Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Here Begins the Book of the Nature of Beasts": Eberle Umbach

Here Begins the Book of the Nature of Beasts. Of Lions and Panthers and Tigers, Wolves and Foxes, Dogs and Apes.
Aberdeen Bestiary, ca. 1200

From drawings on cave walls to movie theatres everywhere, people have been making animal stories part of daily life on the planet. In the nineteenth century, animals in literature started talking up a storm, with classics including Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books. This was also the era of Toad of Toad Hall and the White Rabbit of Alice’s Wonderland. Now forgotten but extremely popular in its day, Sarah Trimmer’s The Story of the Robins was published in 1786 and remained in print for over 130 years. The Peacock at Home (1815) by Catherine Dorset held a favored place in the best-selling realm of illustrated children’s poems.

The popularity of animal books goes back to the Middle Ages, with illustrated books called bestiaries depicting animals, plants, and stones both real and fabulous. Bestiaries combined natural history with mythology in a freewheeling and often philosophical way. For instance, the ant-lion is described as being both ant and lion: ferocious as the lion to its relatively weak prey, yet easily destroyed by a small bird. The ant-lion’s dual identity is linked to the spiritual nature of humans which allows evil to become either completely powerful or powerless to each individual. Lavish and fanciful illustrations made up much of the long-lasting appeal of bestiaries. A drawing of “Barnacle Geese,” for example, shows the young geese hanging from the trees by their beaks as they are growing. When mature, they fall from the tree and are safe if they land in water, but die if they land on the ground. Bestiaries in England were based on a fourth century Greek version, but the animal lore they contain goes back much farther than that to ancient Indian, Hebrew, and Egyptian sources.

As an aside, alphabet books can be seen as a direct descendent of these bestiaries, using animals and captivating graphics to present the alphabet to children. Maria Edgeworth tells a curious tale in Early Lessons (1856) of a young girl who, when asked what a bee looks like, says that a bee looks something like a cow. The mystery is solved by remembering that in popular alphabet books, the letter B was often accompanied by a picture of a bull. A saying of that time about someone “who doesn’t know a B from a bull’s foot” comes from this commonplace of alphabet books.

Stories with talking animals had been around for a long time in Aesop’s Fables, which held a strong appeal to children in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The tales themselves precede the fourth century B.C. when written collections of them were put into manuscript form, and one of the earliest books to be printed contained these fables (a 1474 edition still exists.) Aesop’s fables, like Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, were probably not written by a single person but by many people through the telling and retelling of folk tales. Aesop’s invented persona was that of a freed slave—again, like Mother Goose’s identity as a woman, the imaginary folk author is someone set apart from the realm of sanctioned authority and privilege.

Eighteenth century publications of Aesop’s Fables enjoyed great popularity; animals at that time also played an important role in the kind of folklore th
at we might now call urban myths. For example, this excerpt from a letter whose author is only known as A.G., waiting-woman of Anne Donnellan in 1745, describes a supernatural fox:

We have terible cold weather; I have been half froze
. I realy think I shou'd not have lived last week if you had not sent me the good turkey to eate, it kept the frost out of my stomach. I honour Toby for killing so many ratts, and I am rejoyed to think the fox is killed…. But can you tell me how you catched him, for here is the greatest devil of a fox at present hanging about St. George's and Westminster that was ever known anywhere; he destroys every thing he comes near, beast and bird; some people think he has brought to his den the very king of beasts; he does not kill them all, for he could not eat so many, but he makes them destroy one another! He has a cunning way of drawing them all about him, and they say he has a kind of glittering dust in his brush that he shakes when they are near him, and the dust flies into all their eyes, and from that time they do nothing but devour and eate one another…

The morals contained in Aesop’s fables apparently helped eighteenth century adults consider them appropriate for children although they were not written specifically for children. The popularity of Aesop’s Fables began to wane when fairy tales and other children’s literature started appearing; they were still well known, but ceased to dominate the animal landscape of literature read by children. Today, although children might know some of the stories, such as the Tortoise and the Hare, or use phrases like “sour grapes” that originated in the fables, they do not learn the fables by heart as was common in the eighteenth century.

Part of the growing body of literature for childre
n included collections of stories from around the world; in England and the United States, people consumed exotic folklore with the same relish they had for the exotic pineapple and coconut. Animals figured largely in these mythologies and folk legends. On the home front in North America, literature began to reflect some of the African folklore and mythologies that men and women were reinventing and creating in conditions of slavery and oppression. The folklore and mythologies of Native Americans across the country were changing with the crisis of genocide and displacement, and also affecting the stories that the nation was telling itself. The well-known figure of Bugs Bunny has his roots in Brer Rabbit, just as Wile E. Coyote finds his source in the Coyote figure of Native American stories.

