Beatrix Potter Retells Little Red Riding Hood

Beatrix Potter understood very well the power of hunger.  The fox and wolf she cast as villains in her two versions of Little Red Riding Hood are wily rascals whose bellies ache.  While they may be cleverer than their prey, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will get what they want.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck (1908) was clearly inspired by the familiar fairy tale.  The heroine, dressed in a blue bonnet and pink patterned shawl meets a friendly gentleman with black prick ears and sandy-colored whiskers while she looks for a safe nesting place. She confides in him her secret plan to hatch eggs outside the farm and he graciously offers a convenient space cozy with feathers where she can sit on them afternoons. Luckily she also confesses where she has been going to Kep the collie dog, who immediately sees through foxy gentleman’s courtesies, recruits the fox-hound puppies as allies, and saves her silly neck—but not the eggs.

Four years later Potter retold Perrault, this time following the text very closely, adding only the woodcutters from Grimm and an original work song.   She started planning the illustrations, because photographs of a model dressed in a cape and sketches of the girl and wolf meeting on the path survive. Perhaps she set it aside during the production of The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912) with its disagreeable characters the badger Tommy Brock and the fox, barely recognizable as Jemima’s gentleman.  After Potter decided against inserting this story into The Fairy Caravan (1929), the manuscript lay unpublished until Leslie Linder transcribed it in A History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter (1971).  In 2019 Warne issued it with splendid illustrations by Helen Oxenbury that are perfectly in tune with Potter’s words.

Oxenbury, like Potter, doesn’t shy away from frightening elements in the story, believing that “Children like a little darkness.”  Drawing the wolf she found a very attractive assignment, feeling like an actor landing a juicy part of nasty customer after playing a series of ordinary characters.  The first picture of him shows the belt of his plus-fours pulled so tight after a three-days’ fast that there are pleats all the waist. He is watching behind a fence the movements of woodmen, whose presence prevent him from going home when Red Riding Hood unexpectedly pulls the gate open.  Not daring to attack her, he strikes up a conversation.  No wiser than Jemima, she answers his questions without realizing she has just shown him how easily she might be caught.  He proposes they take different ways to granny’s and see who gets there first. He runs all the way there, sneaks through the garden to the door,  gains entrance under false pretenses and gets right down to what he came for.  Decisive, energetic, and thorough, that’s a starving carnivore.

Far quieter are the pictures where the main figure is Red Riding Hood. Oxenbury is alive to humous elements in Potter’s text, but keeps her illustrations a little sharp underneath the prettiness, as in the one where Red Riding Hood’s mother and gran fuss over the little girl: “Her mother was fair silly about her and her granny was sillier still.” Red Riding Hood’s walk through the fields and forest to her grandmother’s capture the beauties of an English summer day, the light, the leafy trees, the long grasses, and nodding flowers. When the little girl dawdles along the way, gathering a posy for her granny, picking nuts and strawberries, time seems to stop.  The next opening, where the sun is so low that she looks behind her nervously as it someone might be following her, even though she has seen no one since she left her mother’s house except for the wolf, is a reminder that the story will play out as it must. Even when Red Riding Hood sees her “granny” sit up in bed, inspecting her as coldly as the fox did Jemima, she can’t put two and two together.  So she continues to sit beside him in her grandmother’s clothes, asking questions about the surprising change in her appearance–arms and ears, which have sprouted coarse, bristly hairs, eyes, which look jaundiced, and big, strong, sharp white teeth.  Well, that is the end of her.

Oxenbury had the last laugh when she sets up a plausible final confrontation between the woodmen and the wolf, now so bloated from gorging that his unbuttoned trousers are pulled up to his arm pits.  He has just heard the woodmen’s shouts in the distance as they pursue him.  Beating them to his door seems a long shot when his ankles are so swollen above his two-tone Oxfords.  And that’s there the illustrator leaves it, offering comfort for the sensitive and rough justice for bloody-minded.  Even though she didn’t write it, Potter would have appreciated this marvelous ending.

