Did The Tiger Who Came to Tea tear Judith Kerr’s world apart?

MogLast month, in all the uproar surrounding the European elections and the government reeling from crisis to crisis, something happened that put other news in the shade: Judith Kerr died. One of the greatest and most loved children’s authors ever, she was responsible for The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mog the Forgetful Cat and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – classics which will never go out of print because, well, who can imagine a world without them?

When Hitler stoleTo be able to write and illustrate as brilliantly as Kerr did is a rare gift. I can think of only a handful of other authors who are in her league: Erics Carle and Hill with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where’s Spot respectively; John Burningham, Jill Murphy, Raymond Briggs and Babette Cole with numerous books apiece; and of course, the master of animal delineation, characterisation and humour, Beatrix Potter.

TigerBut for me Judith Kerr stands out because in The Tiger Who Came to Tea, she created the Picture Book of Picture Books.  Tapping into what matters most to young children – warmth, safety, excitement, surprise and mystery – she makes every word and every picture count. Taking a child’s every day experience – there’s someone at the door, who can it be? – she transforms it into a thrilling, magical world in which the visitor can turn out to be a great big furry tiger who sits down and makes himself at home, enjoying all the tea and cake Sophie and her mother can offer. What child can resist that? Mine are in their thirties and even now, if the doorbell goes unexpectedly, my daughter launches straight into, ‘It can’t be the milkman, because he’s been already. And it can’t be Daddy, because he’s got his keys…’

There’s another, special, reason for why the book means so much to me. Too old for it when first published in 1968, I first spotted The Tiger Who Came to Tea in a bookshop when browsing for my own children – and felt I’d come home. Something in those charming, happy illustrations took me straight back to my childhood in 1960s Germany, in a way no other English picture book had ever done. I’d thought the two countries differed markedly in their style of book illustration; now in my hands lay delightful proof that I was wrong, that artistic traditions in the two nationalities could overlap after all. (Sadly I have no picture books to show you what I mean; but look at the eyes in the fine line drawing of Gulliver by the wonderful German illustrator, Horst Lemke, below, and tell me you can’t see a bit of Kerr’s tiger there.)

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From Erich Kastner’s retelling of Gulliver’s Travels,
illustrated by Horst Lemke

Only years later did I discover that the solidly British-sounding Judith Kerr was German by birth, and spent the first 9 years of her life growing up in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power forced her family into exile. Terrible as her country under the Nazis was, there’s something both touching and life-affirming in the way that happy influences of Judith’s early German childhood – books, pictures, stories, games – helped to mould her artistic style as an adult, even while her nationality itself changed.

In recent years Judith Kerr pronounced herself much amused by the clever theory from Michael Rosen and others that the Tiger is a metaphor for the Gestapo; the Daily Mail recalled that ‘in a 2013 BBC documentary, he pointed out that “she was no stranger, to the knock on the door, the monster tearing her world apart.”’

Er, Michael Rosen, have you actually read the book? The tiger is no monster; he’s soft, furry and cuddly. These are not adjectives usually applied to the Gestapo. For this crackpot idea to stick, there’d have to be a sense of menace about the creature but instead he allows Sophie to stroke and hug him while munching his way through the biscuit cupboard. As the Daily Mail article confirms, ‘Judith’s patient answer …was always the same. The tiger was just a tiger. It was hungry, and it wanted its tea.’

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Ride with Me Through ABC by Horst Lemke

Of course it was. Kerr is much too good an author to weigh down her enchanting book with such a crass message. Far more interesting is the secret contained in the pictures themselves, of how Kerr’s artistic style can’t help but reveal her roots in the happy German childhood she enjoyed before the Nazis’ brutal regime destroyed everything.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric blog)

 

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How to Tame a (male) Shrew

download shrewWhen did you last see a production of The Taming of the Shrew? Not recently, I’ll bet. A comedy whose title alone always made it tricky to negotiate has arguably no place at all in today’s postfeminist world. If so, we are the poorer for it. Shakespeare is Shakespeare after all, and to consign any work of his to oblivion is a huge loss.

