Since spring is Beatrix Potter time in the Alphabet Soup kitchen, thought we’d serve up a blend of old and new, courtesy of Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-duck.
For the last several days, while trying to decide which stories to talk about, we heard a constant quacking in the butler’s pantry. Stray feathers drifted in whenever we opened the front door, and the odd egg or two would appear in unexpected places — next to the toaster, inside the oatmeal box, in front of the clock.
Quite curious, wouldn’t you say?
Well, Clever Cornelius knew eggsactly what was up: Jemima Puddle-duck was jockeying for the spotlight.
Not wanting to quash her quack, we decided to share a newish board book in which she appears with Peter Rabbit, in addition to her classic tale published in 1908.
A SPRING SURPRISE
In A Spring Surprise, the fifth title in the adorable Peter Rabbit Tale board book series by Fiona Munro and Eleanor Taylor (Frederick Warne, 2019), Peter and his family are busy preparing for an Easter picnic.
Everyone except Peter knows what they’re bringing. For Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail, it’s blackberry juice, wildflower garlands and jump ropes.
Wanting to bring something just as perfect, Peter goes around asking for suggestions. His mother, who’s making sandwiches, suggests “something sweet,” while Benjamin Bunny (busy with his kite) is in favor of “something fun.” Squirrel Nutkin tells him to “take something that’s a bit different.”
Well, this only makes Peter feel worse because he can’t think of anything sweet, fun, or different . . . until he suddenly spots something small and yellow amongst the bluebells. A flower? No, it’s moving! A butterfly?
Ooh, a tiny duckling! He scoops it right up. As he scampers along the path, he sees another, then another and another! Peter knows these ducklings belong to Jemina Puddle-duck, who must be worried sick. When he shows up with them at the picnic, Jemima is ecstatic, and everyone claps and cheers. Peter definitely couldn’t have brought anything sweeter, more fun or different to the picnic. 🙂
Now, despite the missing ducklings, Jemima really likes this story because she gets to do some quazy joyous quacking at the end, and the appearance of her four ducklings kinda picks up right where The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck leaves off.
Do you recall that somewhat harrowing farmyard tale?
THE TALE OF JEMIMA PUDDLE-DUCK
Jemima is rather annoyed because the farmer’s wife won’t let her hatch her own eggs. A hen is usually recruited to do it instead. Imagine!
Even hiding the eggs doesn’t work. They were always found, making Jemima even more desperate.
Only one thing to do: make a nest far away from the farm. So one spring morning, Jemima dons her shawl and poke bonnet and sets out to find a safe, quiet place to make a nest. At the top of the hill she spots a wood in the distance.
Though she isn’t used to flying, she takes to the air, skimming above the treetops until she sees a clearing. Once on the ground, she waddles about until she finds an appealing tree stump amongst some tall fox gloves. But what’s this?
Seated upon the tree stump is “an elegantly dressed gentleman reading a newspaper” who has ”black prick ears and sandy coloured whiskers.” Uh-oh.
“Quack?” asks Jemima. When the foxy gentleman asks if she has lost her way, she tells him all about looking for a nesting place. After all, he’s so handsome and civil!
Seemingly sympathetic, he offers his woodshed, which just happens to be full of feathers. Though surprised at seeing so many feathers, Jemima takes him up on his offer, spending afternoons there, undisturbed and comfortable. Soon she lays nine eggs.
The dapper fox, who had expressed his love for eggs and ducklings, suggests they have dinner together to celebrate before she begins her “tedious sitting.” Can she fetch some herbs from the farmyard garden for an omelette?
Well, silly Jemima still doesn’t realize the bushy-tailed deceiver is planning on roasting her! After gathering the herbs, she fetches two onions from the kitchen.
Kep the collie sees her and asks about the onions and where she’s been going every afternoon. She tells Kep the whole story about the polite and hospitable sandy-whiskered gentleman, describing the location of the old shed. Kep listens carefully, and after she’s gone, he goes to the village to round up two fox hound pups.
Once Jemima returns to the fox’s house, he abruptly instructs her to come in after she’s had a chance to check on her eggs. While inside the shed, someone locks her in! She then hears a terrible racket outside — growls, howls, squeals, and groans. And that’s the last anyone ever hears of that polite and hospitable foxy gentleman. Phew!
Unfortunately, as soon as Kep lets her out, the fox hounds rush into the shed and eat Jemima’s eggs. She’s heartbroken, but lays more eggs the following June. This time, she’s allowed to keep them. Guess how many hatched?
The four ducklings in A Spring Surprise were especially dear to Jemima because she hatched them herself. Some would say she should have kept a closer eye on them, but that would have robbed Peter of his delight in finding just the right picnic treat to bring. All’s well that ends well. 🙂
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck was the 9th in Potter’s series of little Peter Rabbit books. It was the first entirely set at Hill Top Farm, which she had purchased a few years prior to creating the book.
Jemima was a real duck owned by Beatrix, and Kep is based on her favorite collie. The illustrations feature some of the farm buildings and yard as well as nearby locales. The farmer’s wife and her two children are modeled on real people at Hill Top Farm.
