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  • Kristin Bluemel

St John’s Wood and the Hundred Acre Wood: E. H. Shepard and Rural Modernity

Readers all over the world recognize the picture of a boy and two stuffed animals sitting cozy before a hearth on the title page of US edition of The House at Pooh Corner. Some of these readers will recall the name of the illustrator, E. H. Shepard, but few will identify this second picture of two boys sitting cozy, though rather bored, also before a hearth because it comes from his little-known and now out of print 1957 autobiography, Drawn from Memory. Drawn from Memory, the first of two illustrated autobiographies, was sold for and to adults, although Shepard writes in the Preface to the first that these are the stories of his childhood that he told his children. He had promised his son Graham, who was to die in 1943 when his Royal Navy ship HMS Polyanthus was attacked and sunk in the Atlantic, that he would "write it all down and make a story of it” (Memory 12).

It’s worth comparing the two images by Shepard, one for children, the other for adults. Both are interior domestic scenes, both feature boys or boy animals. Yet both are, in some way, framed by the unrepresented contexts of their characters, the Hundred Acre Wood in the first case, and St. John’s Wood, E. H. Shepard’s London borough, in the second. These themes of domesticity, cozy and juvenile masculinity, surrounded by woods, point to other more theoretical questions. How do illustrations determine a book’s status within literary categories and cultural hierarchies? How do we recognize a book as illustrated for adults rather than children, particularly when the illustrations are drawn by the same artist in the same style and share many of the same themes? And the perennial favorite, what is a children’s book in the first place? This brief article can only begin to hint at answers to these questions, but it can promote study of Shepard’s illustrations and something I call English “rural modernity” as one way of doing so.

E. H. Shepard was a boy of the London suburbs whose career brought him skills and associations far beyond those suggested by his black and white drawings of A. A. Milne’s gentle, imaginary English countryside. In his 96 years of life, Shepard—a decorated war veteran—worked as a watercolourist, oil painter, Punch magazine cartoonist, Punch editor, book illustrator for diverse publishers, Royal Artillery gunner, war artist, and World War II Home Guard Captain (Chandler 88). His adult years corresponded with a period of tremendous social, economic, political, and geographical change in England. We might not see signs of these changes in his famous illustrations for the Pooh books, but it is possible to find them in spaces just beyond, in the changing scenes and economies of rural England. They also emerge when we compare his post-World War I Pooh books to his post-World War II autobiographies.

John Lowerson describes a “Battle for the Countryside” that took place as urban residents moved into traditionally rural areas during the nation’s “Homes Fit for Heroes” campaign after World War I. The demand for a home in the country whether at the notorious Peacehaven development in East Sussex or in the more genteel communities of Welwyn Garden City or Wollaton Park Estate in Nottingham, was fueled in the 1920s and 1930s by “a powerful current of ‘countryside’ literature” that paradoxically taught urban readers to regard rural England, country England, as the “real” England. These readers felt they had to locate themselves within the rural in order to resist what they were told was their “alienation” from their national and “natural roots” (Lowerson 260).

Historian Alun Howkins describes the experiences of the other major force wrapped up in the cult of the countryside, namely the inhabitants of rural England who faced incursions from developers, weekenders, and ramblers, while their incomes dropped and farms failed. The “powerful current of ‘countryside’ literature” that Lowerson discusses plays a role in Howkin’s story as well, as it publicized the plight of the English farmer and made agriculture a national concern. Economic historian Paul Brassley muses that in literature documenting England’s agricultural changes, “[the] lament for traditional farming perhaps became equated with a wider lament for a lost rural innocence” (199).

A lost rural innocence. Isn’t this exactly what Shepard and Milne were so expertly evoking in their children’s literature? The congruence between rural social history and children’s literary history of the interwar period, as measured by the complex feelings about who can live in the English countryside and how they can live there, can inform our understanding of rural modernity and point to several conclusions about its relations to English children’s literature.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that Shepard’s images of boys and boy animals at the hearth represent homes that are cozy, safe, idealized, ordinary, and in the woods. This domestic fantasy seems to mirror reality only insofar as English domiciles—homes—were on a mass level invading English woods.

Second, social historians agree the modernized mass reproduction of a thriving print literature intensified English people’s desires for a disappearing rural terrain, and played a perverse role in the acceleration of deforestation and mass housing development.

Third, in addition to the hyper-sentimentalized iconography of childhood established by Mabel Lucie Attwell, children’s publishing in the post-World War I period, though generally depressed (Chester and Whalley and Chester 179), also followed the trends of adult markets fixated on everything rural. We can discover in the conditions of production of those mass reproduced countryside images the very urban institutions and processes of modernity that critics typically assume are opposed to the rural. The discovery of dynamic, conflicted, but always interdependent relations between rural and urban in the postwar years comes into focus more clearly when we think about rural modernity.

But where is the evidence of this dynamic of rural modernity in Shepard’s post-World War II autobiography, Drawn from Memory? What do we gain from bringing Shepard’s autobiographies into our conversations about international children’s literature?

What we may gain is a way of looking at books. Paying attention to Shepard’s illustrations across decades, genres, and literary categories teaches us to look for our modernity beyond the contents of represented scenes, in the history outside the pages of Shepard’s books. If the modernity of Pooh’s rural Eden is suggested by its hidden contexts of World War I and interwar rural development, the modernity of Shepard’s autobiographies is suggested by its similarly hidden contexts of urban destruction. When Drawn from Memory came out in 1957, huge swaths of Shepard’s beloved city, its docks, industries, pleasure grounds, stores, slums, and suburbs, were still in ruins after the devastations of the Blitz. Thus Shepard’s 1957 black and white illustration of the burnt out shell of the Victorian institution of Whiteley’s department store, drawn seventy years after he had witnessed the fire, must have evoked in his readers too recent scenes of similar devastation in the Blitzed store fronts of Regents or Oxford Streets.

Read in terms of each other, Shepard’s children’s and adult’s books become urgent cultural documents influencing scholarly conversations about modern war, violence, social change, destruction and development. Just as Shepard’s autobiographies quietly speak to the devastations of London in their loving reproductions of an urban Eden —the homes and urban spaces lost forever to the forces of the Blitz—Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner quietly speak to the devastations of the English woodlands and fields that attended post-World War I development. Adult readers may have loved the interwar Pooh books in part because they recalled the woods and waters that were, in peacetime, being lost to new buildings and roads. For child readers, those illustrations of woods and waters presumably had diverse effects, one of which was to promote pastoral images of an imagined community, “England,” which ten years later, as young adults, they would be asked to defend against Nazi Germany.

WORKS CITED

Brassley, Paul. ‘British Farming between the Wars.” The English Countryside between the Wars: Regeneration or Decline? Ed. Paul Brassley, Jeremy Burchardt, and Lynne Thompson. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006. 187-99.

Chandler, Arthur R., ed. E. H. Shepard: The Man Who Drew Pooh. Winkinswood Farm, West Sussex: Jaydem Books, 2000.

Howkins, Alun. The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside since 1900. London: Routledge, 2003.

Lowerson, John. “Battles for the Countryside.” Class, Culture, and Social Change: A New View of the 1930s. Ed. Frank Gloversmith. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1980. 258-80.

Milne, A. A. The House at Pooh Corner. Illustrations by E. H. Shepard. 1928. New York: Puffin Books, 1992.

---. Winnie-the-Pooh. Illustrated by E. H. Shepard. 1926. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1950.

Shepard, E. H. Drawn from Life. Illustrations by E. H. Shepard. 1961. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1962.

---. Drawn from Memory. Illustrations by E. H. Shepard. London: Methuen & Co., 1957.

Whalley, Joyce Irene, and Tessa Rose Chester, eds. A History of Children’s Book Illustration. London: John Murray with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1988.

Kristin Bluemel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kristin Bluemel is Professor of English and Wayne D. McMurray Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Monmouth University. She teaches courses on children's literature and twentieth-century British literature, and is author of books and articles on modernism, middlebrow, and book illustration, including a chapter on Mary Shepard, E. H. Shepard's daughter and the original illustrator of P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins. Her edition of an interdisciplinary volume of essays, Rural Modernity in Britain: A Critical Intervention, co-edited with Michael McCluskey, is due out from Edinburgh University Press in October 2018.

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