‘Do you mind,’ [Mr. Hamble] asked, ‘if I tell you a rather remarkable story?’
“It’s an animal story,” he said, rather apologetically. — Mr. Hamble’s Bear
The quality of fierce is not one that dominates my thinking, as anyone who reads this blog is quite aware.
But it does dovetail nicely with my recent musings on the food chain, anthropomorphism in books, and the works of Beatrix Potter.
Potter’s The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit, you may remember, involved an ill-mannered rabbit who received his come-uppance by being shot off a bench while peacefully munching on a carrot.
Anthropomorphism–the giving of human characteristics to non-human things– is frowned on today, as a fit subject for children’s books. I wonder at it, when stories like Peter the Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, The Rescuers, and many more, still continue to entertain, delight (and yes, horrify).
Virginia Woolf was dismayed to find that, over time, her story of Flush, about Elizabeth Browning’s spaniel, outsold her other ‘serious’ books at the time. People today will admit to reading it with an apologetic aside that it is actually subversive, feminist literature and can be permitted in the Woolf canon on those terms.
Jane Carlyle also adopted an anthropomorphic angle when writing of her beloved dog, Nero. Imagine the intellectual Thomas (her husband) getting this letter in 1850:
‘Dear Master—I take the liberty to write to you myself (my mistress being out of the way of writing to you, she says) that you may know that Columbine and I are quite well and play about as usual….I wasn’t taken to walk on account of its being so wet…’
And so on. Thomas Carlyle, man of towering intellect and little sentiment, was still delighted to receive these accounts from his ‘little vermin’ (also known as ‘the miserable quadruped’).
‘Nero ran with me through the Brompton solitudes last night, merry as a maltman,’ he wrote his brother, ‘ … ‘it amused me by its happy gambollings’.
The story of Mr. Hamble’s Bear is one of Margery Sharp’s finest short stories. (I write of it here) Yet, her apologetic tone can be heard loud and clear. She was very familiar with A.A. Milne’s ‘terrifying’ success with his Winnie the Pooh stories.
‘It is a matter of indifference to many readers that A.A. Milne was an accomplished writer of other styles. For Milne, this was a problem. He expressed himself ‘greatly annoyed’ by this unforeseen success. The adorable bear he created happily sucked up his writing life as though it were a big jar of honey. So while Winnie the Pooh brought him fame, it came at a great cost.’
In Mr. Hamble’s Bear, the Pooh influence can certainly be felt. Perhaps it was this story that even later inspired the inimitable Paddington Bear.
Mr. Hamble’s Bear was one of Sharp’s earlier works. It would be decades later that this brilliant writer, older and perhaps less scrupled, turned her pen to cranking out a steady stream of anthropomorphic stories in the immensely popular Rescuers series. Ironically, most people do not even know that she wrote some very fine novels.
Beverley Nichols was unapologetically anthropomorphic when he wrote about his dog, his cats, and his flowers. He dismisses his critics quite cheerfully. And these works that star his dog, his cat, and his flowers, are the very books that gained him enduring popularity.
How does the food chain fit into all this? I have been worried about Vern. I’m afraid he’s fallen victim to it. He hasn’t been spotted since Saturday, and a gang of raccoon thugs have been blundering about the garden, tearing up shingles and falling clumsily off fences.
You see, in our new home, we’ve inherited some lively garden inhabitants. They are visible and audible both night and day. I enjoy sitting out in the morning with my coffee and watching the antics of the squirrels and birds. In the afternoon, if the day permits it, a glass of wine on the patio and a sharp lookout for Vern provides some cheap entertainment.
Vern? Oh, just a garden rat; one who appears to be an escapee from the pet store. At least that is what I tell myself, for he is considerably cuter than most rats of my experience. For one thing, he takes the sidewalk, and smells the flowers. He frolics across the lawn, sampling apples. He is small, brown, and sleek, and quite inquisitive; rather Brambly Hedge, actually. No furtive underbrush behavior for him. I would have named him Wilfred Toadflax, except that then one would be indulging in anthropomorphism tainted with plagiarism and with all due respect to Pooh, Paddington, and Mr. Hamble’s bear… that would be beyond the pale.
My anthropomorphic tendencies are in full flower. For one thing, the bite of autumn is in the air….and it’s what happens when writers are uncomfortable with the fierceness of their own feelings or the terrifying vacuum of their inadequacies. Too bashful to spin their fluff out of their own matrix, afraid it might be recognized and dismissed. Cue the dancing hippos, send in the clowns. Fatten up your squirrels. Pin your hopes on a happy, frolicsome Vern.
The good news regarding Margery Sharp’s lesser known novels is that ten of them are now available via Open Road Media ebook!
Two books mentioned available through Persephone Books; Flush, by Virginia Woolf, and The Carlyles At Home, by Thea Holme
My unpublished short story Fluffy the Garden Snake was my most ridiculous, most fun, and most popular story at readings.
Vern, by the way, is ‘vermin’ without the Mi in it. And he is definitely cuter than, say, George, who is one of the scrappy little squirrels that runs about the place. George is about to be put on a regimen of sunflower seeds and suet this winter, for I have never seen a more skinny squirrel. His friend and nemesis is a red squirrel, who goes about the place acting very much like a Gerald with rolling r’s. Gerald has an extremely luxuriant tail, and I just feel very sorry for George, who doesn’t.