Is it best to preserve the golden oldies of children’s literature, in their original form? Or should we edit them, and take out the bits we now find shocking?
I was recently offered the chance to review books from The Works. I chose a compendium of classic Beatrix Potter tales.
Peter Rabbit is big these days, especially now CBeebies have beamed the little mammal into the households of children everywhere. But even though my two-year-old, Gwen and four-year-old, Austin don’t watch it as often as their favourites (Melody and Scooby Doo), Gwen in particular insists on frequent readings of the handful of Beatrix Potter-inspired books in the house.
It probably helps that our complement of Beatrix Potter books includes pop-ups, finger puppets, and a set of teeny-tiny versions of the old classics Jemima Puddleduck, Tom Kitten, Jeremy Fisher, Mrs Tiggywinkle etc. They’re not the best quality (the main character in Mrs Tiggywinkle morphs from ‘Lucy’ to ‘Lucie’ at one point – poor, poor editing). But our children’s enthusiasm for the world of inter-related talking animals made me hopeful that the new set of Beatrix Potter books would bring some fresh excitement to our evening storytimes.
The Peter Rabbit library would make a good gift. The covers are more colourful than the originals (in a tasteful kind of way), and they’re larger than the familiar pocket-sized versions, but the stories and illustrations are pretty much the same.
Having all ten books on our shelf meant that, eventually, all of them were read. I don’t think I managed to get to them all when I was young and, as an adult reader revisiting Potter’s world of kleptomaniac rabbits and impoverished tradespeople, I was struck by how grown-up the books are. The Tailor of Gloucester, in particular, is like a journey into a David Lynch film (without the sexy rudey bits). A man who sends his cat out to the shop to pick up some groceries? And mice who sew a lavish waistcoat for him, while he lays feverish in his bed? All very trippy.
Despite the uniform presence of her distinctive illustrations, Potter’s tone – and the content of the books – varies immensely across the ten volumes. Tom Kitten, Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle, for instance, are all charming and whimsical. But things take a menacing turn in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny.
Benjamin is characterised as an idle layabout who won’t visit his poor widowed aunt. Instead, he sets about leading his cousin Peter astray, and when they are held captive by a cat, his ultra-violent father beats up the feline, then punishes Benjamin and Peter by whipping them with a switch.
This was all a bit much for me. I skipped across this page when reading the story to Gwen.
I’ve had similar problems while reading some classics from an old compendium of children’s tales, which was a favourite when I was a kid. Every other story seemed to involve something I found ‘difficult’. Death, murder, child abduction (Pied Piper of Hamelin), fathers forbidding their sons or daughters to marry, husbands relegating their wives to the kitchen as punishment, and everywhere the mocking of the ugly, old or disabled.
I’m sure that most of the stories in my compendium would be ‘cleaned up’ if they were re-published for modern readers. And I expect there are versions of Benjamin Bunny out there without the child-beating passage. I know it’s rabbit-on-rabbit whipping, not a human father beating his child, but I still wouldn’t want to try to explain what Benjamin senior is doing to his son and nephew, to a two- and a four-year-old.
Last weekend, we celebrated my Grandmother’s 90th birthday, and she bought each Great-grandchild gathered there a copy of a Beatrix Potter classic. Here she is, reading Peter Rabbit to Gwen.
The edition given to Gwen as a gift was even more like the original than the one in the Peter Rabbit library. Somehow, that made it a more exceptional gift. Grandma had written an inscription to Gwen in the front of the book, and it’s now sitting on top of a shelf, out of the reach of sticky hands and only to be brought down at special times.
Ok, it’s Peter Rabbit and not the nastier Benjamin Bunny, but even if it were the tale of Benjamin, we would still treasure it the same, whip and all.
I think the point I’m trying to make is that some books are good, everyday fodder for children to be let loose upon, while others are markers of history, written for people long-gone, but still held as classics. They might include scenes or storylines that are now considered distressing. But, many years ago, these books were loved, and they can (within reason) still be appreciated today.
You might just need to skip the occasional page or two.
Disclosure: we were sent a Peter Rabbit library from The Works, for the purpose of this review. All views are my own.