Margery Williams

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The American Monthly Review of Reviews, 1904

Margery Williams Bianco (22 July 1881 - 4 September 1944) was an English-American author, primarily of popular children's books. A professional writer since the age of nineteen, she achieved lasting fame at forty-one with the 1922 publication of the classic that is her best-known work, The Velveteen Rabbit.[1]

Early life and writing philosophy[edit]

A native of London, Margery Winifred Williams was born to successful and accomplished parents. The second daughter of a noted barrister and a renowned classical scholar, she, along with her sister, was encouraged by her father, whom she remembered as a deeply loving and caring parent, to read and use her imagination. Writing about her childhood many years later, she recalled how vividly her father described characters from various books and the infinite world of knowledge and adventure that lay on the printed page. She noted that the desire to read, which soon transformed into a need to write, was a legacy from her father that would be hers for a lifetime.


When Margery was seven years old, her father died suddenly, a life-changing event which, in one way or another, would affect all of her future creative activity. The undertone of sadness and the themes of death and loss that flow through her children's books have been criticized by some reviewers, but Williams always maintained that hearts acquire greater humanity through pain and adversity. She wrote that life is a process of constant change—there are departures for some and arrivals for others—and the process allows us to grow and persevere.

Margery moved with her family to the United States in 1890. After a year in New York, they decided to live in a rural Pennsylvania farming community. Over the succeeding years, until 1898, Margery was a student at the Convent School in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. Her ambition to make a living as an author propelled her in 1901, at the age of nineteen, to return to her birthplace and submit to a London publisher her first children's stories. A number of these saw print, as did her first novel The Late Returning, which was published in 1902 and aimed at an adult audience. It did not sell well and neither did her subsequent novels.

Marriage, children and the influence of Walter de la Mare's writings[edit]

While visiting her publisher, Margery Williams met Francisco Bianco, an Italian living in London, who was employed as the manager of one of the book departments. They were married in 1904 and became the parents of a son, Cecco and a daughter, Pamela, who twenty years later would be illustrating some of her mother's books. Margery considered motherhood a full-time job, requiring suspension of her writing activities.

In 1907 the family left England, traveling through Europe for the next three years, eventually settling in Turin, Italy. In August 1914 Italy, along with the rest of Europe, was plunged into World War I and Francisco Bianco found himself in an Italian Army uniform fighting for his country along with millions of other soldiers from many nations. While remaining on the homefront with the children, Margery Bianco gained hope and inspiration from the works of the poet she called her "spiritual mentor", Walter de la Mare, who she felt truly understood the mindset of children.

In 1914, Williams wrote a horror novel, The Thing in the Woods, about a werewolf in the Pennsylvania region. The Thing in the Woods was later republished in the US under the pseudonym "Harper Williams". [2] The Thing in the Woods was known to H.P. Lovecraft, and some commentators think it may have influenced Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror".[2]

Return to America and The Velveteen Rabbit[edit]

At the end of 1918 the Great War had ended, but postwar hunger and deprivation became a problem in Europe. Bianco had retained her U.S. residency and by 1921 gained permission to return, along with her family, to the United States. Inspired by the innocence and playful imagination of her children, as well as the inspiration she felt from the magic and mysticism contained in the works of Walter de la Mare, she decided to resume her writing, and gained almost immediate celebrity.

The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real was Margery Williams Bianco's first American work, and it remains her most famous. It has remained a classic piece of literature through numerous adaptations in children's theater as well as on radio, television and in the movies. The author's trademark undercurrents of sentimentality and sadness persist in the tale of a small boy whose Christmas present is a toy rabbit. The boy quickly discards the toy after playing with it for a few hours in the bustle of Christmas and relatives. In the nursery the rabbit is looked down on by the fancier wind up toys, but a skin horse tells him they will eventually break, but that the rabbit has the potential to become real. One night when the boy cannot find the china dog he always sleeps with, his Nana gives him the rabbit. The boy comes to adore the rabbit, making it tunnels in his bed, and giving him rides in his wheelbarrow. This happy existence continues until the boy contracts scarlet fever. The rabbit stays with him, whispering to him of the games they will play again when he is better. As the boy gets better his family prepares to take him to the seaside. Although the rabbit looks forward to the seaside very much, the doctor insists he be thrown out and burned along with the other toys for health reasons. While the rabbit is waiting to be burned, he cries a real tear, from which a fairy emerges. The fairy tells the rabbit that he was real to the boy, because the boy loved him, but now she will make him truly real. Later, after the boy has received a new toy rabbit, he sees his old rabbit in the garden. He thinks it looks like his old rabbit, but he does not know that it really is the velveteen rabbit he once loved. The events described are seen from the rabbit's point of view and end on an inspirationally uplifting note.

