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  After Potter decided against inserting this story into The Fairy Caravan (1929), the manuscript lay unpublished until Leslie Linder transcribed it in A History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter (1971).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.

“The Beginning, Progress and End of Man:” Rare Harlequinades of Emblems Acquired

The title page of the J. Deacon edition, a recent purchase by Cotsen, is printed parallel to the folds of the harlequinade. Adam is wearing a fig leaf. (Cotsen unprocessed)

Among the earliest moveable books are harlequinades, whose illustrations metamorphose when the flaps at the upper and lower edges are opened up and down.  The most familiar examples illustrated key scenes in popular pantomimes staged in the late 1760s and early 1770s and a list of these “turn-ups” appeared in the 1775 catalogue issued by print seller Bennett and Sayers, where they were described as “moral and instructive Emblems for the Entertainment of Children” rather than promoting them as the novelties they were.

Calling them “emblems” might have been a tactic to reassure prospective customers that turn-ups  extracted morals from plays regarded as less than improving. This language may also alludes to their sober ancestor that had no connection with the stage, The Beginning, Progress and End of Man, a small illustrated collection of  emblems or “speaking pictures” from the 1650s.  The license of May 30 1650 called it  “a small tract of several foulded pictures…in verse.” Probably written to fit the panels and flaps, neither the illustrations or verse was polished enough to get the attention of print curators or literary critics.  Nevertheless, it has  survived (see below), while the Sayers edition,  “Adam and Eve,” the title presumably taken from the first panel’s subject has not.

Cotsen has acquired another early edition of The Beginning, Progress and End of Man at the  Justin G. Schiller Ltd. Sale at Heritage Book Auctions in Dallas, Texas  December 16 2020.   It is the stated third edition of the text in five panels and the only one with contemporary hand-coloring.   The five  metamorphosing subjects are Adam (to Eve, to mermaid), Abel (to Abel, to Cain killing Abel), the lion (to griffin, to eagle and child) the youth (to heart, to money bags), and man (skeleton).  The block of the rampant lion faces right and has the face of a man that could be Charles I..  Below  is the back of sheet with all the flaps open, followed by a shot of the other side with center five images visible.Dating the Cotsen copy more precisely than between 1671 and 1704 is not possible, given the available information about the publisher.  Two J. Deacons traded from the Angel in Gilt spur street.  The publisher could be either  Jonah Deacon, a broadside ballad monger, who teamed up with P. Brooksby,  J. Blare, and and J. Back to undercut the five Ballad Partners, or John Deacon who also dealt in cheap print from the Angel as well as the “Rainbow, Holborn, a little above St. Andrews Church.”  For now not possible to assign priority to this or the J. Deacon edition at the Bodleian Library

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The Beginning, Progress and End of Man has only begun to attract attention within the last fifteen years.  Malcolm Jones reproduced the British Library’s 1650 edition with flaps closed and a transcription of the text in The Print in Early Modern England: An Historical Oversight (2010) as an early example of “lift-the-flap” pictures.  He correctly connected it to the better known genre of anatomical sheets, but passed over its ties with emblem literature for children.  It seems to have been unknown to the authors of  classic studies on  17th-century English children’s books like William Sloane’s 1955 bibliography, Warren W. Wooden’s Children’s Literature of the English Renaissance (1986), and  C. John Sommerville’s The Discovery of Childhood in Puritan England (1992).

Jacqueline Reid-Walsh’s articles and monograph Interactive Books: Playful Media Before Pop-ups (2018) on the long history of genres like the harlequinade which are hybrids of books, toys, and games, has put Beginning, Progress, and End of Man on the map. The union catalogue on her website Learning as Play: An Animated, Interactive Archive of 17th– to 19th-Century Narrative Media by and for Children has the most complete census of surviving copies: the one in four panels published by B. Alsop and T. Dunster (1650) at the British Library in the Thomason Tracts and at Pennsylvania State University Library; the five-panel E. Alsop and T. Dunster edition of 1654 at Harvard; and  the five-panel J. Deacon edition ca. 1688  purchased by antiquarian Anthony à Wood at the Bodleian Library.   The details of the Cotsen copy will be sent along shortly.

Reid Walsh’s research also shows that The Beginning, Progress, and End is an intriguing but little understood text that must have been wider circulation than the census of printed editions can possibly would indicate. We know this because of the survival of manuscript copies made by boys and girls in England, North America, and Scotland, none of them labored copies, all of them individual as their creators, who might be considered outsider artists…

Elizabeth Winspear’s four-panel version with a polka-dotted lion (Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Duke University Library).

A Scottish boy’s handiwork from the 1820s.   His lion’s eyes seem to glow.  The bouquet is entirely his.   The baby in the eagle’s claws in the detail below is particularly well-dressed. (Cotsen unprocessed manuscripts)