Books: Cultural Amnesia — Beatrix Potter |
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Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) is as much belittled as flattered by her reputation of being the children’s author that adults should read. What child would be impressed by that? She herself was not amused when Graham Greene wrote a semi-serious article about her. She wasn’t interested in being a semi-serious subject. W. H. Auden was nearer the mark when he praised her outright as an artist of prose. So she was, and her little books would have been treasurable even without her drawings. Her stories attract tweeness towards them—the Peter Rabbit ballet must be hard to take for anyone except a very tiny child—but are never winsome in themselves, mainly because of her tactile, yet quite tough, feeling for language. She could luxuriate in the polysyllabic without making froth of the meaning: a rare, and strictly poetic, discipline. Some of the post–World War II writers for children got their poetry from rhyme and rhythm: James Thurber in The Thirteen Clocks, Dr. Seuss passim. Others got it from atmospherics: Maurice Sendak notably, Roald Dahl less tastefully, and J. K. Rowling by ransacking a sorcerers’ warehouse stocked with all the magic gear since Grimm’s first fairy tales. (In Harry Potter’s world, it’s only rarely that the language is magic, although Durmstrang would sound like a witty name for a school to any twelve-year-old reader familiar with the history of German literature.) Beatrix Potter got her poetry from prose: which is to say, from speech, concentrated. Written in an age when it was still assumed that children would not suffer brain damage from hearing a phrase they couldn’t immediately understand, the books are plentifully supplied with elevated verbal constructions. The bright child sees unfamiliar phrases going by just overhead, and reaches up, while the parent is reminded of the historic privilege of being born into a civilization where the morality of children’s books, even at their worthily meant worst, has evolved through supply and demand, and not been imposed by the state according to a plan. In the old Soviet Union, there were children’s books that preached the virtues of informing on one’s parents. Beatrix Potter had her own ideas of civic virtue, and most of them are still ours, although we might be more inclined than she was to ask what happens to those animals who go to market involuntarily.

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Pigling Bland listened gravely; Alexander was hopelessly volatile.

PEOPLE WHO DID not have Beatrix Potter read to them as a child soon learn to envy their own children. The luxury of her diction seems an unfair treat for the young to those of us who meet it for the first time in later life. My daughters didn’t mind being compared to the hopelessly volatile Alexander, as long as I kept saying it. Children like to hear good things said a thousand times, so it helps if the good things are as good as this. The Tale of Pigling Bland is especially rich in pointe-shoe examples of Potter’s gift for exquisitely elevated linguistic deportment. In the next paragraph to the one in which this sentence occurs, we find that Aunt Pettitoes gives to each piglet a little bundle, “and eight conversation peppermints with appropriate moral sentiments in screws of paper.” Bright young listeners will savour the “appropriate moral sentiments” as if they were the peppermints. More important, they will savour the appropriate moral sentiments even when they aren’t quite certain what appropriate moral sentiments are. If you, as an adult, happen to be there when the meaning teeters on the point of sinking in, it can be quite a moment. Poets, especially, are likely to be humbled: this is the transitional point where the art they practise begins and ends.

The only flaw in The Tale of Pigling Bland is that the piglets are going to market, yet there is no mention of the probability that they themselves will one day be on sale there in altered form. Bacon is frequently mentioned, but its significance is not alluded to by the author, which rather leaves it to the reciter: a difficult moral decision. In the story of Timmy Tiptoes, Potter is more straightforward about the fate of mice: cats kill them. With that much admitted, the deus ex machina that saves Timmy Tiptoes is saved from sentimentality. Timmy Tiptoes gets stuck in the trunk of a tree because the Chipmunk has tempted him to eat too many nuts. Potter finds two ways of being unforgettable about Timmy’s nut-eating. The Chipmunk “ ’ticed him to eat quantities.” The reciter will find that his audience is suitably curious about “enticed” being reduced to “ ’ticed,” but is fascinated beyond delight by the “quantities.” (For days afterwards, hopelessly volatile small people will be discovered to have eaten “quantities” of whatever it is they eat at all.) The deus ex machina is “the big wind” that blows the top off the tree. There is no suggestion that a big wind could save Timmy from a cat. There is, however, an implicit suggestion that something will save Pigling Bland and the hopelessly volatile Alexander from becoming bacon. No doubt there had to be such a let-out. Potter was, after all, writing children’s books. It is a mark of how good the books are, however, that the merest hint of ordinary uplift is a shock, as if Jane Austen had forgotten to mention money.