Once upon a time, a woman bought a farmhouse. This was quite remarkable, because it was 1905 and she wasn’t married. She kept on a tenant farmer to manage the business, but was keen to learn how to farm the land and even herd sheep. As she had always gotten along well with children, she told stories to the farmer’s little son and daughter. As the woman was a writer and illustrator, one of those stories was published in 1908 as The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, the children and their mother appearing in the illustrations. It’s more than a century later now, but the books of Beatrix Potter are still well-loved.
Jemima Puddle-duck is not the cleverest of ducks. She doesn’t have enough patience to sit on her eggs until they hatch, so the farmer’s wife takes the eggs away to be brooded by hens. Jemima, determined to brood a nest of her own, decides to lay her eggs away from the farm and leaves for the woods. Arriving at a clearing, she meets an elegant gentleman with “black prick ears and sandy-coloured whiskers” and a long bushy tail. He offers her his shed full of feathers to make a nest in and the gullible Jemima accepts.
When she has laid nine eggs and announces that she will start brooding, the gentleman offers to make her dinner first, and asks her to get some onions and herbs. At the farm, unknowingly collecting the ingredients for duck stuffing, Jemima runs into the wise collie Kep. When he asks her where she’s been, she tells them the whole story. The dog, who immediately grasps what the polite gentleman in the forest is after, springs to action to help his friend Jemima, who still doesn’t have a clue.
Beatrix Potter has blended a fairytale and the place she and the children lived. She saw the story as a reimagining of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. In a way, the story is like many modern retellings of fairytales: it brings the story closer to the world that was familiar to the intended readers. Ralph and Betsy Cannon, the children of the farm, would know all about farm life and how their mother would place ducks’ eggs with chickens because they were better at brooding them. Even if you live in the city in the twenty-first century, the tale is engaging and refreshingly down to earth.
More than that: it is incredibly funny. The ‘elegant gentleman’ is never referred to as a fox in the story, although it is clear that he is from Beatrix Potter’s illustrations. His evil grin when Jemima’s back is turned makes his intentions with the duck abundantly clear. This tension is made even funnier by the clear, matter-of-fact language of the story, like when at some point Jemima is locked in the shed: “Jemima became much alarmed.” There is no baby-talk, but it’s still understandable for little children, even if they don’t know all the words. The pictures and text perfectly complement each other to tell a story that speaks volumes to the reader, while the protagonist is completely oblivious of the trap that is laid for her.
I read a few reviews that said the story was too harsh for kids (the ending is quite happy, but not completely so). Someone even said that it gave the wrong message: that women and poor people are fools and that decisions should be made for them, like with Jemima and her eggs. I disagree with this reading. Although the animals in the story wear clothes and talk, they are undeniably animals. Like I said, they would have been recognisable to the children on the farm all those years ago but even now, it is easy to recognise the duck’s behaviour if you’ve ever met a duck. The same goes for the fox and the dog. A fox that wants to eat a duck or eggs that become cold and don’t hatch are no shocking events in nature, and certainly don’t mean that Beatrix Potter thought taking human children from their mothers was a good idea.
I’m not opposed to looking for hidden meanings in stories, but projecting the same contemporary political issues on every story from every time period you encounter is both unnecessary and insulting to literature. In my opinion, this book is not about gender roles but about animals behaving like animals do, whether you approve of it or not. If anything it’s a cautionary tale, not classist or sexist propaganda. After all, it’s based on a fairytale, a very particular genre, centuries old and meant to teach you life’s truths. They are less moralistic than children’s stories that were common in Potter’s age and certainly less comforting than today’s bedtime stories.
Of course, not every child will like this and that’s alright. The book is so small that you can read it in a few minutes to see if it suits the child you’re planning to read this to. Just because nature is harsh doesn’t mean we should expose children to realities they’re not ready for. I just know I really want to read this to a little boy or girl, just so I can pretend that I don’t understand who the fox is either and have them explain it to me with appropriate exasperation.
Mad Hatter Award for a children’s story that ages well and of course for that stylish blue bonnet
Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (London 1908)