An NYRB Children’s Classic – Rumer Godden’s The Mousewife, Pictures by William Pene du Bois

This is a quietly haunting tale of a dream kept and nurtured in the deepest corners of one’s being, despite its struggles to break free. The story was inspired by Dorothy Woodsworth’s (an English poet and diarist) story for her brother William, with a few tweaks here and there done by Godden. While it is not technically a flagrantly Christmasy narrative – it does include some allusions to the season, and I believe this is the perfect tale to launch our Pigout Yuletide Special this December.

A Mouse Like No Other. At its core, it is a narrative of a mousewife who is a little different from the rest. While all the other mice before her could be lumped together in one neat linear piece of painting with one being the same as the next one and the next, this little mousewife is a dreamer. In gifted ed’s parlance, she has imaginational overexcitability (from a Dabrowskian sense) and she sees the world a shade differently from all the others.

“She looked the same; she had the same ears and prick nose and whiskers and dewdrop eyes; the same little bones and grey fur; the same skinny paws and long skinny tail.

She did all the things a mousewife does: she made a nest for the mouse babies she hoped to have one day; she collected crumbs of food for her husband and herself; once she bit the top off a whole bowl of crocuses; and she played with the other mice at midnight on the attic floor.

‘What more do you want?’ asked her husband.

She did not know what it was she wanted, but she wanted more. (pp. 10-11)

An Unlikely Friendship Blossoms. And so the mousewife can be seen constantly on the window sill, her nose tightly pressed on the windowpane, looking out out out into the open air – wondering what the appleblossoms and bluebells in the woods are.

The mousewife was staying in this well-kept quaint little house of a Miss Barbara Wilkinson, a spinster lady. The mouse’s daily routine consisted of keeping house, stealing a few crumbs, and making sure that things are running like clockwork for her husband. Then one Christmas morning (here is where the allusion to yuletide season lies yay!), a boy brought a turtle dove to Miss Wilkinson. The boy had caught it in the woods. This was the same time that the mousewife’s husband caught a bad bout of indigestion after eating currants from the Christmas cake crumbs. Little did the mousewife know that her life would be forever changed by this chance encounter and unlikely friendship with the turtle dove.

A merging of sensibilities. The dove was kept in an elegant cage with gilt bars. It was also well-fed (peas, lumps of sugar, and a piece of fat) which was what attracted the mouse to it in the first place. The turtle dove refused to eat anything, despite the mouse’s attempts to coax it into having some peas. It even refuses to drink water:

… he said he did not like water. ‘Only dew, dew, dew,’ he said.

‘What is dew?’ asked the mousewife.

He could not tell her what dew was, but he told her how it shines on the leaves and grass in the early morning for doves to drink. That made him think of night in the woods and of how he and his mate would come down with the first light to walk on the wet earth and peck for food, and of how, then, they would fly over the fields to other woods farther away. (p. 20)

See the dew drops on the leaves?

With its regal bearing and pitiful attempts to spread its wings, the male dove proudly recounts what it is like to fly. An alien concept to the wondering mousewife. The dove spoke of things that the mousewife only dreamt about – how the wind blew in the cornfields and the patterns it makes in the corn, how it blew up the clouds sending them across the sky, and the different sounds it makes as it touches different trees. And their thoughts and dreams converge as they escape to a place with open air, dewdrops, and the wind quietly whispering to the leaves.

The mousehusband soon got very upset with all the time that the mousewife spends on the windowsill:

“I do not like it. The proper place for a mousewife is in her hole or coming out for crumbs and frolic with me.” The mousewife did not answer. She looked far away. (p. 27)

Once, the husband even bit the mousewife on the ear for coming home late and not making sure that food is ready and the house all neatly arranged for his benefit. The husband was wondering why she would even bother dreaming about appleblossoms when she could just very well think about… the cheese in the cupboard and the breadcrumbs that they could quickly steal from under the table and give to their growing brood.

Anguish, yearning and the Dove’s Flight. It took quite awhile for the mousewife to visit the turtle dove when she had a nestful of baby mice. The turtle dove was weak and exhausted, wings drooping because he thought that the mouse was gone and he has hardly eaten anything during the mousewife’s absence:

He cowered over her with his wings and kissed her with his beak; she had not known his feathers were so soft or that his breast was so warm. ‘I thought you had gone, gone, gone,’ he said over and over again.