Trickster characters like Brer Rabbit and Coyote hold a fascinating place in folklore and literature. They are never figures of authorized power or status, but lawless, of ambiguous virtue, by no means heroic, and basically uncomfortable—they do not fit into any value system but undermine them all in turn. Tricksters make fools of everyone, including themselves at times—they play tricks, deceive, change their shap
es and morals at a whim. They are also often animals—Blue Jay, Coyote, Crow, Fox, Hare, Mink, Rabbit, Raven, Spider, Tortoise. Most traditional tricksters we know are male, but there are some female figures, including the murderous Nez Perce Butterfly Woman who entices men into sex and then crushes them.

Unlike the animal tales of Aesop, these trickster stories have no consistent moral twist, in fact they ar
e often rowdy and bawdy. However, when tricksters hit mainstream or mass culture, they undergo a transformation, they tend to get cleaned up and lose many of their more disturbing attributes. A notable exception to the rule of mainstream tricksters losing their down-to-the-bone bizarreness is found in the work of Beatrix Potter. Among all the talking rabbit relatives of Brer Rabbit, from Aesop’s hare to Watership Down, from Bugs Bunny to the White Rabbit of Wonderland, there is little as cheerily sinister as the opening words of Peter Rabbit’s mother: “…you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

Beatrix began writing the Peter Rabbit stories in London in the 1890s, but failed in her first attempts to publish them. Later they were published with great success and the income from her books allowed her to purchase a small farm and live independently from her parents. She continued to acquire land, where she bred prize-winning sheep as well as pigs and dogs. Land conservation in the Lake District was of passionate importance to her; at her death she bequeathed more than 4,000 acres of farmland to the National Trust. In addition to illustrating her books, Beatrix was a botanical artist, making drawings and paintings of lizards, newts, fungi, mosses, lichen and spiders. She intended these to be used as illustrations in scientific books on flora and fauna. Although she is now recognized as a gifted naturalist, her scholarly work met with little attention during her lifetime because of the discrimination against women in the realms of science.

Beatrix’s tricksters include a mouse who teases a cat and a squirrel who torments an owl with singing and riddles. Sometimes her characters are charitable, as when mice help a down-and-out tailor with some sewing (“…tippets for mice and ribbons for mobs, for mice!”) in The Tailor of Gloucester. Other times they are wanton destroyers of property, as in The Tale of Two Bad Mice when a couple of low-living rodents break into a fancy dollhouse and smash all they can when they discover that the delicious-looking dollhouse food is inedible. Hunca Munca, the wife of the mouse couple, then begins stealing dollhouse items to furnish her own house, beginning with the feather bed she lacks herself. Beatrix, in striking contrast with tradition, creates many female trickster characters like Hunca Munca in her works. The two mice end up paying for the damage they caused—with a crooked sixpence they found under the hearthrug. As is common in tales by Beatrix, there is no ultimate sense of safety. After the doll owners see the destruction in their home, they decide to solve the problem by getting a doll dressed as a policeman—but the nurse sets a mousetrap.

There is a nightmarish quality to Hunca Munca and her husband’s discovery that the beautiful banquet laid ready on the table is not real—the silverware crumples as they try to eat
the plaster food and then, equally unsuccessfully, try to destroy it in the crinkly red-hot paper fire that has no warmth. Hunca Munca ends up dressed in human clothes with a broom, and dustpan, and her baby mice in a cradle. Animal and human natures keep blurring in and out of each other as Beatrix’s characters move through their dilemmas of etiquette and survival: “I am dreadfully afraid it will be mouse!” said Duchess to herself—“I really couldn’t, couldn’t eat mouse pie. And I shall have to eat it, because it is a party.”
The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan

Beatrix’s illustrations of her animal characters highlight their ambiguous nature—she approaches the details of their dress and the interior decoration of their houses with exactly the same meticulous and scientific distance with which she renders the natural landscape around them. When it comes to illustrations of two rats putting a
kitten into a piece of pie dough and rolling it out with a rolling pin, this naturalist surrealism reaches quite a pitch of intensity, with the kitten’s head sticking out of one end of the dough and his tail out of the other.

Pies figure largely in Beatrix Potter’s stories, as they do in Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, and the history of pie in England does involve some details that are not for the squeamish. Whole birds, animals, or fish were used in traditional pies, sometimes with body parts protruding from the crust—the legs of chicken or other fowl, for example, serving as handles. In Star-Gazy Pie from Cornwall, whole herrings were baked standing on their tails with heads poking through the pastry. Mrs. Beeton’s pheasant pie is a breakfast dish, served topped with the stuffed head and tail of the pheasant itself.

