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.
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.
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