)
“Fears” is also easy: Fear of disruption of all you love. Fear of intruders into your personal space. Fear of having your routine disturbed and your life left a shambles. Mrs. Tittlemouse is not the only book to represent this so well, although maybe it’s one of the best books describing it at the intersection of children and adult literature. A good adult book describing that fear is The Man Who Was Thursday, by Chesterton.
“Hopes” maybe throws you off a little, but I still think it’s in there. We all hope for a response to disruption and intrusion, I think. “But what are you going to do?” we shrug wearily. “Shit happens,” we say. Mrs. Tittlemouse doesn’t. She gathers twigs and tightens her door. She doesn’t completely cut off contact with Mr. Jackson, but she does, definitely, deny him further access to her house. She, in other words, figures out a resolution to her problem. She doesn’t say, “Shit happens.” (I can’t imagine bad language in Mrs. Tittlemouse’s mouth!) She just figures it out, and, once she has, she holds a party.
Hopes, fears, and aspirations: I think this is a great, underappreciated book. I think it shows Beatrix Potter at her best, both in terms of representing animal life, and in her shrewd reflections on human relationships. I hope more people, adults and children, will give it a real chance.
And, as my Changeling says, “Tiddly-widdly-widdly! Bizzz wizzzz! That’s funny!” (In other words, there’s a lot of good sound effects in this book.)