Which is why I’m delighted that the play forms part of the RSC’S current season and have lost no time in seeing it. Admiring the company’s courage in tackling something so politically incorrect, I wondered how they’d get round the problem.

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Dear little thing

Easy: reverse the roles. Make Italy a collection of cities ruled by matriarchs, with Petruchia wooing Baptista’s sullen son Katherine (I guess Katherino just doesn’t work), while Grumia and Hortensia vie with each other over the hand of Katherine’s charming younger brother, Bianco. As an ironic take on the patriarchy, it works brilliantly. More, by seeing so many powerful women on stage with only a brace of men, the paucity of female parts in plays by Shakespeare – as with countless other dramatists – is brought home in a way that never struck me before. I mean, I knew the imbalance was bad… but not that bad. The acting was extremely good, with much hilarity generated by this Vice Versa scheme, particularly in the case of the delicate, long-haired, pampered Bianco being fought over by his two lusty female suitors. The blatant sexism of the set up didn’t matter a bit anymore because, well, the boot was on the other foot, wasn’t it?

And yet.

Film bookI’ve always had a soft spot for The Taming of the Shrew. Some decades ago (ha, I’m not saying how many), I found myself on a school outing to the Young Vic, where I fell head over heels for Jim Dale’s mischievous Petruchio. The energy, wit and sheer magic of the play blew me away; I had no idea Shakespeare could be this much fun. Yes, Petruchio behaved abominably, but his sparring with Jane Lapotaire’s Katherine generated a chemistry that brought them together in what, at the time, felt a perfectly possible meeting of minds. The text doesn’t explicitly set Katherine up as an equal – in fact, her last speech does anything but – yet the clues are there. From the start she is the only character able to match Petruchio’s wit, giving back killer line for killer line as he tries – and fails – to trip her up. Hers is a much cleverer and more interesting personality than that of her insipid sister, Bianca, and if all Shakespeare was concerned about was keeping women in their place, why would he have bothered with Katherine’s character at all?

T of SAnd this is where the current Stratford production misses the point. So important is the idea that the male Katherine suffer total submission to the female Petruchia, as a faithful reversal of the supposed norm, that Katherine is never allowed to take Petruchia on in any way. No banter. No surface compliance while clearly running rings round her tyrannical wife. No mischievous spark in his eye that shows that he, too, can play the game; heavens, the poor chap is never allowed to raise his eyes from the ground in the whole play. Any hope of creating a genuine understanding between the two, let alone affection, is lost. At the end, Petruchia has achieved the enormous prize of an abject, characterless slave to do her bidding, not a desirable, feisty husband who is her intellectual equal. Chemistry? About as much as between a rattle snake and a, erm, shrew.

Still, it’s an original idea and a rollicking production and something had to be done to keep The Taming of the Shrew alive. Go and judge for yourself. You have till the end of August in Stratford, then it’s on tour, plus a live cinema broadcast on 5 June.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog.)

Something for children to get their teeth into: World Book Week 2019

5803022F-E37C-41CF-922E-3D9A679688ECI’m always delighted to visit schools, whether or not it’s World Book Week (which it just has been, in March). Taking a group of 9 – 13 year-olds on an illustrated tour through Dante, Greek mythology and the First World War (Ante’s Inferno) or Doctor Faustus, demons and Elizabethan Magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), and seeing their eyes light up at the richness, complexity and sheer power of stories is hugely inspiring for a writer. But one of my school visits this year took a different form, one that gave me more than the usual butterflies as I wrote the date in my diary. Not just butterflies, in fact. Trepidation.B1BA6FB4-9FC8-40A5-9541-67A315DC616E

Stretham Primary is a lovely village school in a not particularly well-heeled part of Cambridgeshire, in which quite a number of children qualify for pupil premium. I’ve visited a couple of times before and been bowled over by the warmth of my reception and the eagerness with which the 9 – 11 year-olds lap up facts about Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan natural philosophy and the Faustian pact. It never ceases to sadden me how the book world generally underestimates young people, considering all these themes far too adult for them to understand. From my experience at Stretham, not only do children have no problem grasping them, they are also excited by stories that give them something to get their teeth into.5798B2EE-E72A-4CC2-A2DA-1507C388A9DF

So why the trepidation?

