This week’s post comes from one of our MPhil students, Lucy Stone.
One of the great joys and privileges of being a MPhil student in children’s literature at Cambridge is the chance to attend a series of seminars by guest scholars and visiting academics. This past Tuesday evening we had the incredible Dr. Juliet Dusinberre, famed and very well respected for her seminal work Alice to the Lighthouse, which has greatly influenced the field of children’s literature. Dr. Dusinberre presented a fascinating and thought-provoking talk, a few points of which I wish to summarise here.
Beatrix Potter: Defying the Enemy Why read? Why write?
|A teenage Beatrix Potter with her pet mouse Xarifa, 1885. (Photo from Princeton University Library)|
‘We have to seize the freedom to be what we can be, to write whatever we want, with all the mystery and fire of art. It is our responsibility to illuminate the strange corners of what it is to be human’ – Ben Okri, December 2014, The Guardian.
What is it to be human? “Are human beings as animals in disguise or animals as human beings in disguise?” Juliet Dusinberre asked us. Beatrix Potter, belonging to the first generation of Darwin children, believed that creatures and people are part of the same continuum of existence. When Potter saw a person she imagined them as an animal. “I am like Timmy Willie, notTimmy Willie is like me,” Beatrix Potter is thought to have said. She saw human beings as animals wearing clothes. Turning to the end of The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle we see:
[h]ow small she had grown—and how brown—and covered with PRICKLES!
Why! Mrs. Tiggy-winkle was nothing but a HEDGEHOG.
Potter rejected the idea that Lucie had a dream:
(Now some people say that little Lucie had been asleep upon the stile—but then how could she have found three clean pocket-handkins and a pinny, pinned with a silver safety-pin?
And besides—I have seen that door into the back of the hill called Cat Bells—and besides I am very well acquainted with dear Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!)
Indeed, Potter’s washerwoman, Kitty MacDonald, was like Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
Potter believed the secret of good writing was to “write for your own children…have something to say – and write with an end in view.” Potter did not have any children of her own, but she wrote for the children of her relatives and friends. For her, “something to say” should be about country wayside objects, but, in good writing, while always having an “end in view,” she does not pass judgment.
The magic of literature is that you don’t know what every word means. Children like a fine word occasionally. In Penelope Lively’s words, Potter “does not just tell an enthralling story but challenges the ear. Her cadences, her linguistic flights that I repeated to myself over and over [as a child]: ‘the dignity and repose of the tea party,’ ‘too much lettuce is soporific,’ ‘roasted grasshopper with ladybird sauce,’ and ‘The dinner was of eight courses, not much of anything, but truly elegant.’”
Yet the question as to why we write and why we read is not answered fully here. Potter was adamant that her books should be small books for little hands and cheap enough for those little hands to buy. But real animals, ultimately, were more important to her than those on paper. She used the wealth acquired from her successful works for what she cherished in life: conservation. Writing, then, became doing.
Reading Potter’s landscapes, we can hardly see the country without seeing her animals, Juliet Dusinberre suggests. The reader’s eye becomes Potter’s eye, her books education of the eye, a mental enrichment. Such an enrichment is key to attaining freedom.
When, at the end of Potter’s life, she (and the rest of the country) was faced with an enemy unlike any other in her life – that is, Hitler and the threat of a Nazi invasion – we see that freedom in fact lay beyond the book for her:
What a pretty country it is at the Lakes is it not? Hitler cannot spoil the fells; the rocks and fern and lakes and waterfalls will outlast us all.
Freedom resided in the nature of the Lake District, that for Potter, no enemy could destroy.
An incredible talk by an incredible scholar, to which it is impossible to do justice here. It is with great anticipation that we await the next edition of the Cambridge Literary Review, which is to feature a paper by Dr. Dusinberre, as part of a special children’s literature edition.