I was so careful. I gave myself a list of 8 titles without committing to any. But my fate was sealed in a single sentence:
“Even I ought to be able to write one Jazz Age post in June…”
First up, a ramble about children’s books in the Jazz Age, perhaps more appropriately, children’s books in the Twenties since I’m struggling to connect children’s literature with what I typically think of as ‘Jazz Age’. When I think of the Jazz Age I see the Roaring Twenties, Bright Young Things, the Lost Generation. I think of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, of Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.
I don’t think at all of children’s literature, although there was plenty to celebrate in that decade. In America the Newbery Medal was established in 1921 to encourage “quality, creative children’s books and to demonstrate to the public that children’s books deserve recognition and praise“. (The United Kingdom didn’t catch on until 1936 when the Carnegie Medal was introduced.) As a Brit, I hope I’m forgiven for recognising only one of the Newbery winners from that first decade of the award, who was himself British. Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Dr Dolittle was the second in the Dolittle series and won in 1922; the first volume was published in 1920 and there were several more later.
Many newer editions are ‘edited for modern audiences’ to address what would now be received as racial slurs and stereotypes, and having searched for some illustrations for this post, I can see why amendments are necessary. That said, I note there was a centenary edition published in 2019 which has retained both Lofting’s original illustrations and the original text.
I have not read any Dr Dolittle books in any edition. But I have read the highest-ranking children’s book of the decade according to Goodreads’ list for the 1920s. Winnie-the Pooh (1926) by A A Milne appears at no 4 (just three below The Great Gatsby which is sitting pretty in the top spot). The other four children’s books published by Milne in the twenties are all in the top 60.
My copy of Winnie-the-Pooh is very special to me. I’ve had it since I was ‘very young’, to borrow from another Milne title. It’s a hardback which somehow made it very important indeed at the time I was given it and of course it features E H Shepherd’s marvellous illustrations depicting the adventures of Pooh and friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. No problems with the original illustrations here unless we care to consider the spelling. I’m trying to ignore the question of apostrophes…
There is a centenary edition of Winnie-the-Pooh available but I am more than happy with my battered old copy from 1966. The dust jacket was torn and lost many years ago but it still has its gold lettering on the spine, just about visible. Once it was sparkly and bright. Surely – to my 7-year-old thinking – a further indication of what an important book it was!
Other personal highlights from children’s literature in the twenties include L M Montgomery’s Emily series – which I read as an adult and which might just have the edge on the later books in the Anne series – and the early Milly-Molly-Mandy books by Joyce Lankester Brisley. I read all the M-M-M books as a child and had a peculiar love-hate relationship with the little girl in the candy-striped dress. (Lucy Mangan writes lovingly about these books in the wonderful Bookworm. I have a post in draft about Bookworm which has been waiting for months. I’ll click ‘publish’ eventually!)
Thinking about these favourites made me question my decision to include The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco on my Jazz Age list of possible reads. I hesitated because at a mere handful of pages, it can scarcely be considered a book. (This post is probably longer than the book!) The idea of making a blog post around it seemed absurd. But it features at no.23 on Goodreads Best Books of the Decade, (Dolittle first features at no. 69); it’s remained a children’s classic since its publication in 1922 and I’ve promised myself an adult reading of it for a long time. Winnie-the Pooh, Emily, Dr Dolittle and Milly-Molly-Mandy were set aside in favour of this quaint little gem from the nursery.
The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real is Margery Williams Bianco’s most famous book. An English-American who married an Italian bookseller, she became a published writer of adult novels aged 19 but met with with no great success. She stepped back from writing to raise her children. The last book published before she took her break was a horror novel, The Things in the Woods, known to H P Lovecraft, who wrote a poem referencing Williams’ novel and may have drawn upon it for one of his own books.
The Velveteen Rabbit was her first book for children on her return to writing and she wrote many more. Later, she began writing for young adults and included themes which would not be out of place today, such as young carers and choosing to work for financial independence over going to college. Increasingly influenced by the onset of World War II, her final book, Forward, Commandos! was published shortly before her death and included amongst its inspirational characters an African-American soldier. Again, ahead of her time. Margery Williams died in 1944, aged 63.
Williams is associated with the sentimental, the twee, the melancholic – The Velveteen Rabbit embodies all of this – but it would seem that she had a wider range than trite little books for the nursery. And within Rabbit there is a theme and purpose behind the whimsy.
Williams was inspired by watching her children’s imaginative play and regarded the poet and author, Walter de la Mare as her ‘spiritual mentor’. In a 1919 lecture on Rupert Brooke and the Imagination, de la Mare argued for two forms of imagination: the childlike and the boylike. (He claimed that the genius of Shakespeare and other great poets – presumably Brooke – lay in the border between the two.) Young children are characterised by the childlike imagination. De la Mare argued that facts, for young children are “… the liveliest of chameleons”. Children, he says, are “visionaries” in their creativity and capacity to see beyond the facts. But with age and inevitable influences from the external world, most children lose this aspect of their creativity or at best adapt it. The childlike imagination retreats, “… like a shocked snail into its shell“, and the intellectual and analytical ‘boylike’ imagination predominates. Perhaps, among the best children’s writers of any age, the snail withstands the shock and does not retreat into its shell. Perhaps that is the case among all great writers.
(No mention is made of girls in this source. How interesting it would be to learn whether girls also had ‘boylike’ imaginations. Perhaps de la Mare saw them as entirely deficient in intellectual and analytical prowess? Did they simply retain their childlike imagination into adulthood, or perhaps they had no imaginations at all?)
Williams’ whimsical stories now have a context. She appeals to the childlike imagination, where facts are fluid and children have open minds and no concerns at all about talking toys.
The rabbit in question is stuffed into a Christmas stocking, and is much-loved for a short while by a delighted small boy until his attention is caught by other, more exciting, mechanical toys. Ignored in the nursery and mocked by the other toys, the rabbit is a patient and loyal creature who endures the teasing and finds solace in the wisdom of the oldest toy in the nursery, the Skin Horse (who has his own story published in 1927). The rabbit is curious and asks the Skin Horse what it is to be real.
Here is perhaps the most quoted extract from The Velveteen Rabbit:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
That’s a powerful analogy whatever age the reader.
The rabbit’s loyalty and love for the boy remains constant across the years and through various traumas. He meets wild rabbits, who mock him for his lack of hind legs and his inability to leap and dance as they can. His fate appears doomed when the boy recovers from scarlet fever and all his toys must be burnt for fear of infection. Thankfully, despite the melancholy which permeates the tale, Williams doesn’t shirk from giving the rabbit’s story a happy ending. No intellectual, ‘boylike’ imagination to be found in the finale!
Williams lost her father at the age of 7, a loss which runs through her books. She argued that pain and adversity can lead to greater humanity. She believed that life is a constant process of change – of departures and arrivals. These are the means through which we grow. A truth still very much relevant in these uncertain times, which makes me glad that 100 years on, I decided to include this little book in my Jazz Age Jaunt.
Read for Jazz Age June, the Classics Club and no. 3 for my 10 Books of Summer