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The Little House at the Edge of the Wood

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Last January, I had a major operation. For solace, I took into hospital the Winter issue of Slightly Foxed. A kind friend brought in the New Yorker. Then, about day four or five (not brilliant), came a package. It contained a beautiful card and a worn little book: Hare Joins the Home Guard by Alison Uttley. The card had an instruction: ‘If energy is short please just refer to the marked page for an image to cheer the spirits.’ I referred, and felt a smile spread through me. Here was an underground nursery, lit by glow-worms, where all the small animals of the wood might take shelter as the dreadful weasels went on the warpath. Here were Fuzzypeg the hedgehog and Moldy Warp the mole, gazing at ‘grass hammocks and little wool-lined cots and cradles which Grey Rabbit had made’. ‘You shall take charge of the young ones,’ said Moldy Warp kindly. ‘You shall put them to bed and tell them tales.’ But Fuzzypeg was having none of this. ‘No thank you! I’m going to fight.’

This perfect package came from my friend Ruth, with whom, the previous summer, I had travelled by train through the Baltic states, discovering en route our shared passion for Little Grey Rabbit and all things pertaining to her. Ruth’s loan of her childhood copy of Hare Joins the Home Guard (1942) sent me, as I went home and got stronger, back to my own Little Grey Rabbit editions, almost all given by older cousins as Christmas and birthday presents to my brother and me in the ’40s and ’50s. I found most were quite shockingly, if affectionately, defaced: by wax crayon colouring in of ‘the little house at the edge of the wood’ which appeared on every endpaper, by pencil drawings and wobbly capitals and even, at the end of Little Grey Rabbit’s Party (1936), a desperate attempt at long division. As for Little Grey Rabbit Makes Lace (1950), one of my favourites, its condition can only have c

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Last January, I had a major operation. For solace, I took into hospital the Winter issue of Slightly Foxed. A kind friend brought in the New Yorker. Then, about day four or five (not brilliant), came a package. It contained a beautiful card and a worn little book: Hare Joins the Home Guard by Alison Uttley. The card had an instruction: ‘If energy is short please just refer to the marked page for an image to cheer the spirits.’ I referred, and felt a smile spread through me. Here was an underground nursery, lit by glow-worms, where all the small animals of the wood might take shelter as the dreadful weasels went on the warpath. Here were Fuzzypeg the hedgehog and Moldy Warp the mole, gazing at ‘grass hammocks and little wool-lined cots and cradles which Grey Rabbit had made’. ‘You shall take charge of the young ones,’ said Moldy Warp kindly. ‘You shall put them to bed and tell them tales.’ But Fuzzypeg was having none of this. ‘No thank you! I’m going to fight.’