Well…. this time, the children were doing something for me.

As a writer you hope you’re on the right track, that what grabs you will grab your intended audience: but there’s nothing like being able to put this to the test. I needed to try out my latest work in progress, and ten 11 year-olds had bravely volunteered to read The Fall of a Sparrow and tell me what they thought. At 50,000 words this was quite a commitment. And scary for me… what if none of them got beyond the first chapter, the first PAGE?

Shortly before the day of the visit, I received a package in the post. Feedback …eek.

Taking a deep breath, I went through all the painstakingly written comments – and breathed out again.

07F08712-8B97-4318-8E31-2763BF32907FThe children had enjoyed the story. They got the characters, the situation, they felt with Eleanor – the heroine – in her predicament, as she delved deeper and deeper into family history, uncovering a tragedy that had never been confronted before. If some of the readers felt that occasionally, too much description held up things, they still all wanted to keep turning the pages, all the way to the end. And now they couldn’t wait for my visit so they could pepper me with questions – about the characters, the ideas, what it’s really like being at a boarding school (since that’s where the story is set) and most of all, how soon will The Fall of the Sparrow be published so they could ALL read it?

Ah, now that really is the question….

How to drive your audience crazy

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Exhibit A: exquisite torment (the programme, not the play).

I am not a great user of Facebook.  If I post something and it gets a handful of likes and the odd comment, I’m doing well. So I was all the more surprised recently when something I put up sparked a whole host of likes, comments and discussion from a wide range of people, for whom I’d clearly touched a nerve.

What can it have been been – political?  No no, stay clear of all such, say I. The dreaded B word? As if. Enough misery about that as it is.

 

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Stygian gloom of modern restaurants (Photo by Damien Petit on Unsplash

No. All I did was upload an example of a blight that has been seeping gradually into the printed world for the past few years, until now it affects every play, opera, concert and musical programme, magazine, brochure, exhibition text, restaurant menu and just about everything printed you can think of. Even websites aren’t immune. It is a kind of exquisite torment dreamt up by designers to tempt you with what looks like an interesting, important piece of writing – only to make it impossible for you to read it. Pale grey text on off-white paper. Small chunks of green writing set by themselves – presumably to highlight their meaning – in yellow background boxes. Items on menus printed in such tiny point sizes, diners need a pocket magnifying glass if they aren’t to go hungry (not helped by the fashion for restaurants to plunge their customers in Stygian gloom so no one can see the menu anyway). As a way to drive your audience crazy, it can’t be beaten.

 

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Art by Yasmina Reza at the Oxford Playhouse

Look, I know my Great Age is part of the problem. The majority of designers and editors, presumably under 40, are blithely unaware that lavender type on mauve paper is illegible for Oldies Like Me. But a heck of a lot of Oldies Like Me go to the theatre, restaurants and art exhibitions, and I can’t help feeling that if the directors of these have gone to all the trouble to commission articles from distinguished writers and experts, why wouldn’t they want a large proportion – who knows, perhaps even the majority – of their clientele to read them? What, for goodness sake, is wrong with black and white?

So back to exhibit A, above. I had never seen Yasmina Reza’s brilliantly witty, poignant play about the balance of power in longterm friendships, until it came to Oxford Playhouse last month. Intrigued, I badly wanted to read the interview with the playwright in the programme and was faced with not only pale type on pale paper but, ye gods, splashes of paint daubed across the text (a, you know, clever reference to the play’s title, Art). OK, so I managed eventually, the next day, with the aid of bright sunshine, but it was a slow process. Whereas if it had been black on white, like the article I’m writing here, I’d have skipped through it like a young fawn.

 

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Skipping through black and white print like…er… one of these.    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Perhaps I should start a Campaign for Printing in Black and White, snappily known as CAMPBAW.