Neither version of Little Red Riding Hood would be so satisfying if Potter had changed the natural dynamics between the predators and the prey  because the implicit violence might be too much for her readers.   But even city kids know that real foxes and dogs will and do eat other animals, so why not ducks and their eggs?  Kep rescued Jemima because it was his job as the farm dog, but some children may grasp that the chance to destroy his enemy the fox was probably just as strong motive.  Many children see that the wolf was not looking for a little girl to eat, but when one crossed his path and talked to him, she became fair game.  Of course, there will always be extremely sensitive children who are better shielded from stories like this until they can handle them, if and when the time comes. In the best twice-told tales, the story teller keeps alive in the reader a scrap of hope that somehow this time the victim will escape. The predators here would have to change their natures and stop hunting for that to happen.  Potter and Oxenbury quietly demonstrate why that this cannot be, but suggest that stranger things do occasionally happen.

An Old Bachelor Visits an Old Friend and His 14 Children: a Humorous Essay on Parenting

Young characters in eighteenth-century children’s books have a reputation for being preternaturally well-behaved goody-goodies.  That stereotype probably contains some truth, but we don’t have to dig very hard to find contemporary writers besides Jane Austen who showed that  adults were not automatically naturals at managing their children and households. Other descriptions of parents in over their heads turn up in magazine essays. This week I ran across one in the July 1799 European Magazine.  “The Wanderer” number 15 was supposedly contributed by a cranky confirmed bachelor, but is actually the work of Joseph Mosher (1748-1819), one of the magazine’s regular writers.  It’s a fascinating mash-up of half-examined gender expectations, details about the paraphernalia of childhood, and stereotypes about “savages” that were thought comical then.

Before telling about his dinner at the home of his boyhood friend Frank Homely, “Solus” the bachelor gives the backstory.  Years before he and Frank both fancied Rachel Barnaby, a farmer’s daughter, but Frank won her heart in just two months. Luckily Solus never revealed his passion and left England almost immediately after his disappointment for fourteen years.  Shortly after his return, Frank sent him an invitation to visit his lovely wife and their little family of seven sons and seven daughters.  Solus anticipates the pleasure of being entertained by an affectionate, rational couple who preside over an elegant establishment where the children are seen and heard when only when admitted to the company.

I repaired to Mr. Homely’s house, and was shewn into his study, which, instead of being furnished with books and maps, was strewed round with go-carts, dolls, whistles, penny trumpets, and “cheap publications.”  I  thought this rather strange furniture for a library….Scarce had I made this reflection, when my ears were alarmed with a tremendous sound, which, ascending the stair-case, and bursting open the study door, exhibited four of my friend’s sons and six of his daughters, shouting like wild Americans, with their arms strongly fastened with cords, and urged forward by another of the hopeful race, who brandished a whip over his head;…this gentle pastime, it seems, they called “playing at horses.”  The infant banditti had paced round the room, and thrown down three chairs in their progress, when the second horse in the team fell down, and was dragged by his playful associates along the floor, in spite of his angry cries and remonstrances. 

The floor sounds as if it were ankle-deep in inexpensive toys, the baby walkers (i.e. go-carts), and chapbooks (i.e. “cheap publications”), giving the impression that children took over their father’s library long before. If any further proof were necessary, eleven of the children burst in, as noisy as “savages” ( as Native Americans were then erroneously considered), pretending to be a team of horses drawing a carriage.  It sounds as if the coachman was applying his whip to his siblings’ backs to make them go faster around the room.  Their lack of respect for property provokes Solus to compare them as well to a lawless band of robbers (i.e. “infant banditti).  Of course, their play ends in tears and roars.

