The Private Diaries of Alison Uttley (1932-1971)
The Snow Baby
A Centenary Profile of Alison Uttley by Denis Judd.
About the Diaries
In May 2009 the edited Private Diaries of Alison Uttley were published, to mark the 125th year of her birth. The event provided an excellent opportunity to reassess the literary reputation one of the most remarkable of British writers for both children and adults. The Diaries, with a Foreword by one of the warmest admirers of her work, Ronald Blythe, lay bare not merely the creative inner world of a prodigiously gifted and productive writer, but also chart the highs and lows of her personal life, as well as providing a wonderfully readable record of nearly 40 years of British History.
Fifty years ago Alison Uttley had established herself as one of the best loved and best selling of writers for children. Millions of her stories were sold and her fame spread well beyond Britain and the English-speaking world. In her writing for children she created several vividly defined and enchanting worlds inhabited by some of her most famous animal characters – Sam Pig, Brock the Badger and Tim Rabbit, but perhaps best of all in the community that centred round Little Grey Rabbit, Squirrel and Hare.
Although shadows pass over these generally sun-lit landscapes, the stories are most remarkable for their brilliant characterisation and wry humour, their love of country lore and magic, their sense of time and place and their celebration of old and solid values – good neighbourliness, good sense, a love of the natural world and of the enduring values of hearth and home. These values are to be found in much of Alison Uttley’s other writing – for her output was prodigious – in best selling books like the semi-autobiographical and revealing The Country Child, in the mysterious fantasy A Traveller in Time, or in her many books of essays and country lore written for an eager adult readership.
Alison Uttley’s life was a remarkable progress from the warmly recollected and passionately lived childhood idyll of Castle Top Farm, overlooking the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, to a prosperous and celebrated old age in suburban Buckinghamshire. It encompassed strange contrasts. A bright scholarship girl, in 1906 Alison was only the second woman to graduate in physics from Manchester University; but she also believed in fairies. She was an Edwardian suffragette and a close friend of Ramsay MacDonald (to whose children she told bedtime stories), but she ended up as a staunch Conservative. She was obsessed with the world of dreams, writing an intriguing book, The Stuff of Dreams, yet shied away from any serious self-analysis. She was a loving wife mother and friend whose relationships were often stormy and sometimes downright destructive; her husband drowned himself before she had been able fully to establish herself as a writer – a tragedy from which she never fully recovered; she could be a demanding and over-close mother, and an easily offended friend.
She was extraordinarily gifted but also very complicated. She was eventually estranged from Margaret Tempest, the illustrator of most of the Little Grey Rabbit books, over the copyright to these beautiful pictures, and over which of them had really created the characters. She was bitterly resentful of comparisons with Beatrix Potter, and scornfully dismissive of Enid Blyton (with whom she had some frosty encounters) and whose work she despised. She took the work of literary creation very seriously and relished her success, but was easily hurt by criticism and craved the affirmation of the public. She eventually earned large quantities of money, but was able to agonise over whether to buy a small bag of oranges.
Alison Uttley was no easy sentimentalist, and despite the charm and whimsy of much of her writing, there is much in her work that is clear-eyed, down-to-earth and even violent. If she was only partly fulfilled in her personal and emotional life, she at least succeeded in becoming a greatly loved and influential author. At the root of her accomplishments there is, however, a pervading sense of tragedy and loss. Indeed her vitality and productivity as writer stem in part from a need to compensate for a variety of disappointments and denials. It is a final irony that the old-fashioned, rural England, which she had sought to celebrate so vividly and with so much feeling in her writing, was essentially doomed at her birth in 1884 and had virtually decayed and vanished before her own death in 1976.
The Diaries encompass and celebrate a number of rich personal, literary and emotional themes. There is the oft remembered rural idyll of the hilly Derbyshire countryside of Alison’s upbringing; even today Castle Top Farm is barely changed and is set high in breathtakingly beautiful countryside. Then there is the story her intellectual awakening in Edwardian Manchester and London; her discovery of the excitement of science, art, radical politics, the theatre and literature. Extraordinary details of her often turbulent marriage, and of her erratic but passionate mothering, are revealed in full for the first time, enabling the reader to understand the reasons for some of her chronic difficulties. Above all, the Diaries contain the story of the creation of the books, from Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig to A Traveller in Time and The Country Child in all their variety and number.
Above all, the Diaries make for completely absorbing reading. As Ronald Blythe writes: ‘One reads her Diary with a renewed admiration of her work…It has been impeccably edited by Denis Judd. Only he could have balanced her brilliance as an essayist with her “nature”. It will join the ranks of writers’ confessions, the tale of a cool and philosophical woman…who was intensely dedicated to her craft, but far more complex than those who read her – young or grown-up – could ever have imagined’. Penelope Fitzgerald also perceptively summed her up as: ‘a self-deluding romantic, a shrewd and quarrelsome businesswoman and a compulsive housekeeper, patching and jam making in an heroically untidy kitchen…it is impossible not to think of her as a sorceress, a storyteller whose tales were produced only at mortal cost.’
Ronald Blythe and the Foreword to the Uttley Diaries
Ronald Blythe, one of our greatest writers about the British countryside and a devoted admirer of Alison Uttley, wrote the Foreword to the recently published Private Diaries of Alison Uttley. There is a charming reference to this on page 40 of his recently published The Bookman’s Tale (Canterbury Press): ‘I fix more chicken wire around the potato-bed in which a badger has been snouting…I think, too, about Alison Uttley, for whose Diary I have to write a foreword.’ How Mrs. Uttley would have loved to hear about the badger!
Book published by Pen and Sword Books
Reviews of the Diaries
Uttley may have written explictly and anxiously for money, but everything she published is soaked in a sense of having sprung from the deepest part of a rich imagination. Thanks to Denis Judd’s sympathetic editing…this other Uttley shines through.
Kathryn Hughes, Guardian Review
[The Diary] will join the ranks of writers confessions…It is eloquent, and of course stylishly written…It has been impeccably edited by Denis Judd. Only he could have balanced her brilliance as an essayist with her ‘nature’.
The release of the private diaries of the late Alison Uttley author of the classic Little Grey Rabbit children’s books, has been causing a stir.
Moby Lives, Book News
For many of us born in the 20th century, Little Grey Rabbit became the bedtime story of choice, a cosy, homely tale that became a classic and was, one might imagine, penned by an equally cosy, homely author. Not a bit of it. Denis Judd’s mastely editing of Uttley’s six million words of diary reveal her to have been a somewhat darker, hasher woman…An extraordinary insight into a difficult life.
Paul Bleazard, The Lady