Carols, Rhymes, and Christmas Bells for…
The Tailor of Gloucester
‘My dear Freda, Because you are fond of fairy-tales and have been ill, I have made you a story all for yourself – a new one that nobody has read before…’
No one had certainly done so then,
but versions of the tale had gone the rounds by word of mouth in Gloucestershire where Helen Beatrix Potter had heard it from Caroline Hutton, a distant cousin, who lived near Stroud. What seems to have happened is that a Mr Prichard, a Gloucester tailor, had been hard-pressed for time and had left the making-up of a fancy waistcoat for the local mayor unfinished over a weekend. Coming back on the Monday though he found the whole job done except for a single button-hole to which was attached a note: ‘no more twist’.
Delighted as he was
by the discovery, Mr Prichard was mystified as to how it had occurred. Alert to its publicity value however, he put the garment in his window with a little notice: ‘Come to Prichard where the waistcoats are made at night by the fairies’. (Only later was it revealed that the work had been done by two of his assistants who had snuck in over the weekend and done some unpaid overtime.)
Who could doubt
that the tale with its mysterious denouement would have had a great appeal to Miss Potter. She was a lover of fairytales and surely knew the Grimms’ tale of the brownie shoemakers who worked secretly overnight for a cobbler. But when she came to work up the story in her Christmas letter to Freda Moore her imagination carried it beyond fairyland and into ‘the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flow’rd lappets’ when it seems that the creatures of Gloucester had an enchanted life of their own.
For what Freda gets
is an extended riff on the original anecdote in which the tailor – ailing – offends his dutiful housekeeper, the cat Simpkin, by depriving him of a cache of mice that he was saving up for his supper, and the mice, by way of gratitude, play the part of Mr Prichard’s fairies. (The freeing of the mice, impounded under teacups and the like, occasions an unusual modification in Beatrix Potter’s usually testing vocabulary. ‘Was I wise to enfranchise those mice; undoubtedly the property of Simpkin?’ asks the tailor querulously in Freda’s manuscript – but ‘let loose’ comes to replace it in print.)
The manuscript is a substantial volume:
eighty-five pages of text with twelve watercolour illustrations, all found in an exercise-book bound in a moiré-grain cloth. (‘There ought to be more pictures towards the end, and they would have been the best ones,’ writes the donor teasingly, ‘only Miss Potter was tired of it! Which was lazy of Miss Potter.’) And the story went through a double transformation in its progress towards the ‘little book’ version which we have now. For at the time when Beatrix was composing it she was also involved in the private publication, at her own expense, of The Tale of Peter Rabbit – whose source, long before, had been a picture-letter to Freda’s brother Noel. And such was the success of that private venture that the author-publisher was getting a taste for entrepreneurship and determined upon a like treatment for The Tailor. She borrowed back the exercise-book and set about editing its contents to make a companion volume to Peter but with more colour. (The ‘private’ Peter only had a colour frontispiece.)
Editing was something of a wrench.
One of the characteristics of Freda’s story was the author’s joyous indulgence in reprinting a cacophony of carols and nursery rhymes as the cat Simpkin wanders the city streets on Christmas Eve. Beatrix loved these as much as she did fairytales and there are no fewer than twenty-three of them in the manuscript, including a complete performance of ‘Kitty Alone’ by some black rats carousing in a cellar. These were all too numerous for the ninety-six small, square pages (plus sixteen plates) of the first printed edition and Beatrix grievingly curtailed some and dispensed with others.
She probably realised too
that the story sagged in the middle under the weight of these interpolations and when Frederick Warne welcomed the chance to bring the book out in a trade edition as a successor to Peter Rabbit she steeled herself to yet more cuts. Only six rhymes survived the slaughter and the drunken rats vanished utterly. ‘For the life of me I could not see why Mr Warne insisted on cutting [them] out’ she cheekily complained.
it is possible to compare the three versions of the story for a facsimile of the ms. was published in 1968 and the text of the private edition is given in Leslie Linder’s magnificent History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter of 1971. The author herself is on record as saying that the latter version was the favourite of all her books and although the rhymes are certainly de trop the narrative has a more natural flow than the somewhat tinkered-up trade volume that is with us now. And anyway she saw those early versions as a celebration of ‘the old story that all the beasts can talk, in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning’ so we ought to be allowed to hear their tuneful words as the bottles are emptied and the mice are stitching away till they run out of cherry-coloured twist.
as for Mr Prichard, he died full of years and on his gravestone you will find simply the words ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’. And his shop – saved from this year’s floods – may still be visited in College Court, and you may even buy shares in it.
The illustrations (© Frederick Warne & Co., 1903, 2002) are taken from the 2002 edition of The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter (978 0 7232 4772 2, £4.99 hbk).
Brian Alderson is president of the Beatrix Potter Society, founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s books consultant for The Times