Ann Turnbull has been writing for children and young people of all ages for more than 30 years. Her recent young adult novels, No Shame, No Fear and Forged in the Fire have been highly acclaimed. Below Ann writes about Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester.
Ann Turnbull on The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
I was given The Tailor of Gloucester as a Christmas present in 1951, when I was eight. I had always loved fairy tales, and for a while it was a favourite. Later, no doubt, it began to seem childish, and was put away. But that copy remained in my keeping.
I came across it - with the spine missing and most of the pages loose - around Christmas 1976, and fell in love with it all over again. I think it was this book that first inspired in me a fascination with old houses. I loved the small, secret spaces where the mice lived, the wainscots, the dresser laden with patterned china, the dim rooms lit by candles, the snow, the sumptuous fabrics, the Christmas-time setting. There was delight, too, in Beatrix Potter's choice of words: 'paduasoy', 'pompadour', 'lutestring'; 'tippets' and 'snippets'; 'Simpkin' and 'pipkin'; 'worn to a ravelling'.
Longing to share my discovery, I read the story to my son - then aged only 21 months. It took a full 20 minutes to read aloud, but he listened without interruption and then asked for it again. For some time afterwards it was the book he always brought for me to read to him. He can't have understood much of the plot, but he clearly loved not only the pictures but the sound of the words, the rhymes and rhythms - and he knew exactly when to turn each page.
The story is close to the traditional fairytale - indeed, in her introduction Beatrix Potter describes it as such. She based it on a Gloucester legend of a tailor who tried to finish a magnificent waistcoat for the Mayor's wedding on Christmas day. There are echoes of folk tales such as The Elves and the Shoemaker, and of Perrault; while the cat, Simpkin, who keeps house for the tailor, is one of those entrepreneurial folktale cats, like Dick Whittington's.
The locations, so accurately realized in the story and paintings, were places Beatrix Potter had visited in Gloucester. The tailor's shop is in Westgate Street and his home is in College Court. Beatrix Potter copied clothes in the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection and set the story in the mid 18th century, 'the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets'. She watched tailors at work and noted the tools, the work posture and the bench or table on which the tailor sat cross-legged with his work laid out around him.
The tailor in her story sews fine clothes for the gentry, but he himself is poor. He cuts his cloth thriftily, to avoid waste, but there are always small pieces left over - 'too narrow breadths for nought - except waistcoats for mice'. And there, in the accompanying picture, are the mice, trying on tiny garments and looking at themselves in a mirror in the space behind the wainscot. They benefit from the tailor's leavings and are turned out like elegant 18th century gentlefolk.
The story begins a few days before Christmas. The Mayor of Gloucester is to be married on Christmas day, and the tailor is making him 'a coat of cherry-coloured corded silk embroidered with pansies and roses, and a cream coloured satin waistcoat - trimmed with gauze and green worsted chenille'. He cuts out all the pieces - 12 for the coat and four for the waistcoat - and lays them out, then locks up his shop and walks home through the snow, intending to start sewing the next day. Everything he needs to finish the work is there, except one skein of cherry-coloured twisted silk. This he sends Simpkin out to buy, along with bread, sausages and a pipkin of milk.
But the tailor, 'worn to a thread-paper', falls ill with a fever and cannot work. What will become of the cherry-coloured coat? Of course it is the mice who save the day, sewing the pieces together with tiny stitches, and singing old rhymes as they sew all night by candlelight.
Beatrix Potter's depiction of animals is never sentimental. Simpkin the cat scrabbles hungrily at the window as he watches the busy mice. We know he would eat them if he could. He may dress in coat and boots to do the tailor's shopping, but on Christmas Eve, when he goes out to prowl the streets, he is pure cat, hungry and thwarted.
It's the solid, realistic detail of the setting that gives this story its strength: the tailor's workshop, his poverty, the careful spending of his last fourpence. The magical elements are part of the fabric of the tale; they don't surprise the reader but seem inevitable.
Like all the best stories, this one begins slowly, drawing us into its world of embroidered silk, snow and candlelight, of 'little mouse stair cases and secret trap-doors' where mice in mob-caps or waistcoats can run from house to house all over the town without any keys. The ending, when the tailor and Simpkin enter the shop and see the finished coat and waistcoat - exquisitely stitched by the mice except for one last buttonhole ('no more twist') - is deeply satisfying. For me, it's the perfect Christmas story.