I could be on to something, you know.

 

 

 

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog.)

How to Show your Power and Wealth

Gainsborough's Family AlbumTowards the end of 2018, my attention was caught by the title of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Gainsborough’s Family Album. His family, eh? Here was this skillful 18th century painter, famous for his ability to paint flattering likenesses of wealthy aristocrats; how would this translate to his own nearest and dearest?

Intrigued, I went last month… and was bowled over. Portrait after portrait of Mary and Margaret, Gainsborough’s daughters, captured together at various stages of their lives, exude a tenderness, emotional depth and freshness you won’t find in any of his more traditional commissions. The artist’s love and fatherly protectiveness burst out of these paintings, making them some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking portraits ever created.

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Mary and Margaret Gainsborough

 

Not that you’d know that from the exhibition’s curators. Reading Waldemar Januszczak’s perceptive review in the Sunday Times, I felt, with him, a familiar weariness at the snide, superficial tone that has spread like a canker throughout the museum and gallery world in the last few years. Art is no longer to be judged on its own merits; all that counts is the money the paintings represent. According to the curators, writes Januszczak, ‘at every step of his progress, Gainsborough used his family as cheap models to advertise his talents and try out different approaches …The pictures hung opposite each other in his grand new house, where their job was to impress visitors with first-hand examples.’

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Gainsborough’s cousin, the Reverend Henry Burroughs, painted perhaps to show the artist’s ‘skills to potential patrons in his cousin’s circle.’ Or not. 

At this point my forehead hits the palm of my hand.

Because I recognise this mean perspective. Visiting the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall, I found the same narrative hammered home in every room. Bess of Hardwick had the lavish staircase built ‘to impress visitors with her power and wealth.’ Each piece of furniture had this function, as did all the paintings in the long gallery. It’s now a family joke with us that ‘Going to See Some Power and Wealth’ has become shorthand for visiting stately homes. Yes, rich people have always liked to show off; but no one buys an armchair just to Show Their Power and Wealth. Needing somewhere to sit might have something to do with it. Equally, many wealthy aristocrats were genuinely interested in art, fostering young painters and building up important collections for which we are all the richer. The founding collections of The National Galleries of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland came from rich art enthusiasts who bought these paintings not because they were expensive, but because they considered them beautiful.

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Roof garden, Cardiff Castle

We don’t have to read this tosh, I know. But I find it sad that visitors, including schoolchildren, are being shortchanged and patronised in this way. The opportunity is there to spark interest – even a little – in the art around them; instead, they are encouraged to sneer at the art’s being there at all. On a recent visit to Cardiff Castle – one of the most glorious examples of Gothic Revival architecture – the young guide told us next to nothing about the designers, painters, gilders, sculptors, wood carvers and others responsible for its exquisite craftsmanship, preferring instead to stress – repeatedly – the fabulous wealth of the 3rd Earl of Bute, how he and his family ‘had a pretty nice life, no worries at all.

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A Gothic Revival dream: the great hall at Cardiff Castle

Now that kind of statement should ring alarm bells. It is in tune with the general Money = All That Matters narrative in current museum curation and cannot be the whole story. Sure enough, talking to some of the older – and clearly more personally committed  – guides gave a poignant picture of a loving husband and father creating a haven of beauty and warmth to ensure his family had the opposite of his own loveless childhood. Suffering from Bright’s disease all his life, in 1900 the earl died, aged only 58, of kidney failure. Fifteen years later, his son Ninian, 32, was killed at the Battle of Loos.

No worries at all? I think the Bute family had a few.

The solution? Keep visiting these beautiful places. Just take what the guides and curators tell you with a hefty pinch of salt, or ignore it all together. A shame, but there it is.

And if you missed Gainsborough’s Family Album at the National Portrait Gallery, don’t despair; you’ll find the cream of the exhibition – those lovely portraits of his daughters – at the National Gallery nearby.

 

Did Scrooge dodge a bullet?

a christmas carol 2Happy New Year all!