The early art of pies had much to do with preservation-- the crust acted as a sealed container for the ingredients and was not meant to be eaten. These pies had a box-like shape and were called "coffins;” making strong and straight walls of pastry was a process referred to as “raising the coffin.” Pie ingredients typically included meat and fruit, using sugar as well as vinegar for a much-prized sweet and sour effect. Any meat qualified for pie—lambs’ tails, rooks, tripe, and eels. Recipes for old-time festive party pies included instructions for how to put live birds and frogs into a piecrust for the amusement of the guests when the lid was lifted off. Dwarves also emerged from pies to entertain guests. In 1626, Jeffrey Hudson in a miniature suit of armor came out of a pie at a banquet for King Charles I and the fifteen-year old Queen Henrietta Maria. Jeffrey became the Queen’s Dwarf and remained a court favorite for eighteen years.

Pies existed for rich and poor in different forms; an elaborate concoction of baked lamprey eels was a traditional pie for royalty; plain old eel pie, however, could be enjoyed by the general populace at cheap eating-houses. Pies became a popular street because they were portable, ready-made, and hot or cold in season. In a household with servants, when the family ate pies made from slaughtered animals, the entrails of the animal, called the “umbles”, would be made into separate pies for the servants—the origin of phrases about eating “humble pie.”

In winter, the glory of pie reached its yearly peak. Huge Christmas pies, sometimes several feet in circumference, were wheeled around the table to guests. These Christmas pies, reinforced by iron bands, were often sent as gifts because they traveled well on the road. In the mid-nineteenth century, a distinction was made between “mince” pies of chopped meat, and “mincemeat” pies which were mostly fruit, although still often containing beef suet. Eating small mincemeat pies for the twelve days of Christmas was considered to bring good luck.

Women in nineteenth century literature were often described as being “nice as pie” or “sweet as pie,” and women writers were not unaware of their pe
culiar connection to edibles in chapter and verse.

“You forget, my dear Constance, that to devour and in turn be devoured is an inexorable law of this world; and if my eccentricities furnish a ragout for omnivorous society, I should be philanthropically glad that tittle-tattledom owes me thanks." Caroline Kirkland, Fore
st Life (1850)

Beatrix Potter’s animal characters, especially when they were animals that human
s use for food and dressed as human women, underscored the connection between women and food in a rather vivid way. Take Jemima Puddle-Duck, for example, whose sole ambition was to raise a family. So she ran away from home and was taken up by a gentleman fox who encouraged her to make a nest in his woodshed. She was grateful for the offer and moved in, all unsuspicious of any danger. She didn’t have a clue as to the fox’s intentions, even when he asked her to go and gather sage and onions—essential ingredients in making stuffing for roast duck. During this outing, Jemima Puddle-Duck told an old collie all about her adventures and he sized up the situation at once. After she left, he rounded up some foxhound puppies who saved poor Jemima at the last possible moment—but the puppies ate up her eggs before escorting her home in tears over her loss.

INGREDIENTS.—3 large lemons, 3 large apples, 1 lb. of stoned raisins, 1 lb. of currants, 1 lb. of suet, 2 lbs. of moist sugar, 1 oz. of sliced candied citron, 1 oz. of sliced candied orange-peel, and the same quantity of lemon-peel, 1 teacupful of bran
dy, 2 tablespoonfuls of orange marmalade.

Mode.—Grate the rinds of the lemons; squeeze out the juice, strain it, and boil the remainder of the lemons until tender enough to pulp or chop very finely. Then add to this pulp the apples, which should be baked, and their skins and cores removed; put in the remaining ingredients one by one, and, as they are added, mix everything very thoroughly together. Put the mincemeat into a stone jar with a closely-fitting lid, and in a fortnight it will be ready for use.

Seasonable.—This should be made the first or
second week in December.

The Book of Household Management by Mrs. Isabella Beeton (1861)

As I mentioned yesterday, today's post was written by my wife & all-time favorite guest blogger, Eberle Umbachthe text is copyright Eberle Umbach, 2007-2008. It's an essay from a larger work she & our friend Audrey Bilger have been working on for some time, & it's the first installment in the Women's Work is Women's Art series. Please check back for more—& in the meantime enjoy your mincemeat pie & Beatrix Potter stories....


  1. wonderful - I love reading the history of animals in literature. I look forward to more installments.

    had me thinking of other animal stories...are you (and eberle) familiar with the redwall series? of course I am very partial to stories which feature mice as hero. more mice as hero can be found in graham oakley's delightful church mice tales - which unfortunately are out of print and most difficult to find - I have been looking for the last one in the series for years, if found my collection would be complete.

    my daughter recently brought over the movie 'miss potter' - it was delightful and I wondered how closely it depicted beatrix's life...

  2. Thanks so much for your comment-- Eberle extends thanks, too. We don't know the redwall series, but we're intrigued-- ditto on the "church mice" tales-- we do live within a day's drive of Portland (i.e., Powell's Bookstore, which often has some hard-to-find stuff). Lately we've both been reading Margery Sharpe's "The Rescuers" books-- not in the Disneyfied versions, but in older editions with beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams.


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