This perfect package came from my friend Ruth, with whom, the previous summer, I had travelled by train through the Baltic states, discovering en route our shared passion for Little Grey Rabbit and all things pertaining to her. Ruth’s loan of her childhood copy of Hare Joins the Home Guard (1942) sent me, as I went home and got stronger, back to my own Little Grey Rabbit editions, almost all given by older cousins as Christmas and birthday presents to my brother and me in the ’40s and ’50s. I found most were quite shockingly, if affectionately, defaced: by wax crayon colouring in of ‘the little house at the edge of the wood’ which appeared on every endpaper, by pencil drawings and wobbly capitals and even, at the end of Little Grey Rabbit’s Party (1936), a desperate attempt at long division. As for Little Grey Rabbit Makes Lace (1950), one of my favourites, its condition can only have come about by its being dropped in the bath and either hurled in violent temper or simply read to death. How I loved those books. A Fifties child, I found my own country life, on a farm and then in a village, vividly portrayed, and offering what I now see was a unity of experience between author and reader. My father, who had served as an officer in the Indian Army, was now, like Hare, a keen member of the Home Guard. My brother and I knew those huge icicles, sucked by thirsty Hare on winter mornings and hanging awesomely from our cottage guttering. We knew the Jack Frost patterns on the window which Little Grey Rabbit delights in – ‘trees and ferns and flowers in silver’ – as she draws back her curtains. Thanks to climate change and central heating, children today rarely see these things. Even so, there are aspects of that world that are timeless. The books, with their vivid and beguiling characters, are a celebration of both home and adventure. The house where Little Grey Rabbit lives with Squirrel and Hare is a model of order and domesticity, simply furnished and warm. The kitchen range blazes beneath a mantelpiece hung with green gingham and decorated with candlesticks and Chelsea dogs. There is a settle and a rocking chair – ‘like sitting in the windy bough of the apple-tree’ says Speckledy Hen, on a visit. A warming pan hangs on the wall, a dresser holds sparkling china; the grandfather clock ticks steadily. ‘I do like plenty of cupboards,’ Grey Rabbit says when furnishing Wise Owl’s new home (Wise Owl’s Story, 1935), and there are plenty here, stocked with all her homemade jams and jellies and bottles of primrose wine. Everything is polished, swept and dusted, and the animals never leave the house without making everything right. ‘I’m used to being the Home Guard,’ says Hare. ‘I always put the key under the doormat.’ On their return, or accompanying their adventures, there is always good food, and of course children love to read about that, especially when it’s miniaturized or related to animal life. There are hampers and picnics and tea in the hayfield; there is beech nut bread, plum cake and hot buttered toast, and dishes of scrambled ants’ eggs. Hare, always willing to do something if sandwiches are involved, is distraught when after so looking forward to them in Hare Joins the Home Guard he accidentally uses them as weapons. There is also, of course, the milk, brought each morning by Old Hedgehog in his smock (prickles poking through), fresh from the cow. It is, then, an idyllic picture of domestic life, such as most of us as children either recognize or crave. But, as later imitators of Uttley and Beatrix Potter have shown – they shall be nameless – cramming a dresser with jams and jellies and putting mice in frocks is not enough to make books endure. What gives the Little Grey Rabbit series (1927–75) such lasting appeal are its stories, often shot through with real danger; the gentle humour and the highly individual yet recognizable characters. That unit of three, rooted in country life and the natural world, is, to adult eyes, a strange set-up. We never know how Little Grey Rabbit and Squirrel and Hare come to live together nor why, unlike some of the other animals, they have no spouses or children. Nonetheless, they make the perfect family, each balancing the other, with Little Grey Rabbit at the domestic and psychological heart, always ready to soothe and heal. Between 1927 and 1965, Alison Uttley published over thirty Little Grey Rabbit books, all illustrated by Margaret Tempest: the classic partnership which most of us remember. Though another illustrator, Katherine Wigglesworth, took over in 1970, I will stay with the Tempest editions. In many of the stories the animals face real danger. In Squirrel Goes Skating (1934) the three come home after a happy outing to the frozen pond to find burglar rat asleep in Squirrel’s bed, horrid whiskers poking out, scaly tail dangling beneath the patchwork quilt.In Little Grey Rabbit and the Weasels (1947) Little Grey Rabbit is kidnapped and held prisoner, then rescued by Wise Owl (the scholarly historian who himself embodies both danger and protection) who hears her singing bravely, lands on her bedroom windowsill and flies her home by starlight. ‘Yes, I am a kind of aeroplane,’ he tells her. Reader and character are brought to the brink, then safely returned home. But if there is a thrilling tension between danger and domesticity in many of these books, there is also very often a sense of otherness, of something magical in the air. This is achieved both through Uttley’s intense apprehension of the countryside and Tempest’s subtle and exquisite watercolours. Those indigo skies, pricked with stars, or hung with a new moon; the white moon ‘beloved of all rabbits’ rising in the wood at dusk; the dawn, the dew, the sunset; firelight and candlelight and glow-worm; the blue glass beads held up by Grey Rabbit in the moonlight at her bedroom window on her birthday; the frosty garden, falling snow and scarlet sledge; the Christmas tree in the wood lit up by candles in the snow-trimmed branches (Little Grey Rabbit’s Christmas, 1939, is one of the most enchanting of all); the shadows cast at night by Wise Owl’s library and four-poster bed – all these echo and complement a prose which speaks repeatedly of the beauty and power of the natural world. Alison Uttley had her own little unit of three, and two of its members committed suicide. Her husband James, a civil engineer, threw himself into the Mersey in 1930; their son John drove his car over a cliff in Guernsey in 1978, two years after his mother’s death. These shocking events, which were splashed all over the papers last summer with the publication of Uttley’s diaries, become all the more so when set against the idyll of the Little Grey Rabbit books and the author’s lovingly remembered rural childhood. Similarly, the perfect harmony between Uttley’s text and Tempest’s illustrations is unsettled when we learn that the two had a difficult, competitive and often troubled relationship – ‘I hate her to touch my sweet little people,’ Uttley wrote in her diary after a row in 1950. The dark facts of her adult life, and her apparent inability to form more than a very few close friendships, lead one to conclude that her deepest relationships were with writing and her own  childhood. ‘I began to write stories when I was a little child,’ she said in an interview, and in the diary she began after her husband’s death she wrote, ‘I am only really happy when I am writing.’ Her output was extraordinary: over 100 books, including the Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig series, rural belles-lettres, essays, nursery rhymes, children’s plays, two novels for adults and endless stories, articles and reviews. But it is her autobiographical writings – The Country Child (1931: see SF, No.5), Ambush of Young Days (1937) and A Traveller in Time (1939) which connect most powerfully with her best-known books. Castle Top Farm, overlooking the Derwent valley, was her Derbyshire home until, an exceptionally clever child, she left in 1903 to study physics at Manchester University. Even in her recollections of these years, by excising her younger brother she reduced a family of four to three, with herself, the adored – if strictly brought-up – only daughter at the centre. And in the pattern of days and seasons, in the milking, the baking, the feeding of hens and pigs; the lantern-lit journeys in the trap; the Christmas carols amid falling snow; the firelit kitchen and candlelit bedrooms; in the miraculous coming of spring and the labour of harvest, with its itinerant workers feasting at the end – in all this lie the origins of that ‘little house on the edge of the wood’ and the rural world around it. ‘I always try to give some specially English touch of country life, which might be forgotten,’ Uttley said. The riddles she gives to Wise Owl, the cowslip and primrose wine, the Christmas kissing bunch, the yoke old milkman Hedgehog wears, the bowing three times before the new moon, the terrors of the wood at night – all these are translated from The Country Child to the Little Grey Rabbit books, in a series which lasted for over forty years. By 1936, the Little Grey Rabbit books were selling a thousand copies a month, clearly tapping into the English love of the countryside which informs our earliest literature and still endures, though our post-modern age insists on mocking it as nostalgia for an age that never was. Uttley knew how real it was, and perhaps the world she created, and recreated, became more real to her than the life she often found so unsatisfactory. My own life and writing have been influenced by my country childhood, though it was not until I was writing my fifth novel that I realized why, finally, I had found my voice. In losing myself in an imagined border country, I discovered that the joy this gave me stemmed both from my own childhood and the knowledge that all the beloved books of those years had been written by people who were naturalists as well as writers – Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, BB and Alison Uttley. The rural worlds they recreated, wherever they were, I lived in too, in my Leicestershire village. Their immaculate and vital prose sank into me as deeply as their stories. Reading them, living them, made me a writer.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 24 © Sue Gee 2009


About the contributor

Sue Gee is working on a collection of short stories.

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