This week, my friends Ruth and Annie, who run the Logie Steadings bookshop in Forres, Scotland, (please note, everyone, this is not just a shameless promotion for excellent purveyors of reading material, staffed by brilliant and welcoming staff -though if you’re in the area, do call in! – this post is a few thoughts about reading journeys) have been running a promotion for Ladybird books. Their on-line publicity featured one of the first books I was ever allowed to choose for myself, Puss in Boots, and that I read, quite literally to bits.
I’ve no idea how it happened that our junior school gave each child a book, but I’m still grateful. Until then, books materialised magically, opening unlooked for doors of my imagination.
One year though, was I six, seven or eight? I don’t know, what I remember is sunshine, and young leaves on the copper-beach tree, and mum handing back the glossy leaflet I’d brought home. ‘Which book would you like?’ she said, and when I opened that paper out, there were lists, and lists, of titles. Each was numbered, accompanied by a little picture and a box to tick.
The decision was agony. Even though I dismissed all the non-fiction titles instantly, that left many favourite stories.
So why Puss rather than one of the many gorgeous princesses? Maybe because he was like our cat, not just in being tabby, but in having a jaunty stride and a knowing tilt to his head. Look at him, staring right at us, surely he’s about to wink. Sometimes, when stories are illustrated, or dramatized, they become the definitive version. Eric Winter’s illustrations caught me.
A couple of decades later, when I discovered Angela Carter’s reworked fairy tales, in The Bloody Chamber, I fell in love with Puss-in-Boots all over again. No matter that her feline, aptly named Figaro, was a marmalade tabby: his clothes, his demeanour, his attitude, were a grown-up version of that Ladybird book.
…oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro… a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated… proud of his bird-entrancing eye and more than military whiskers; proud, to a fault, some say, of his fine, musical voice. All the windows in the square fly open when I break into impromptu song at the spectacle of the moon above Bergamo.
Innuendo laden Puss-in-Boots made me think again about that Ladybird book. Other stories might have action, magic, anthropomorphic animals, but how many were as slyly audacious? He lies, he cheats, he steals and charms, those are the events of the story.
Most fairy-tale heroes are defined by their looks, white-as-snow, red-as-blood, fairest-in-the-land, beautiful and they’re always good. Evil characters put them in jeopardy, and they must maintain their moral ground, resist temptations. Often, they’re not clever, just brave in the face of adversity, and so worthy of rich rewards.
Amongst all those passive Ladybird characters, Puss stood out partly, because he puzzled me. What was the message? Carter played up the ambiguity that had kept me returning to the story.
Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then, after I celebrate his generosity with a fresh obbligato the moon no fuller than my heart–whoops! I nimbly spring aside–down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native Bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr.
The machinations of Puss are not unique. Go back to Grimm, Perrault, or some of the other folk & fairy story collectors and you’ll find many of those Ladybird characters showing their feisty side. What might they say, given an opportunity? You tell me.