Successful author of children's books[edit]

After becoming a renowned author, Bianco wrote numerous other children's books, with her son becoming the namesake of one of them, 1925's Poor Cecco: The Wonderful Story of a Wonderful Wooden Dog Who Was the Jolliest Toy in the House Until He Went Out to Explore the World—a distinguished book that belies its somewhat priggish subtitle and is arguably better entitled than The Velveteen Rabbit to status as a classic. This lively adventure story, virtually a novel for children, is a brilliant exception to the sentimentality of Bianco's more famous book. Each of the many characters who populate the nursery toy cupboard is a distinct and amusing personality. Their interactions with each other and with the human, animal, and toy members of the world beyond it, whom they encounter on their quest for adventure/search for a lost friend, are delineated with understated humor. The relationship between the wooden dog Cecco, a natural leader, and Jensina, a highly independent and spirited wooden doll, is both subtle and funny. Superb illustrations by Arthur Rackham are a perfect complement to the narrative. While the publisher probably found it more practical to promote the shorter Velveteen Rabbit, Cecco's celebrated illustrator may have assured its survival in the catalogues of rare book dealers despite its undeserved literary obscurity. A return to more sober themes marks Bianco's other popular works, such as the same year's The Little Wooden Doll, illustrated by her daughter Pamela, in which the title character is badly mistreated by some children, but shown love and compassion by another child, which made her whole again.

Each year, for the remaining two decades of her life, Bianco produced numerous books and short stories. Most of them continued her preoccupation with toys coming to life and the ability of inanimate objects and animals to express human emotions and feelings. There was always melancholy, but in the end the reader emerged spiritually uplifted. 1926's The Apple Tree and The Adventures of Andy, 1927's The Skin Horse, also illustrated by Pamela, 1929's The Candlestick, 1930's Other People's Houses and 1931's The House that Grew Smaller are among some of her works from that period.

Final years[edit]

In her final nine years, Bianco interspersed children's books with novels for young adults. These all featured young people who were in one way or another isolated or alienated from mainstream society and the joy, success, prosperity and social acceptance seemingly enjoyed by their peers. One of those books, Winterbound, about two girls, still in their teenage years, who are called upon to assume adult responsibilities in caring for their young siblings, when the parents have to go away suddenly, was a runner-up for the 1937 Newbery Medal showcasing excellence in youth literature. In 1971, upon the establishment of the Newbery Honor, the work was retroactively distinguished with that prestigious citation.

In 1939, as her native Britain entered World War II, Bianco began to include patriotic themes and references to European history in her works, such as 1941's Franzi and Gizi. Her final book, 1944's Forward Commandos!, was an inspirational story of wartime heroism, which included as one of its characters a black soldier. Acknowledging the contribution of African-Americans to the war effort was extremely rare in literary output of the time and that fact was noted in the book's reviews.

Margery Williams Bianco did not live to see World War II come to an end. As Forward Commandos! went on sale, she became ill and, after three days in the hospital, died at the age of 63.

Bibliography[edit]

Works[edit]

Works Translated[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Untitled Document at www.theatrebristol.org
  2. ^ a b "Curiosities:The Thing in the Woods by Harper Williams (1924) by Stefan Dziemianowicz. Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 2000.
  • Moore, Anne Carroll, and Bertha Mahony Miller (ed.), Writing and Criticism: A Book for Margery Bianco. The Horn Book, Inc. Boston 1951.

External links[edit]