I took a late lunch on Tuesday and walked over to the library to return a few books. On my way, I met a friend who took a look at my small stack which included five books of Beatrix Potter.
“Look at this,” I said, waving The Tale of Benjamin Bunny around. “This is a terrible book!”
“Yes,” she agreed solemnly.
“You know this?” I was astonished. I feel like I’ve been living under a rock for 40 years.
“They’re brutal,” I said. “In this book, Peter Rabbit is practically having a nervous breakdown from PTSD and both bunnies get whupped by Benjamin’s dad,” and opened the book to the picture of the bunnies laid out under a hickory switch. Peter is freaking out and rightly so. The young bunnies were scared to death and then Ben’s dad, Mr Bouncer, decides it’s time to give them a lesson.
No wonder Ben’s kind of messed up. If he was going to school, his teacher would have called the parents in for a conference.
“Life was tougher back then,” my friend said. She was philosophical.
This friend has four grown daughters, all of whom, like me, probably read or were read the winsome tales of forest and barnyard animals with those lovely illustrations. The same characters popular on of baby clothing, dishware, represented by toys, figurines and decorations.
All blessedly innocent. Or are they?
I got a wild hair to re-read Potter’s books before Christmas and collected a stack of them from the library. Two bad mice getting down with china dollhouse props, poor abused Benjamin, Little Pig Robinson. The library didn’t have too many of the cunning little green books, so I bought 22 book collection for my Kindle, read some more, and things started to get disturbing.
Consider The Tale of Mr Tod. Tod is a fox who has an inconvenient relationship with Tommy Brock, a badger who is essentially a sociopath. The plot hinges around a moment when Tommy, who is friendly with Mr Bouncer (remember, Benjamin’s father?) is hanging out with the rabbit who nods off, seemingly stoned from smoking cabbage leaves.
I’m not clear how this friendship has a leg to stand on, but while Bouncer is supposed to be looking after his grandchildren, Tommy stuffs them in a sack and keeps them in an oven until he’s good and ready to cook them. Spoiler alert-everything turns out ok for the bunnies after chaos and stupidity, but at what cost to babies’ sanity?
Then I re-read The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck, and I actually felt kind of depressed afterwards.
Jemima is a perfectly good duck, maybe a little slack when it comes to hatching out her eggs but who wants to sit in a bowl of knobby things all day? So the farmer’s wife takes the eggs to put under a surrogate. A hen who probably acts all righteous in the barnyard. I wouldn’t like her.
Jemima is pissed. She wants to hatch her own babies out and so sets off on her own against the advice of the other ducks who just give her a hard time about her flighty ways.
Way to support a friend, ladies.
So Jemima puts on clothing, which she wasn’t wearing in the barnyard.
What that says about the barnyard, I don’t know. I don’t even know where the ducks buy clothes that fit, or learn to sew. But let’s suspend reality for a few more minutes.
A clothed Jemima sets off to find a suitable quiet spot to go all broody with eggs of her own.
Enter the fox.
You know it’s going to go bad when a bird and a fox are in a plot, and Potter doesn’t disappoint.
I think kids can cope with the “oh, no, the fox is going to eat the duck” thing, but kids aren’t dumb. There is more going on here.
The fox is gracious, hears out Jemima’s plight and offers a sympathetic remark but is really a veiled threat about the hen hatching out her eggs. And he sees his moment.
No carnivore is going to knock back a dumb duck, and he offers her a space in his own home and it’s now you have got to think Jemima is either really stupid or really desperate. What happened to instinct, anyhow?
But she goes with him and the Fox and offers her a spot in a dark, depressing little hut. He dumps a pile of duck down (erp!) from a sack for the hapless duck to nest. So she goes about laying a full nest of eggs.
Each day she goes back and forth from the farm adding an egg to the clutch. Why her friends don’t corner her and ask, ‘Where the heck are you disappearing to each day, girl?” but they don’t. Because you and I both know they don’t really care. They’re not really her friends. Jemima is all on her own here and they’re happy to ignore her weird ways.
All the while, the fox has designs on the eggs and messes with them while the duck is away. When the numbers are right, Jemima announces she’ll bring a bag of corn and get busy incubating her eggs, but the fox is all, “No, no. I’ve got that covered babe,” and tells her he has a whole sack of oats for her.
Then he suggests she fill up on herbs in the farm garden before she comes for the long haul and collect a few onions while she’s at it to bring back for a private feast, just the two of them.
All very sinister but Jemima is about as ignorant as one of her hapless eggs. So she’s trolling through the garden, gorging on sage and thyme, picking up some onions. Why she can’t see the writing on the wall-I know I was talking out loud, urging this duck to get a grain of sense but…
While she is at the farm getting ready to be somebody’s Sunday lunch, she runs into Kep, the reliable collie. Jemima runs her mouth as usual, tells him about this great deal she has going with the whiskered dude in the woods. Kep is no dope and reads between the lines. He gets all the details, and you’re not too sure at this point where the story’s heading. Two canines on one duck is a bad deal, no matter how you slice it.
But it’s a set-up. Kep lets her head back to the fox’s pad, and meanwhile, rounds up some young foxhounds and the reader’s thinking-right, this is going to work out. We’ll get a happy ending. So will my kid, and the kid in me, that remembers all these to be happier books.
Sorry to disappoint.
So yes, the fox gets run off and finds Kep and his two young comrades find Jemima has been locked in that fluffy lair with her eggs. He pops the lock and the traumatized and hot Jemima tumbles out of the stuffy room.
In a split second, the young dogs scram in there and eat all her eggs!
So the entire story, all that work, for nothing.
Not only that, Jemima is in tears and gets marched back to the farmhouse like an escaped prisoner. It’s awful. This poor duck has been living on a dream and all her hopes were dashed by some greedy dogs who were no better than drunken frat boys at a nude pool party.
At the end of the book, we learn that Jemima Puddle-Duck was allowed to hatch out some eggs, but apparently she’s kind of a trailer-trash mother, and only part of her clutch lives.
Or maybe she was transformed into a kind of Stepford duck, abandoning all thoughts of independence? I hope not.
I spoke to another friend about all this, and she also had recognised the troubling plot lines in Beatrix Potter’s books.
But I read all these books as a child, I also read collection of the twelve Andrew Lang Fairy Tale books, like the Red Fairy Tale Book, the Lilac Fairy Tale Book, collections of the world’s tales that didn’t spare the grim and gruesome. And the Oz books were a staple in my household as they were in my mother’s before me. Talk about violence and death. People disappearing into nothing, threats to life and limb.
I read with innocence and I remember all those books with wonderful nostalgia, so I suppose I read again with a tainted perspective and a suspicion that I could not have had as a young person.
Beatrix Potter was a product of the mid-late 19th century, like many upper-class, privileged women from that era. Isolated from her wealthy parents in a nursery, she was discouraged from becoming independent, but she persevered and must have found some measure of self-expression and fulfillment in the life she made.
All the same, I can’t help but think that Jemima was like Beatrix; disappointed in life, trying for freedom and independence, only to fail and returned back to a kind of prison. When she was allowed to hatch a few eggs, it was a kind of compromise, but she never realized the life she longed to experience.