It required all the authority of their father to quell this hideous din, who shortly made his appearance; and notwithstanding the increased wrinkles on his brow, welcomed me with a cordial shake of the hand, and led me upstairs to the drawing room, to introduce me his wife. The drawing room had discarded all superfluous ornaments, and boasted a negligence and plainness that Diogenes might not have been ashamed of. In one corner two mischievous urchins had torn open a new pack of cards, and were building houses with them. In another stood a cradle and cawdle cup; while rush-bottomed chairs, backboards, steel collars and stocks, usurped the place of candlelabrums, silk hangings, and mirrors. 

A drawing room is supposed to be a handsome space where adults socialize, but at the Homelys it has been childproofed (i.e. emptied of furniture and objects needing protection from clumsy, careless, high-spirited members of the family) and is instead full of more the children’s things that belong more properly in the nursery.  Equipment for improving posture like backboards, steel collars and stocks indicates parental aspirations that their children to carry themselves with fashionable grace.  Could their resting place on the floor betray the little victims as having taken the first opportunity to throw off the wretchedly uncomfortable things.?On my entrance, Mrs. Homely shook two children from her lap, and one from her shoulder, and arose to welcome me; exhibiting to my astonished view the once slender Rachel converted into a broad clumsy dame, with all the marks of premature old age.  After the usual ceremonies I took my seat, and now my torments commenced.  One child fastened my button with packthread to the back of the chair; another pierce the calf of my leg with a black pin; while a third insisted upon mounting behind me, and swinging by my pig tail.  I bore these tortures with the firmness of an American captive, hoping that the call to dinner would put an end to my sufferings.

Solus’ observations here must test many modern readers’ notions. While it is natural to be taken aback when seeing an old acquaintance changed almost beyond recognition, Solus’ description of Rachel’s body after bearing so many children seems ungentlemanly and unkind.  Comparing himself to a hostage tortured by Native American captors is now inappropriate, even if the Homely’s children were misbehaving.  Certainly, they ought to be have been stopped by one of their parents.

But my expectations were vain… though I confess my sufferings were alleviated by observing that the rest of the company came in for their share.  Mrs. Homely sat at the head of the table with a rickety child on her knee, and insisted, like an indulgent mother that she was, that none of her numerous brood should seat themselves at the board, which caused all the dine and disturbance that I expected.  Two butter-boats were overset on the satin breeches of Mr. Deputy Maroon; the immaculate muslin of Miss Bridle was fated to receive the contents of a wine glass; and, to complete the calamity, a fine leg of pork was entirely flayed, that the children might devour the skin, under the significant name of crackling.  My friend, not quite reconciled to matrimonial trammels, seemed rather disturbed at this scene of folly and confusion; but his help-mate, who had long buried politeness, and even decency, in the vortex of one instinctive passion, love for her offspring, was delighted with the bustle, and “would not have the poor things snubbed for the world.”  She looked round upon her distorted brood with exultation, even priding herself upon their defects, and appeared to think that she had obtained a dispensation from rule and reason from the sole circumstances of having favoured the world with fourteen children.

After surviving a meal so disorderly, Solus was entitled to be exasperated and disappointed.  And yet it seems incredible he would cast Mr. Homely as the victim of his wife’s failure as a mother. The figure of overly fond mother who does not restrain her children’s unmannerly and self-destructive behaviors goes back in English literature at least to the seventeenth century and usually the father is not considered an equally guilty party to the spoiling of the children.  When the wife’s parenting makes life miserable for everyone in the house as well as anyone who visits them and the father does nothing to correct the course, then he has failed his children as much as she has.

Although Mosher’s essay contains distasteful stereotypes, he also points the finger at some very familiar shortcomings parents can fall into when outnumbered by their offspring and overwhelmed by their energy.  Gentle readers of this blog may have experienced something like dinner at the Homelys  while trying to enjoy a quiet meal in a nice restaurant or catch up with friends in their apartment on a night no babysitter was available.  Perhaps they know someone who has been provoked to write to an agony aunts for advice about how to alleviate the miseries of such social situations.