‘Tut! Tut!’ said the mousewife. ‘A body has other things to do. I can’t be always running off to you.’ But, though she pretended to scold him, she had a tear at the end of her whisker for the poor dove. (pp. 28-30)

That same evening, the mousewife did something … unexpected. In the bright moonlight, while everyone else was asleep, she pressed down on the lever that locked the gilded cage to set the turtle dove free into the night sky. She knows that she would lose a dear friend and the usual treats being given to the dove, but she also felt that their dream deserved its place in the open air where the dew glistens on flower petals.

Letting the turtledove go...

‘He has flown,’ she said. ‘Now there is no one to tell me about the hills and the corn and the clouds. I shall forget them. How shall I remember when there is no one to tell me and there are so many children and crumbs and bits of fluff to think of?’ She had millet tears, not on her whiskers but in her eyes. (p. 42)

And while it pained her to no end, she let the dove go, finally seeing for herself what it is like to fly. And paradoxically, it was through her release of the dove that she saw the seemingly shiny little brass buttons which were actually the stars in the heavens:

She knew now that they were not buttons but something far and big and strange.

‘But not so strange to me,’ she said, ‘for I have seen them. And I have seen them for myself,’ said the mousewife, ‘without the dove. I can see for myself,’ said the mousewife, and slowly, proudly, she walked back to bed. (pp. 43-44).

Power in its Subtle Simplistic Form blended with Varying Dream-Like Shades of Longing. This book is just so powerful in so many ways. While a young child may look at it and simply see a story of unlikely friendship in the tired dreamy mousewife and the proud, brooding and mysterious turtle dove – an adult can just drown in this piece of literature and tease out so many narrative elements. The symbolism is just so rich, the imagery so vividly evoked, the subtext and unvoiced yearning so keenly felt, it has moved me to tears. I usually do not include story endings, for fear of spoiling the book for the reader, but this is just too beautiful to pass up and not write about:

“The mousewife is a very old lady mouse now. Her whiskers are grey and she cannot scamper any more; even her running is slow. But her great-great-grandchildren, the children of the children of the children of Flannelette and Flannelette’s brothers and sisters, treat her with the utmost respect.

She is a little different from them, though she looks the same. I think she knows something they do not.” (p. 46)

And I can not help but wax lyrical. The smell of the stars, the taste of flight, the feel of space and time in the air. And the old ladymouse in her death bed, her dream nurtured within. Who is to say she has not realized her quiet dreams and whispered wishes?

The book has even been more enhanced with the sketches and illustrations of award-winning William Pene du Bois who has made the mousewife’s longing for something that can not be shaped into words come alive through his subdued black-and-white images that evoke tiny pitter-patters in the heart – leaving an indelible imprint in there for this timeless classic. Truly a one-of-a-kind description and retelling of the shape and texture of dreams and the convergence of wishes woven with starlight and Christmas dewdrops – and its bittersweet aftertaste.

Rumer Godden is known to be one of the leading authors of the 20th century. She has written not only children’s books, but also poetry, biographies, and YA novels. We have reviewed another one of her books entitled An Episode of Sparrows (also an NYRB book) here. If you want to know more about her, click on this link to be taken to her website.

The illustrator William Pene du Bois was a French American illustrator and author. He is best known for his award-winning book The Twenty-one Balloons published in 1947.

Sources:
Book was borrowed from the community library.
Book photos were taken by me
Photo of Rumer Godden from http://www.lunaea.com/words/rumer/biography.html
Photo of Twenty-one balloons from http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/837501.The_Twenty_One_Balloons


1 Comment on An NYRB Children’s Classic – Rumer Godden’s The Mousewife, Pictures by William Pene du Bois

  1. No other children’s book affected me so much as The Mousewife. I could not keep from weeping every time I read it to my children, years ago. I still think of the dove’s longing for the life it lost and the compassion of the mouse. As my life has unfolded, I have thought of this story many times. I couldn’t remember who wrote it. My search brought me here. Not only will I buy this book, now I may have to read everything other thing Rumer Godden wrote.

    Like

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