Love and authenticity

‘The Skin Horse tells his story’: Illustration by William Nicholson

The Velveteen Rabbit
Or How Toys Become Real
by Margery Williams,
illustrated by William Nicholson.
Carousel 1976 (1922).

A classic tale first published a century ago, The Velveteen Rabbit can come across as insufferably sentimental, and it was the rumour of this sentimentality that has stopped me from reading it for so long.

But unfounded prejudice is never a good attitude to cultivate, whether in a critic or in general, so in its centenary year I deigned to pick up a decades-old copy from the shelved books of our now grown-up children, in order to judge for myself and see whether the common opinion of it was justified.

I now find that it was justified, but – and this is a big ‘but’ – I’ve also experienced the magic that, sentiment or not, undoubtedly lingers around this story and renders it a true classic, aided immeasurably by the delightful original illustrations by William Nicholson which complement the text so well.

‘Christmas morning’ by William Nicholson

The tale is simple and well known. In the years after the Great War a Boy is given a stuffed rabbit for Christmas, a toy he comes to love and which becomes his inseparable companion. But though the old Skin Horse in the nursery has explained to him what being Real is – given unconditional love by a human – the Velveteen Rabbit is confounded by encountering rabbits which move and hop and dance of their own accord.

Then disaster arrives – the Boy is struck down by Scarlet Fever. He eventually recovers but the Rabbit is condemned to be burnt because the doctor declares the toy is “a mass of scarlet fever germs”. Outside, while he’s waiting for execution, “a tear, a real tear, trickled down his little shabby nose and fell to the ground.” And this spilled tear is the prelude to his transformation into a creature more real than that accomplished by mere “nursery magic.”

There are faint echoes of The Ugly Duckling here, and stronger echoes of Pinocchio, the marionette who is turned into a real boy by the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (la Fata dai Capelli Turchini). Unlike Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses (in which, typically, humans get transformed into non-human entities through divine intervention) the Rabbit is metamorphosed into a wild rabbit by a fairy because he has remained loyal to his Boy through thick and thin. Virtue is rewarded by the nursery toy being granted his deepest desire.

Who does not remember wanting to believe their toys were capable of life, of actions and of feelings, and not just when they were being played with? Such is the conceit behind Collodi’s Pinocchio, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and Pixar’s Toy Story, for example, continuing with adult fantasies of automata and robots developing personalities and making decisions. In The Velveteen Rabbit, however, the toy achieves its heart’s desire unbeknown to any human – Boy, nanny or doctor – in the story.

Initial letter by William Nicholson

Sentimental or not, this tale by Margery Williams will forever be associated with the illustrations by William Nicholson. There’s a single decorated initial letter consisting of two rabbits facing each other, each cunningly done in one flowing line. The half-dozen or so other full-page illustrations display minimal outlines, filled out with equally minimal but bold swathes and blotches of crayon-like colour, perfectly capturing that halfway house between suggested and realistic representation and reinforcing Williams’s leitmotifs of love and authenticity.


Read for Jazz Age June hosted by Laurie @ Relevant obscurity.com

17 thoughts on “Love and authenticity

  1. The illustrations are lovely, aren’t they? I’m yet to read this one myself, though I have vague plans it being the centenary year. With sentimental books, some manage to make the sentimentality work, without making it feel cloying (The Little Princess, for instance, and as I see, this one), but somewhere perhaps it also depends on the reader and their state of mind at the point (Pollyanna I was expecting to be put off by but wasn’t, Little Lord Fauntleroy on the other hand felt saccharine).

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    1. Sentiment, and its cousin sentimentality, is like humour, appreciated or disdained by the individual depending on their nature and point of view. Another time my innate cynicism would’ve kicked in – indeed, it’s never really very far away – but this time it chimed in with my mood, thank goodness! I’m looking forward now to reading A Little Princess to see what I make of that. 🙂

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        1. There should be a Diogenes Society – I’d join! – except that there’s also a thing called Diogenes syndrome, described as a disorder characterised by “self-neglect, domestic squalor, apathy, compulsive hoarding of rubbish and a lack of associated shame” supposedly referring to the conditions he lived in… Perhaps not then!

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    1. Aren’t they lovely? I try not to prejudge people or things but it’s hard, life’s often too short to read something to the bitter end or do the necessary in-depth research for oneself.

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  2. I am not sure why my sister had a copy and I didn’t. I remember it was a well-worn copy by the time we were older, but I never read it myself. All of these years I think I’ve suffered from what you describe in your first paragraph. I need to rethink that!

    And thank you for the #JazzAgeJune shout out!

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    1. Laurie, I think my view of this changed when I read about the Boy getting scarlet fever. I can’t be sure, but I suspect I had either scarlet fever or ‘German measles’ (rubella) – or possibly both – in the mid 1950s, and I remember long spells of lying isolated in bed, rash all over me, and a perpetually darkened room – I know my only consolation were toys similar to the Rabbit here. I think I may have stopped being cynical at this point in the tale! Anyway, see what you think – it’s very short.

      Thank you for inaugurating this meme – I think I’d always use it as a prompt to read titles from this era. Now I have to find a suitable book or two for the #1929Club happening later this year…

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    1. Oh, it’s sentimental alright, but luckily not schmaltzy – though I shudder to think what Disney would do if they got their hands on it! Softer in your ‘old age’?! I think that’s better than becoming more hard-hearted.

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