Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn


Clothed and unclothed


Humanity’s use of clothing is often regarded as one of the markers of the difference between humans and animals. In anthropomorphic stories, the wearing of clothes by animal characters can, therefore, be seen as an extension of their humanisation. It is, however, a conceit that a writer such as Beatrix Potter tended to exploit in her little anthropomorphic dramas. Potter employs the clothing motif in a variety of ways. First, it can be used as a means of differentiation. At the start of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter is indistinguishable from his sisters as they nestle next to their mother under the tree. By the next page, however, the rabbits have become clothed and Peter is marked out as different by his blue jacket contrasting with the uniformity of his sisters’ red cloaks. Second, as Carole Scott has shown, in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck it is the sartorial elegance of the ‘ginger-whiskered gentleman’ that allows him to seduce the naive Puddle-Duck. Notably, it is only the reader that sees the fox ‘undisguised by his clothes’, not Jemima (Scott 1992: 193). Dress in this story becomes an index of class and power.

In other tales, for example that of Jeremy Fisher, clothes actually save the main character. Alternatively, in The Tale of Tom Kitten, Tom and his sisters are forcibly dressed by their mother and thus clothing here seems to be associated with parental control. But these negative connotations are balanced by a book such as The Tailor of Gloucester where the fashioning of a garment provides an opportunity for kindness and co-operation between the tailor and the mice. As a result, although Potter’s books undoubtedly exploit the conceit of the clothed animal, they do not develop a coherent position. They seem resistant to critical attempts to fix this theme within a single allegorical framework, for example in biographical or social terms, as a displaced comment on the constraints on the author’s own life or on that of women in general in Victorian and Edwardian society (Scott 1992; 1994).

Other writers and illustrators of this period also exploit the wearing of clothes by their animal characters. In The Wind in the Willows, E. H. Shepard’s illustrations depict the Riverbankers as clothed but the threatening mass of stoats and weasels as nude and undifferentiated. Hollindale suggests that ‘class difference is implied by [this] differential humanizing’ (Hollindale 1999: 129). Readings of the book which stress its reactionary class politics and fear of the mob are well known. Here, the illustrations seem to reinforce this interpretation.