Everyone has at least one favorite childhood book. For me, that book was The Velveteen Rabbit. Something about the story of the stuffed rabbit and the poor little boy with scarlet fever appealed to my youthful sensibilities. I have a hunch that it was because I, too, spent my childhood years sick and, at times, in bed unable to hang from the trees or go to the beach as I would have liked. Not that I regret my ill health–everyone has their cross to bear and it has certainly left me with an appreciation of good health rare among young adults. In fact, perhaps like the venerable H.G. Wells, I owe part of my early fascination with books to days and nights trapped indoors.
The other day I suddenly felt an impulse to read The Velveteen Rabbit again for old time’s sake. Rooting around in the basement, I found my old copy. It was not at all as I had remembered. From the cover to the illustrations to a majority of the plot, little of the book felt familiar. The only point I remembered correctly was the boy with scarlet fever. Interestingly, the boy’s illness lasts a page or two, and is only a secondary plot point.
The velveteen rabbit’s fate, however, shocked me most of all. I had been convinced in my recollections of the book that the rabbit met a fiery end. Once the boy begins to recover from his fever, all of the bed linens and the toys he touched must be purged by fire. A concerned Nana sees this as an opportunity to part the boy from his unhealthy obsession with his tattered rabbit, and tosses the stuffed animal into the burn bag.
The ingenious bunny, however, escapes his cruel fate by wriggling free just in time. Aggrieved by his abandonment, a plump tear falls from the eye of the velveteen rabbit. From the magic tear grows a flower and a fairy who turns the stuffed animal into a real bunny, free to frolic.
Aside from the velveteen rabbit’s metamorphosis, I neglected to remember many of the central messages of The Velveteen Rabbit. The author deals with many issues important to children, like valuing all toys equally, belonging and friendship, self-esteem, loyalty, and how loving your toys to death in fact makes them real.
As an adult, I also began to wonder about the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams. While much ado has been made about another famous British children’s author Beatrix Potter, who wrote the Peter Rabbit books, Margery Williams has remained largely under the radar. While Beatrix Potter has been the subject of numerous biographical studies and a popular movie Miss Potter, Williams has received no such attention.
Both raised in upper class British families and impacted by the death of important loved ones, Potter and Williams have much in common. Williams, however, had a far more varied life and career as a writer. Unlike Potter, Williams led a rather cosmopolitan existence. She married an Italian, Francisco Bianco, who worked at her London publisher. Together, they traveled between the United States and Great Britain for many years, and had a son and a daughter. Adventure further gripped their life when Italy drafted Francisco to fight for the national cause in World War I.
While Williams began by writing children’s stories, a common place to begin a writing career as a woman in the late nineteenth-century (consider Louisa May Alcott), she tried for many years to branch out into novels. She wrote a number of books for adults, including a horror novel about a werewolf in Pennsylvania entitled The Thing in the Woods. It was not until she reached her forties and returned to writing children’s stories that she became famous with the publication of The Velveteen Rabbit. In her later life, after her first great success, Williams turned to writing children’s novels. Her book Winterbound won the Newbery Medal in 1937.
Although Williams wrote over twenty-five books and novels in her lifetime, she has nonetheless been largely forgotten. Like the velveteen rabbit, she too has been neglected by readers and scholars who have been drawn to the Louisa May Alcotts and Beatrix Potters of nineteenth-century children’s literature.
*Image included is public domain.