Half a century ago Alison Uttley had established herself as one of Britain’s best loved and best selling writers for children. <!–break–> Millions of her books were eagerly purchased and her fame spread well beyond the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world. In her writing for children she created several vividly defined and enchanting worlds inhabited by some of her most celebrated animal characters – Sam Pig, Brock the Badger, and Tim Rabbit, but best known of all was the community that centred round Little Grey Rabbit, Squirrel and Hare. Now, at the start of the new millennium Little Grey Rabbit and company are being given a vigorous new lease of life through their first television adaptation, and accompanied by a reissuing of these classic books by HarperCollins.
Now that the twentieth century has passed, the nostalgic appeal of Alison Uttley’s writing, deeply rooted in her late-Victorian childhood in rural Derbyshire, may prove an irresistible tonic for the jaded, over-stimulated, computer-zapped imaginations of today’s children. It is easy to see why this should be, for in these sparkling, sharp, diamond-bright, yet also dreamy, stories there are no soulless tower blocks, no bored and distracted an pairs, no lurking paedophiles, no violent and terrifying videos. Instead there is adventure, magic and goodfellowship; a world where small dangers are encountered, but also successfully navigated, and where, more often than not, well meaning individuals rally to the cause of the community – even though they may puzzle, mutter, and scratch their heads before deciding what to do for the best.
So although shadows pass over the generally sun-lit, rural landscapes inhabited by Little Grey Rabbit, Fuzzypeg the hedgehog, Moldy Warp and company, they do not lower and linger. The stories themselves triumph through their brilliant characterisation and wry humour, their love of country lore an magic, their sense of time and place and their celebration of old and solid values – good neighbourliness, good sense, a love of the natural world and of the enduring values of hearth and home.
Grey Rabbit’s little house at the end of the wood is always bright with gingham curtains and crackling fires, the walls and furniture are `distressed’ without knowing how trendy that might be, and from the kitchen wafts the mouth-watering smell of bread, and other good things, baking. Here, with the reliable, earnest, hard-working Little Grey Rabbit herself, with the conceited, wilful yet lively Squirrel and the vain, feckless but well-intentioned Hare there is, apparently, a sufficiency – a surfeit even – of the basic kindliness and security for which every child longs.
Yet at the heart of the story book success of Alison Uttley and Little Grey Rabbit there lies an unexpectedly tragic tale, as her yet unpublished diaries powerfully reveal. For although Mrs Uttley’s life and career encompassed a remarkable and unpredictable progress, from the warmly recollected and passionately lived childhood idyll of Castle Top Farm, overlooking the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, to a prosperous and celebrated old age in suburban Buckinghamshire, it also contained strange and disturbing conflicts and tensions, and much personal pain.
Alison Uttley’s life was marked by paradox and dogged by mystifying shifts of personality and identity. A bright scholarship girl, in 1906 she was only the second woman to graduate in physics from Manchester University; but she also believed passionately and persistently in fairies. She was an Edwardian suffragette and a close friend of Ramsay MacDonald (to whose children she told bedtime stories), but she ended up as a staunch Conservative. She was in touch with the world of dreams, writing an intriguing book, The Stuff of Dreams, yet flinched from any serious self-analysis. She almost alway felt that she was a very special, gifted person. As she was dreamily to recall of her childhood; ‘I always felt I was a changeling child. A bit of fairy got into me at Castle Top.’
She was a devoted wife, mother and friend whose relationships were passionately felt, often stormy, and sometimes downright destructive Her fiercely loved husband, James, drowned himself in 1930 before she had been able fully to establish herself as a writer – a tragedy from which she never fully recovered. She could be a demanding and over-attentive mother, and her only child, John, had to fight hard for his independence and for the fresh air of separate adult relationships. Alison disapproved of his eventual choice of wife, and had earlier destroyed his plans to marry another woman by arbitrarily calling off the wedding only hours before it was due to take place. Not long after his mother’s death, John Uttley was so overwhelmed by grief and despair that he took his life – driving over the edge of a cliff in Guernsey. Alison could also be a jealous and easily offended friend, as well as an inspiring and generous one; she was increasingly difficult in old age, and when she died in 1976 one of her Beaconsfield neighbours remarked that she had `never buried anyone with more relief’.
Alison Uttley was extraordinarily gifted but, like so many intensely creative and self-regarding individuals, she was also extraordinarily complicated, even contrary. After a series of bitter disputes, she was eventually estranged from Margaret Tempest, the illustrator of most of the Little Grey Rabbit books, over the copyright to these beautiful pictures, and over which of them had really created the characters. She was angrily resentful of comparisons with Beatrix Potter, and scornfully dismissive of Enid Blyton, with whom she had some frosty encounters and whose work she despised. She took the work of literary creation very seriously and relished her success, but was easily hurt by criticism and craved the affirmation of the public.
