The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse
First edition cover
|Publisher||Frederick Warne & Co.|
|Media type||Print (originally hardcover, but since printed in softcover as well)|
|Preceded by||Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes|
|Followed by||Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes|
The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse is a children's book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter and first published by Frederick Warne & Co. in December 1918. The tale is based on the Aesop fable, "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse", with details taken from Horace's Satires 2.6.79-117. It tells of a country mouse and a city mouse who visit each other in their respective homes. After sampling the other's way of life, both express a decided preference for their own. The book was critically well received. The Johnny Town-mouse character appeared in a 1971 ballet film, and the tale has been adapted to a BBC television animated series.
Timmy Willie is a country mouse who falls asleep in a hamper of vegetables after eating peas and is carried to the city. When the hamper is opened, Timmy escapes to find himself in a large house. He slips through a hole in the skirting board and lands in the midst of a mouse dinner party hosted by Johnny Town-mouse.
Timmy is made welcome – and tries his best to fit in, but finds the noises made by the house cat and the maid frightening and the rich food difficult to digest and feels ill. He returns via the hamper to his country home after extending an invitation to Johnny Town-mouse to visit him.
The following spring, Johnny Town-mouse pays Timmy Willie a visit. He complains of the dampness and finds such things as cows and lawnmowers frightening. He returns to the city in the hamper of vegetables after telling Timmy country life is too quiet. The tale ends with the author stating her own preference for country living.
Composition and publication
In 1916, Potter wrote a tale called The Oakmen in a story letter to her niece Nancy, and, as a result of her failing eyesight, commissioned Ernest Aris to develop her designs with the expectation the book would be published by Warne. The publisher doubted the originality of the plot and rejected the book, which was just as well because Potter was disappointed with Aris's work.
In 1917, Potter was too busy with the business of operating Hill Top Farm to give her publisher's request for a new story much attention, but, early in 1918, she proposed a tale adapted from a fable by Aesop. Johnny Town-Mouse was the only book of her later years for which Potter prepared a whole set of new drawings. A dummy book was prepared but the title Timmy Willie was rejected as well as The Tale of a Country Mouse. When The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse was finally settled upon, the story's opening line – "Timmy Willie went to town by mistake in a hamper" – was, of necessity, changed to "Johnny Town-Mouse was born in a cupboard. Timmy Willie was born in a garden."
In May 1918, Potter sent her publisher six drawings for the new book while managing various problems at the farm and attending her brother Bertram's funeral. She confessed that working with real animals forced her to "despise paper-book-animals". The last drawings were ready in August 1918 as World War I was coming to a close. The book was published in December 1918 bearing the dedication, "To Aesop in the shadows".
Illustrations are rife with models from Potter's real life. Potter's farm horse Diamond was the model for the carrier's horse and her husband's friend Dr. Parsons was the inspiration for Johnny Town-Mouse. The two men had a private golf course built at Sawrey and Johnny Town-Mouse is shown toting a bag of golf clubs in the book's cover picture. The town mice live in the house of a Mr. Bolton at Hawkshead, a village two miles distant from Sawrey. Bolton received vegetables every week from Sawrey and sent back laundry. A Mrs. Rogerson of Sawrey was the model for the housemaid and the illustration of the archway was drawn from life. Potter owned an early edition of Gerard's Herbal and Timmy Willie's herb pudding was probably Easter Ledger Pudding of bistort, dandelion, lady's mantle and other springtime herbs. The dish remained popular in the Lake District well into modern days. Potter's failing eyesight forced her to discontinue painting after Johnny Town-Mouse.
The Bookman wrote: "Another volume for the Peter Rabbit bookshelf. Oh, such charming pictures and exciting letter press! [...] Miss Potter need not worry about rivals. She has none. Johnny Town-Mouse does even so accomplished an artist and writer as herself much credit."
Johnny Town-Mouse was the last of Potter's books in her early style. The rural scenes inspired Potter's best designs, and the author struck the right tone for children while incorporating subtler touches for adults. The book is a satire on human society, and a warning about the dangers and extravagances of life in the city.
Animal moral tales with their dramatic and psychological simplicity lend themselves easily to illustration and proliferated in the 19th century. In their symbolic qualities, many of Potter's animal characters trace their ancestry to Aesop's bestiary. Like Aesop, Potter observed human and animal behaviour with unsentimental common sense and wisdom, but, unlike Aesop (and more like Horace), she is not as neutral in her presentation of country versus city life. Her preference is obvious: the rural scenes are depicted from mouse-eye view with mouth-watering depictions of fruit and flowers, but the urban scenes are generally depicted from the human-eye level and justify Timmie Willie's fears of loud noise and huge objects. The reader cannot help but share (or envy) Potter's preference for country life when she presents it so attractively.
Potter makes it clear that Timmy Willie is justified in fearing the cat and the maid in the town house because they are his mortal enemies. Johnny Town-mouse however displays little discrimination in fearing the cows that provide milk for Timmy Willie's table or the "fearful racket" of the lawnmower that provides grass clippings for his bed. In the illustrations, Potter underscores the absurdity of Johnny's fears by placing both the cows and the lawnmower in the distance and never close enough to be threats.
In children's literature (for whatever reasons), country life is generally adjudged far healthier for the young than city life. Nostalgia for the purity and innocence of childhood and a longing for a distant past when life was believed simpler often colour this particular conception of country life. Potter chose to make this conception of the past her way of life when she left the complexities of London life for the simple life in the village of Sawrey. Her depiction of the pleasures of country life in Johnny Town-Mouse places her in the literary tradition of the nostalgic and the reminiscent.
In 1971, Johnny Town-mouse and his friends appeared as characters in the ballet film, The Tales of Beatrix Potter. In 1995, an animated adaptation of the tale was telecast on the BBC anthology series, The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends starring the voices of Hugh Laurie as Johnny Town-mouse and Alan Bennett as Timmy Willie.
- Taylor, p. 153
- Lear, pp. 291-2
- Taylor, pp. 156,158
- MacDonald, p. 19
- Lear, pp. 293-5
- Taylor, p. 25
- Taylor, p. 85
- Taylor, p. 184
- Lear, p. 295
- Taylor, p. 156
- Taylor, p. 158
- Taylor, pp. 64-5
- MacDonald, p. 80
- MacDonald, p. 79
- MacDonald, pp. 80-1
- Works cited
- Lear, Linda (2007), Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, New York, NY: St. Martin's Griffin, ISBN 0-312-37796-7
- MacDonald, Ruth K. (1986), Beatrix Potter, Twayne's English Author Series, Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, ISBN 0-8057-6917-X
- Mackey, Margaret (2002), Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit: A Children's Classic at 100, Lanham, Maryland, and London: The Children's Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc., ISBN 0-8108-4197-5
- Taylor, Susan; Whalley, Joyce Irene; Hobbs, Anne Stevenson; Battrick, Elizabeth M. (1987), Beatrix Potter 1866–1943: The Artist and Her World, London: F. Warne & Co. and The National Trust, ISBN 0-7232-3561-9