Potter indicated the story was a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” with Jemima, the foxy gentleman and Kep paralleling Red, the wolf, and the woodcutter. In both stories, we see a naive or foolish heroine (duped by ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’) who’s ultimately rescued by a loyal and dependable observer. Potter used this familiar theme of pursuit and prey in several of her stories.
Despite being called foolish and a bad sitter, Jemima is nevertheless very proud that her original tale was hugely popular upon publication, and critically considered one of Potter’s best with its measured suspense and escalating tension and peril. And how about being featured in a new board book with her four ducklings over a hundred years later? I love how Munro’s adorable Potteresque illustrations breathe life into Taylor’s charming story — a sweet way to address real life concerns of the littlest munchkins. Definitely something to quack about!
After rereading Jemima’s original tale, I found two interesting tidbits in Judy Taylor’s Letters to Children from Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne, 1992). In addition to the famous story letter Beatrix wrote to young Noel Moore (which became The Tale of Peter Rabbit), many of the other letters she wrote to the children of friends and acquaintances, as well as to fans from all over the world, have survived intact.
Beatrix had an intriguing correspondent called Dulcie, whose real identity is unknown, other than the fact that she may have lived in London. Apparently they loved exchanging anecdotes about their pets, and Judy Taylor notes these missives were particularly warm. In one of her letters, Dulcie enclosed her own version of a picture Beatrix had drawn of Jemima and the foxy-whiskered gentleman. Beatrix’s reply included mention not only of Jemima, but of her other ducks.
Hill Top Farm
My dear Dulcie,
How very nicely you have painted it! I like Mrs Tiggy with the clothes line, and Jemima walking with Mr Tod is lovely! Indeed they are all well done. I have 4 ducks, they are called Jemima & Rebecca, and a funny little brown runner duck is called Semolina. She made a nest, very deep — shape of a flower pot in some rubbish under a nut bush, it was comical to see her come running for breakfast & supper as fast as she could trot, and away back to her nest. But alas! Semolina was as incapable as Jemima; she didn’t change her eggs, so the bottom eggs never got warm & only the top eggs hatched. There were two children reared — Tapioca & Sago. We ate Sago as he proved to be a drake; Tapioca is very tame, I can pick her up & stroke her. I have lots of cows & pigs & sheep. It is a job to feed them now, for all the corn is lost & the straw is rotten. Thank you for the nice book.
your aff. friend
Beatrix’s correspondence with New Zealander Elizabeth (Bessie) Hadfield began with a fan letter. When the Hadfield family traveled to London (Bessie’s husband Henry sought medical treatment there), Beatrix uncharacteristically asked to meet them in person.
During this time, Beatrix sent miniature letters to the two Hadfield daughters, Kitty (6) and Hilda (4), after asking who their favorite characters were. She promised to write a story for them featuring “a little cockleshell fairy who lived on Lancaster Sands.” In 1911 Beatrix wrote a tale called “The Fairy in the Oak” in a small notebook — ‘for two New Zealand fairies — by promise.’ This story was published in 1929 as the final chapter in The Fairy Caravan.
Hilda’s letters have disappeared, but Kitty’s are now housed in the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington.
Here’s the one Jemima wrote to Kitty:
Miss K. Headfield [sic]
My dear Kitty,
My family have had sad accidents this spring. I knew it would happen if I was not allowed to hatch my own eggs. There were 9 lovely ducks & they went & fell into the well, when they were tiny tinys — and 3 were drowned and the well was covered up with a sack, & somebody took the sack off & 2 more fell in, and the cow trod on another — and only 3 ducklings grew up.
yr afflicted friend.
Beatrix was not one to sentimentalize farm life, of which death was a natural part. But she also knew children could not tolerate tragedy, so the “prey” in her stories survived (Peter returned home to chamomile tea, and though Jemima lost her eggs, she was able to hatch another brood).
And didn’t Beatrix choose the best names for her ducks? What a thrill it must have been for children like Hilda and Kitty to receive tiny letters (with envelopes!) from their favorite characters. 🙂
A LITTLE PETER AND PUDDLE-DUCK PICNIC
As you can well imagine, Mr Cornelius and the Alphabet Soup kitchen helpers loved reading about the picnic in A Spring Surprise.
Luckily for everyone, Peter Rabbit had just harvested a bunch of veggies from his garden, so we were able to rustle up a healthy, refreshing snack.
Just like in the story, Mrs Rabbit made some sandwiches — cucumber and egg salad (don’t tell Jemima). We also used Peter’s carrots and zucchini to bake a delicious Carrot Zucchini Bread (recipe from Averie Cooks).
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, munching and licking our lips and twitching our whiskers — and agreed that the food was much better than a roast duck. We did invite the foxy-whiskered gentleman to join us, but kept a very close eye on him. He seemed content to nibble on bunny graham crackers and chocolate eggs for the time being. We know he’s sly and very clever, so we won’t let our guard down.
Thanks for visiting today. Hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about Jemima Puddle-duck and both books. Help yourself to more snacks.
While you’re digesting your food, enjoy these read aloud videos of A Spring Surprise and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck:
🐇 Hoppy Easter! 🥕
Hope the Easter Bunny brings you lots of yummy treats!
♥️ Love from Mr Cornelius, 70-something Paddingtons, Ms. Dumpling and the rest of the gang. ♥️
(See you next week.)
*Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.