The Tailor of Gloucester-part 2

26Dec10

Beatrix Potter illustration for The Tailor of Gloucester

“No more twist.” Twist, by the way, can be either decorative braid or a braided thread used for extra strength for buttons, and I’m not certain which was the intended usage in this story. It does seem as though the decorative would be the more likely–“all that was wanting was one skein of cherry-colored twisted silk.”

As I read the text of the story I wonder who is the main character, the most important character?, and I wonder who are the mice?.

Certainly the first person described is the tailor, with his spectacles, his pinched face and his old crooked fingers. You can feel the pain in his hands that cold December week as he cuts and sews the fabric, though his own clothes are threadbare. You know he’s a kind man as he leaves the fabric scraps for the mice . . . though the text doesn’t say that, the illustrations of the mice dressed in those fabrics do. We know he’s careful in the way he cuts and lays out the fabric entirely before he goes home, and has the entire coat cut and ready before he does any sewing. And when he gets home, he explains the situation most carefully to Simpkin, his cat, and sends the cat out with fourpence, three of which will go for their food, and the last penny for the twist. He is explicit: “But do not lose the last penny of the fourpence, Simpkin, or I am undone and worn to a thread-paper, for I have NO MORE TWIST.” (And he said it in all caps). Simpkin leaves, and the tailor hears the tapping of the trapped mice. He looks under the upturned cups and finds the mice, one at a time, and each bows or curtsies to him before scampering away. We hear his reservations about freeing the mice who undoubtedly belong to Simpkin, and his worry about having entrusted the cat with his last fourpence. We hear the mice talking about the tippets he’d left for them in the past. The mice take note of the design of the wonderful coat and run off–and we have a good idea where. The tailor is taking ill and we know the mice will complete the coat.

Simpkin hunting mice

Beatrix Potter illustration for The Tailor of Gloucester

Who are the mice? In real life, they turned out to be the tailor’s apprentices and in the fairy tale about the shoemaker they were elves. Here, I think there’s a clue under the upturned china cups. But first, Simpkin comes home with the food, the pipkin (an old word for a small pitcher) of milk and the twist. Simpkin realizes that his mice are missing and hides the twist in anger.

For the next three days, until Christmas, the tailor lies in his bed ill and the hungry, angry cat keeps watch beside his bed. On Christmas night the cat goes out and hears other animals talking (as they do Christmas night), and stands outside the tailor’s shop watching the mice sew the Mayor’s coat. They tease him.

In the morning the tailor feels better, and the cat, comparing his actions to the actions of the mice, has a change of heart and gives the tailor the twist.

Sorry for recapping the story again, but I wanted to look at some of the details, because I think they help answer those nagging questions. For instance, the main character, I think, is the one who changes over the course of the story and Simpkin is the character who develops and changes. Simpkin goes from wanting revenge to wanting to help. What about the mice?

Simpkin starts out in Beatrix Potter’s watercolors hunched over the counter with an overturned teacup, I suppose hunting mice. But the mice here aren’t just prey, they are active players. They help the tailor because they were taken care of and because he saved them from the cat. They, though there are no individual named mice, are dressed in some of the pictures, just as Simpkin is. I suspect that these little animals who tease Simpkin and were let loose by the tailor from a hidden closed space are, on some levels, Simpkin’s little brothers and sisters. Simpkin’s rage at finding them set free is consistent with a cat’s anger at losing dinner, but it isn’t that far from an older sib’s anger when his parent favors the younger ones. Certainly the way the mice tease the cat isn’t that different from the way younger siblings tease older (when they think they’re safe).

Simpkin’s change of heart? Perhaps that’s the influence of Christmas, but I suspect that there’s a bit of feeling that ‘if my younger brothers and sisters are in my father’s good graces, maybe I’d better shape up, too.’

Just a last thought before I let this go: a pipkin is a little pitcher . . . is a simpkin perhaps a simple little pitcher, a fond name for a little child (or pet)?

OK, all on this for now. I saw Tangled last night and I may just go reread Rapunzel and talk about it.

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