Vive le Bonheur! Here comes…
The Story of Babar
Like many another children’s book hero, Babar was the brain-child of a parent seeking to amuse her own children. Cécile Sabouraud, a concert pianist, had married the artist Jean de Brunhoff in 1924, and round about 1930 she dreamed up the little elephant while inventing tales for their sons Mathieu and Laurent (the youngest, Thierry, missed out by not yet having been born).
Coming into his Kingdom
News of Babar was carried to Papa, a man already under threat from the tuberculosis that would kill him a few years later. He had been born in 1899, had served briefly in the French Army in 1918, and, despite his health, was now making his way as a painter. Delighted by Cécile’s invention, he turned his skills towards making a picture book, and in 1931 there appeared the Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphante – one of the revolutionary events in children’s literature. (And – untypically – its birth was unhindered by the usual commercial pangs. Jean’s father was a magazine publisher, his brother was editor-in-chief at Vogue, and his brother-in-law was involved with the fashion magazine Le Jardin des Modes, under whose imprint Babar first appeared.)
Little Babar plays in the Great Forest with his family and friends. Then, quelle horreur!, Maman is shot by a hunter and Babar runs away. He does not stop till he gets to a town (Paris?) where an old lady – soon to be dea ex machina for the series – adopts him. Much taken with gents’ tailoring, he is kitted out in pink shirt, green suit, spats and a bowler hat and becomes a man-about-town until his cousins, Arthur and Céleste, arrive. After being regaled on patisseries and also togged out smartly (Céleste’s yellow cloche hat is a stroke of genius) they and their mothers prevail upon Babar to return home. There, the King has just died through eating a bad mushroom and when Babar arrives he is chosen King by acclamation. His coronation is combined with his marriage to Céleste, and when the festivities are over ‘they set out on their honeymoon in a glorious yellow balloon’.
Physically the book was, for its time, spectacular – and a model for later albums by such as Ardizzone, Kiddell-Monroe, Kathleen Hale etc. It was a folio, bound in bright red paper boards, and illustrated with almost cinematic élan. The childlike simplicity of the drawing and the flat, cheerful colouring mask a wonderfully elegant piece of pictorial theatre, enchanced on the page by the flow of the text, winding round the pictures in a completely legible cursive script. In content too Babar joins a few rare predecessors with its confident, convincing abandonment of every logical norm: practical, pictorial, narrative… Who can doubt Babar en promenade in his snazzy red car, or that he should become so quickly a solid citizen, while his rascally cousin Arthur remains a perpetual small boy?
What happened next: Success
Babar was quickly translated for the American and English market. (A.A. Milne introduced it, saying that if anyone did not like it they deserved to wear gloves and be kept off the grass for the rest of their lives.) Its success led on to Babar’s Travels, Babar the King, Babar’s ABC, Babar’s Friend Zephir a monkey, Babar at Home, and Babar and Father Christmas. De Brunhoff had died leaving the last two to be seen through the press (and through the beginning of the War) by his family, and though Father Christmas does not seem quite finished, the series as a whole sustains the comedy, the pictorial frivolity, and the deft conjuring with arbitrary events that so distinguished the first Histoire.
And what happened after: Catastrophe
Babar has been the victim of his own success – predictably through the cupidity of the media. Trouble began early, when, with war-time economies, Enid Blyton was hired to edit The Babar Story-Book, bringing her Estuary prose to De Brunhoff’s spare text, while Olive Openshaw struggled (with rather more success) to convert his huge pictures to modest line drawings. Later on the picture books returned in reduced format, but in 1969, thanks to television, commercial idiocy supervened. The Story and The Travels were sliced up to make three ‘Little Babar Books’ apiece, and the seven canonic books of De Brunhoff père almost disappeared behind the lacklustre continuations of de Brunhoff fils and a continuous flow of unworthy merchandise. (At the publishers now the department labelled ‘Characters’ seems to know more about what is going on than does ‘Editorial’.)
And the Critics?
‘I am at his feet’ said Milne of De Brunhoff, and the Babar Books, in their original format and their vernal colouring (vernal, that is apart from some marvellously shadowed ‘dark plates’) do not inhabit a realm where criticism has any relevance. But, as we know, children’s book offer rich pickings for Persons of Ideas and attempts have long been made to interpret the ‘concealed ironies’ or probe the political implications of Elephant-land (Célesteville as Blairite Democracy under a Benevolent Crown etc). Unsurprising therefore that the Independent recently reported a Canadian femme savante who finds the whole show ‘rhinoist’ and shot through with Eurocentrism, sexism and ‘internalised racism’. Well – she will be wearing gloves and not walking on the grass for the rest of her life; but, out in the Great Forest, you may still hear the unrepentant cries of Vive le Roi Babar!
The illustrations, © Librairie Hachette, Paris, are taken from The Story of Babar published by Methuen Children’s Books in facsimile edition of (0 416 57650 8, £15.99) and in paperback (0 7497 3759 X, £5.99). The self-portrait of Jean de Brunhoff sketching in the circus audience is from Baba’s Travels, due to be published in facsimile in September 1999 (0 416 54360 X, £15.99). Babar the King is available in facsimile and paperback, Babar and Father Christmas in facsimile and Babar at Home is due out in facsimile in September 1999..
Brian Alderson is Chair of the Children’s Books History Society and the chief children’s book consultant for The Times.