Money became very important to her – not least because her husband’s sudden and unexpected death had left her feeling both emotionally and financially destitute. Her growing success as an author was therefore of immeasurable satisfaction to her. The tragedy also coincided with the Great Depression of the early 1930s when investments became valueless and even savings were threatened by the world-wide financial turmoil. Alison’s longing for public affirmation and for a comfortable income also helps to explain her extraordinary productivity – by the end of her life she had written thirty-two Little Grey Rabbit books, twelve in the Sam Pig series, five about Tim Rabbit , twelve about The Little Red Fox , and seven about the mice Snug and Serena ; in addition there were classic novels like A Traveller in Time , inspired autobiographical reminiscences such as The Country Child , twenty books of essays, two novels for adults, several plays for children, other story books for younger readers, many articles and even a county history of Buckinghamshire. It was by any standards, anywhere, at any time, a prodigious and fruitful outpouring of talent and creative energy.
But although she eventually became a considerable celebrity – even something of a grande dame of letters – and regularly earned very large quantities of money, even purchasing some valuable Brueghels and other works of art, and living in a large and well-appointed house in Beaconsfield, she was still liable to watch the pennies and able to agonise over whether to buy a bag of oranges.
Alison was no easy sentimentalist, and despite the charm and whimsy of much of her writing, there is a good deal that is clear-eyed, down-to-earth and even violent. If she was only partly fulfilled in her personal and emotional life, she at least succeeded in becoming a greatly loved and influential author. At the root of her accomplishments there is, however, a pervading sense of tragedy and loss. Indeed her vitality and productivity as a writer stem in part from a need to compensate for a variety of disappointments and denials, as well as to make symbolic reparation. Penelope Fitzgerald once shrewdly described her as `a self-deluding romantic … and a compulsive housekeeper, patching and jam-making in an heroically untidy kitchen … it is impossible not to think of her as a sorceress, a storyteller whose tales were produced only at mortal cost.’
It is the final irony of Alison Uttley’s long, accomplished and too often tormented life that the old-fashioned, rural England, which she had sought to celebrate so vividly and with so much feeling in her writing, was essentially doomed at her birth in 1884 and had virtually decayed and vanished before her own death.
At the very least, in the year 2000, her restless and indomitable spirit can take great solace from the current revival of interest in her work and especially at the world-wide television audiences that will be transported back into a world which she delineated so clearly and touchingly in the Foreword to each of her deft, inspired and moving Little Grey Rabbit books: `Grey Rabbit’s home had no electric light or gas, and even the candles were made from pith of rushes dipped in wax from the wild bees’ nests, which Squirrel found. Water there was in plenty, but it did not come from a tap. It flowed from a spring outside, which … went to a brook. Tea did not come from India, but from a little herb known very well to country people. The doormats were plaited rushes … and cushions were stuffed with wool gathered from the hedges… The country ways of Grey Rabbit were the country ways known to the author.’
Professor Denis Judd has written the authorised biography Alison Uttley: The Life of a Country Child , Michael Joseph (1986) and Further Tales of Little Grey Rabbit , HarperCollins (1989). He wrote a BBC Radio 4 programme, The Snow-baby: a portrait of Alison Uttley in 1984, to commemorate the centenary of Mrs Uttley’s birth. He is a trustee of the Alison Uttley Literary Property Trust, and has been named as the editor of Mrs Uttley’s Diaries. He broadcasts regularly on radio and television.
A Traveller in Time , Puffin, 0 14 030931 4, £5.99 pbk
The Country Child , Jane Nissen Books, 1 903252 01 6, £4.99 pbk
From HarperCollins, £5.99 each hbk:
Little Grey Rabbit’s Birthday , 0 00 198391 1
Hare and the Easter Eggs , 0 00 198396 2
Moldy Warp the Mole , 0 00 198389 X
Wise Owl’s Story , 0 00 198387 3
Fuzzypeg Goes to School , Little Grey Rabbit’s May Day (May 2000), Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the Sea , Water Rat’s Picnic (August 2000), The Knot Squirrel Tied , Squirrel Goes Skating (January 2001)
TV tie-in editions from HarperCollins, £2.99 each pbk:
The Squirrel, the Hare and the Little Grey Rabbit , 0 00 710010 8
The Story of Fuzzypeg the Hedgehog , 0 00 710012 4
How Little Grey Rabbit Got Back Her Tail , 0 00 710011 6
Squirrel Goes Skating , 0 00 710041 8
From Egmont Children’s Books, £4.99 each pbk:
The Squirrel, the Hare and the Little Grey Rabbit , 0 7497 4176 7
How Little Grey Rabbit Got Back Her Tail, Fuzzypeg the Hedgehog, (August 2000) and there are plans for further titles.
Little Grey Rabbit is currently showing on ITV every Monday at 3.40pm.