Right, I’ll kick off 2019 with an admission: until a month ago, I’d never read A Christmas Carol.

Yup, you read that right. Charles Dickens’s much-loved (and pleasingly short) fable about mean old Scrooge being ‘woke’ (right up there with modern idioms, that’s me) and swapping his miserliness for kindness and generosity… to be honest, I knew the story so well I really thought I had read it. But in preparation for a family visit to David Edgar’s adaptation of the book for the Royal Shakespeare Company, I thought I’d take up the original – and boy, am I glad I did.

The Real McScrooge

Because if I hadn’t, I might really have thought that what we saw in Stratford was the Real McScrooge. Or rather, I’d have suspected some of the odder scenes as being fashionably updated, but not known exactly where Dickens ended and his adaptor began. The more skilled the adaptor – and Edgar is very skilled – the more the original writer’s essence is blurred, twisted and, frankly, betrayed.

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Fezziwig (John Leech) – ruined by his own generosity. NOT.

I’ve banged on about this kind of thing before: the sickly, bogus, supposedly A A Milne quotes littering the internet, David Hare’s pride at writing ‘genuine’ Virginia Woolfisms. But increasingly I feel I’m holding up an umbrella against a tsunami of ‘improvements’ meted out to just about every great literary figure no longer alive and therefore unable to protest, by contemporary writers who feel with astonishing arrogance that They Can Do It Better. It’s not good enough for Edgar that Dickens allows avarice to enter the soul of the young Scrooge, in spite of the generosity of his employer, Fezziwig. There has to be a reason. So Edgar makes Fezziwig profligate and unwise, leading to bankruptcy and death; from which harsh lesson, ah, of course, Scrooge derives his obsession with money. Cause and Effect, satisfying present day rules of character creation.

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Appalling poverty: the workhouse at St Marylebone

Dickens: a fomenter of class warfare?

Except that Dickens didn’t give a fig for these rules. He saw no need to explain why Scrooge becomes a miser in the first place; it was just in his character. Nor, in Dickens’s world, are kind and generous people punished for being so: his whole point is that people have a choice in the way they behave towards others. Nor is he an overtly radical writer, though from Edgar’s adaptation you could be forgiven for thinking so. Yes, he showed the appalling effects of poverty, hunger, sickness and lack of education on the poor but his aim was to arouse the consciences of the wealthy to relieve that want, not to foment class warfare. When Scrooge in the book visits (invisibly) his nephew’s Christmas party, he finds a happy group of people enjoying each other’s company, making him regret his refusal to take part; what he doesn’t find is a heartless political discussion, blaming poor parents for sending their 4 year-old children down the mine so that they can spend their earnings on gin, and (highly suspect in days before contraception) a particularly unpleasant woman congratulating herself and her husband for ‘only going for our fifth child when we knew we could afford it.’

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Wentworth Street by Gustav Dore

A Trio of Entitled Brats

I have no problem with Dickens himself appearing as a character in this adaptation, discussing with his friend Forster the scoliosis and other deformities suffered by seamstresses and milliners, as well as child labour in factories and mines. This is a clever device that teaches us much about the terrible conditions around him that Scrooge (and others like him) refuse to see. I do mind when Edgar alters A Christmas Carol itself because, well, how dare he? How dare he write a scene in which Mrs Cratchit humiliates her husband for not standing up to Scrooge, when poor Bob has no chance of doing that and keeping his job, as his wife (in the REAL Christmas Carol) knows?  Or have Bob Cratchit, thinking himself dismissed, give his employer a hefty piece of his mind, purely for an easy laugh from the audience who knows better? Or, most puzzling of all, distort the charmingly rumbustious scene of the family that Scrooge might have had (if he’d married his childhood sweetheart, Belle) by making the children a trio of entitled brats complaining at the presents brought home by their loving father? If that was really what Dickens wrote, wouldn’t Scrooge feel he’d dodged a bullet there, rather than yearn for the love and joy he could have had?

