Feeling very grateful, right now, that Tarissa @In the Bookcase is hosting A Literary Christmas this year. It made me search my shelves for something Christmassy that I hadn’t read yet. It led me straight into the delightful and utterly charming arms of Beatrix Potter.
I confess that I did not read any of the Peter Rabbit stories when I was a child. I had to wait until my early childhood teaching years to discover them. The first time I tried to read one aloud, I stumbled with the phrasing and pacing of Potter’s writing. The story has plenty of drama and suspense, but it isn’t immediately apparent. You have to read it several times to find the most dramatic way to read it out loud, in a way to keep the attention of twenty, very modern, 4 year olds.
It is twelve years since I taught my last class (I was reminded just yesterday of how that final class has grown, when one of them popped into the bookshop to buy books for her mum for Christmas. She is now in her final year of school, and has matured into a thoughtful, gracious young woman). Which is my long way of saying that it is also twelve years since I last read The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902).
I now have a beautiful hardcover copy of Beatrix Potter’s Complete Tales. It contains a lovely map of Hawkshead and Sawrey, showing where many of the stories take place, including the Tailor of Gloucester sitting next to the road to Gloucester and South Coast, with Pig Robinson. This collection then lists all the stories in chronological order. The Tailor of Gloucester is the third story. To get to it, one has to go past the original Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903).
However, I couldn’t skip past so glibly.
I settled down, with the memories of classes past arrayed in front of me, and read Peter Rabbit, then Squirrel Nutkin out loud. All the old phrasing and pacing came back to me. I knew where to pause for dramatic effect and how to milk the tension. I was transported to another time and place. These two mischievous characters are drawn so sympathetically, it’s hard not to love them and their naughty ways. However, Potter was writing these stories for the children of her former governess, so she was careful to give both Peter & Nutkin a proper comeuppance, for after all, bad behaviour should come with natural consequences.
The Tailor of Gloucester is a longer story and was considered by Potter to be her favourite from amongst all her books. It is based on the true story of a tailor in Gloucester, John Prichard, who was commissioned to make a waistcoat for the local Mayor. He had to leave it unfinished on Saturday evening, but when he turned up to work again on Monday, it was finished, except for one buttonhole for which there was ‘no more twist’. In real life, it was his two assistants who secretly helped out. In Potter’s imagination the helpers turned into little brown mice and the setting became Christmas Eve.
Our hard working tailor becomes stricken with a fever. In his delirium he keeps muttering about needing ‘one more twist’, and ‘where is my twist’? He is ill for three days, until it was Christmas Eve. Everyone else was buying geese and turkeys and baking Christmas pies, but not our poor tailor. His only company was his mean old cat, Simpkin.
“But it is in the old story that all the beasts can talk, in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning (though there are very few folk that can hear them, or know what it is that they say).”
Rather like the Grimm’s Brothers fairy story, the Elves and the Shoemaker, the tailor’s hard work and dedication is rewarded when he needs it most. Even Simpkin, sees the errors of his ways, and does his bit to help out too.
A review appeared in the trade journal, The Tailor and Cutter, on Christmas Eve 1903. One hundred and seventeen years later, it is hard to top!
“we think it is by far the prettiest story connected with tailoring we have ever read, and as it is full of that spirit of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men, we are not ashamed to confess that it brought the moisture to our eyes, as well as the smile to our face. It is got up in choicest style and illustrated by twenty-seven of the prettiest pictures it is possible to imagine.”
- I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass; and entertain a score or two of tailors. Richard III
Christmas Eve at Coogee Beach – even the tree is in quarantine this year!
- A Christmas Carol | Charles Dickens
- A Christmas Tree and a Wedding | Fyodor Dostoevsky
- The Heavenly Christmas Tree | Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Little Dog and the Christmas Wish | Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher
- Christmas Eve at Warwingie | Mary Gaunt
- A Digger’s Christmas | Mary Gaunt
- Tea and Sugar Christmas | Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen
- The Twelve Days of Christmas Island | Teresa Lagrange
- Harriet Clare #6 Christmas Fair | Louise Park
- The Tailor of Gloucester | Beatrix Potter
- A Maigret Christmas | Georges Simenon
- Christmas at High Rising | Angela Thirkell
- My favourite Christmas-themed illustrated picture books for children