Long ago, somewhere between the Wild Wood and Mr McGregor’s Garden there lived…
Who were they?
The Hare, described as a conceited fellow, dwelt with proud Miss Squirrel and the Little Grey Rabbit, whose thoughtfulness, energy and permanent good nature ensured domestic harmony. An outside observer, Freudy Ferret was inclined to impute unnatural vices to this menage a trois but there is no evidence for it in the 34 volumes and four play-scripts recording their seasonal activities as set down by Mrs Alison Uttley (1884-1976) and published between 1929 and 1975.
Where did they live?
In a quasi-Lutyens cottage with dimity curtains set among the fields and woods of a still-Edwardian nursery-land. Neighbours, like Moldy Warp the Mole and old Hedgehog, the milkman, with his son Fuzzypeg, are regularly found worrying about such matters as Wise Owl’s unreliable temperament or the depredations of Rat, or invasion by Weasels, but all worries are assuaged by good, sensible Little Grey Rabbit. Recent threats to the community from persons like Councillor Prescot Pigge (who wants to build two thousand executive homes on the site) appear to be exaggerated. Messrs Harper Collins, agents to the Residents’ Association, and with a keen eye for Character Promotion and Merchandising Rights, are re-styling the area in expectation of conservation, albeit rather modified.
What did it look like?
Oho! a leading question. How many people who have enjoyed the adventures of Little Grey Rabbit have done so for the imagery and presentation as much as for the storytelling?
The form was established with the acceptance of the first story by Messrs Heinemann in 1929 (Collins didn’t move in till No. 5, Squirrel Goes Skating in 1934). Although Mrs Uttley had wanted a friend to do the designing, Heinemann insisted on Margaret Tempest and moreover paid her £15.00 for her work whereas the author – who had hitherto published nothing – got only £10 – and no royalty. This led to a longstanding tension between the two, which was hardly alleviated by Tempest knowing that she had established an instantly recognisable identity for the series: the square format, the blue letterpress, the watercolour scenes with their prettily devised frames, and the brush-script on the covers. And when, towards the end of the saga, the 75 year-old Tempest’s work fell away (partly because she had Parkinson’s disease) and an Uttley friend – Kathleen Wigglesworth – was brought in, she was required to preserve the Tempest style and that lady cast a beady eye over her work before it went to press.
So what does Mr Criticky Cricket have to say?
Enough that’s positive, I should hope, to justify preserving this antic vision of pastoral innocence for today’s knowing juvenile executive incomers. `I always try to give some specially English touch of country life [to these little books] which might be forgotten,’ said Mrs Uttley in 1970, and while that may seem a vain endeavour in a countryside ravaged by industrial farming, it provided a method that allowed her to sustain the quality of her undemonstrative narratives right to the end. Kenneth Grahame obviously stands behind her, but she objected fiercely – temperamental lady that she was – to suggestions that she was copying Beatrix Potter, and although superficial comparisions can be made, she had none of Beatrix Potter’s artistry in shaping and honing stories. What she did was to set out 34 episodes within the apparently timeless life of her field folk (bits from earlier tales are often woven into later ones) and she preferred a looser structure and more casual address – which, it must be said, sometimes veers towards the whimsy that was the speciality of a near neighbour of hers in Beaconsfield.
And that wasn’t all, was it?
Emphatically not. Almost simultaneously with the arrival of Little Grey Rabbit came Mrs Uttley’s first book for adults. A Country Child , a (diplomatically?) blissful account of her early years on her parents’ farm in Derbyshire. And for the rest of her life she wrote for her two audiences in tandem – observed life in the countryside for one and the invented japes of its inhabitants such as Sam Pig and Tim Rabbit for the other. But at the end of the 30s the qualities that she brought to these subjects coalesced in her inspired story of the Babington plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots, set within a mile or two of her childhood home. A Traveller in Time is one of the outstanding books of twentieth – century children’s literature and I for one would be sorrier to see it obliterated than all the pastures occupied by Ms Rabbit and her friends.
Some material here has been gleaned from Denis Judd’s detailed biography Alison Uttley: The Life of a Country Child (Michael Joseph, 1986). Alison Uttlev’s papers are now deposited at the John Rylands Library In kianchester. See also Authorgraph No.121: Alison Uttley.
The illustrations by Margaret Tempest are taken from The Squirrel, the Hare and the Little Grey Rabbit , reissued this month by Egmont Children’s Books as a Picture Mammoth (0 7497 4176 7, 14.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is Chair of the Children’s Books Ilistory Society and the chief children’s book consultant for The Times .