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The happy family scene (Arthur Rackham) Scrooge might have had. Where are David Edgar’s entitled brats?

Dickens it ain’t

It was a good show, with some outstanding acting (eg Gerard Carey playing the over-tragically-written Bob Cratchit) but it wasn’t Dickens.  By all means, David Edgar, write your Victorian Christmas morality tale, you can even borrow heavily from the great man himself. Just don’t call it A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, OK?  Because Dickens it ain’t.

 

 

(Adapted from an article on Authors Electric)

Pantomime Blossoms in Cardiff Castle

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Dick Whittington at the Oxford Playhouse

Right then, hands up: who’s been to a pantomime this year?

For those who’ve never had to sit in a British theatre among a deafening audience of 6 year-olds, dodging penny sweets being hurled from the stage, while gamely shouting ‘He’s behind you!’ to Snow-White, or Aladdin, or Little Red Riding Hood, some explanation is needed.  And my goodness, have I tried to explain this particular loud, brash, clunkily scripted, outrageously overacted, joyfully strewn with terrible puns and altogether much-loved piece of our Christmas tradition to bemused visitors from other countries down the years… never with the slightest success, unfortunately. You just have to be there, really.

Or not.

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… and none more surprising than appearing in a pantomime.

But it only struck me recently (slow, that’s me) what an odd collection of stories makes up the pantomime repertoire. Fairy tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, national legends like Robin Hood and Dick Whittington, all well and good… but – Robinson Crusoe? How did Daniel Defoe’s novel about shipwreck, isolation and the survival of the human spirit transmute into a raucous children’s entertainment, complete with slapstick, word play and (presumably – I haven’t seen it) pantomime dame and villain?

 

CARDIFF CASTLE

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Cardiff Castle: transformed into a Gothic fairy tale by the 3rd Marquess of Bute

Now, I have a hunch that the answer lies in Cardiff Castle. (Oh, no it doesn’t, I hear you say. Oh yes it does, say I. Oh no it – hey, that’s quite enough.) In the mid 19th Century, the fabulously rich 3rd Marquess of Bute restored a section of this Norman ruin into a glorious expression of the Gothic Revival movement. Every wall, ceiling, door, window, fireplace and stairwell is beautifully painted, carved, moulded, decorated with marble, stone and plaster sculptures, furnished with fine wrought iron handles, knobs and railings, giving an overall impression of warmth and delight in craftsmanship. IMG_1508Above all it feels a very happy place, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the day nursery designed for the marquess’s four children. Half-way up the walls, an enormous frieze of hand-painted tiles shows dozens of storybook characters in one continuous, colourful narrative. And yes, you’ve guessed, the stories chosen are all (with the puzzling exception of Lady Godiva) ones that form classic pantomimes: Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, St George and the Dragon, Robinson Crusoe.

THE BLOSSOMING OF PANTOMIME

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Robinson Crusoe on the trail of the Good Fairy. Er…

I doubt that this was an intentional homage to the genre on the part of the marquess: rather, the (7-league) boot is on the other foot. This mixture of tales from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, the Arabian Nights, folk legend and early novelist Daniel Defoe, is what constituted English mid-19th century children’s literature, just at the time when pantomime – around since Roman times – blossomed into the form we know today. (The Victorian playwrights and theatre managers probably balked at including Lady Godiva in their repertoire.)

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Zzzz… A peripatetic Sleeping Beauty

So pantomimes are all drawn from 19th century children’s stories – well, duh. There needs no Puss-in-Boots, come from the grave, my lord, to tell us this. But seeing the evidence so beautifully painted here made me grasp the point in a way I hadn’t before. What lucky children – as our slightly sardonic guide never ceased reminding us – to be brought up in such delightful surroundings.

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No pantomime – as yet – about Lady Godiva

Lucky or not (and the Bute family had its fair share of tragedy but that’s another story), we are all the richer for this stunning artistic heritage. Go and see Cardiff Castle if you can – the nursery is just one of a feast of glorious rooms open to the public.

 

 

 

(From an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog)