Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cecily Parsley and Apple Dapply

With Christmas decorating already getting started at Clermont, it is the time of year when my work becomes increaingly focused on children. This is alright with me, since it gives me time to indulge in nostaglia, games, and all things "fun." In this mindset, I thought it might be a good time to revisit three little books from the archives.





It only makes sense to find Beatrix Potter books amongst Janet and Honoria's little library of children's books. Published in 1917 (Apple Dapply's Nursery Rhymes), 1918 (the Tale of Johnny Town Mouse), and 1922 (Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes), the three books would have been the latest works from an already wildly-popular author.

In 1917 and '18, the girls would have been 8 or 9, just about the right age for the fanciful tales. That they also had a 1922 copy of Cecily Parsley leads me to believe the earlier two books must have been much-loved, as the last book may be considered a bit young for girls who were now 12 and 13 year olds. That these books were part of Janet and Honoria's childhood is expressive of the lives that they lead--full animal friends.


What struck me about this was that there could not have been a more appropriate set of books for these two girls to have. Much like Potter herself as a child, Janet and Honoria were already demonstrating a love for small companion animals: the dogs that their parents purchased as pets were constant playmates. Topaz the cat, Solomon the peacock, several goldfish, a pair of wiggly white mice, and Dickie Bird the canary (pictured at right sharing breakfast with the children) were also well-loved pets who shared in the children's daily lives.


Janet and Honoria also cared for the wild animals around them. In particular, they took pleasure in feeding the birds outside their window.

"The storm has made the birds even friendlier than ever and they come in flocks to our feeding places... Four blue-jays are so tame they will sit fearlessly in a row on the ledge of the day-nursery window where food is spread, even while the children play about the room."

wrote Alice in 1916. The wild squirrels, geese, and mice which roamed the farmland at Clermont, could not have escaped their attention either, bringing the charactors of Potter's stories right to Janet and Honoria's doorstep.
Janet in particular loved animals. Honoria later remembered that her sister kept albino rabbits in a cage near the playhouse. Honoria's description of "anything you could keep in a cage, we kept up there," also leads me to wonder if other kinds of small animals ever found themselves in the Livingstons care.


Much like her children, Alice (pictured on the left at 15) formed many close relationships with her pets, which were discussed in an earlier "Dog Blog." Beatrix Potter too shared similar relationships with animals. I was touched by the similarity between of the many photographs of Alice with her dogs and the ones of Beatrix Potter with her spaniel Spot (shown at right). In the absense of public school educations or a life in town, to provide many friends their own age, both young women found friendships in the form of pets. This would have been considered appropriate and healthy in nineteenth century America, as dogs in particular became linked with the guardianship of childhood.

For Janet and Honoria, already encouraged to share their lives with animals, the tales of Beatrix Potter must have been a delight. One can imagine that, like many children, the two girls may have anthropomorphized their pets with the names and familial roles that helped them to role play adult life. While "Old Mrs. Rabbit" was instructing her children Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter, Janet and Honoria may have been creating stories of their own. For instance, Janet's grip on Topaz at right even mimics that of child holding a doll or a mother holding an infant. (For a similar history of an Albany family's adventures with their own animal nation-- "The Bunny States of America"-- try reading Katherine Grier's book "Pets in America: A History")
Pets continued to be part of Janet and Honoria's lives well into adulthood. As a young adult Janet had a horse at Clermont that she would ride and, as was mentioned in the Dog Blog entry, she later went onto support the Humane Society and Seeing Eye dogs. Though Honoria apparently did not engage in animal organizations like Janet, she continued to keep cats and dogs with her, even when flying back and forth to Florida in the winters.

Beatrix Potter's books, which call to our imagination the nostalgia of a simple, country life, have struck a chord with English and American readers for over a century now. The safety and familiarity of Old Mrs. Rabbit's burrow was always there for comfort, while the tiny lives of talking rodents created a magical and exotic world. Some of these ideas have persisted in literature ever since (think of the Winnie the Pooh stories, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and to some extent Watership Down).

The empathy for animals required to build personal relationships with them is something that has become common only in the past two centuries or so. By extending this emotional connection to children's stories, Beatrix Potter helped to prepare the Livingston children, and many others, to love and care for animals for the rest of their lives.

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