Helen (Helena/Nell)'s Reviews > The Tale of Two Bad Mice

The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter
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's review
Apr 08, 2012

it was amazing
I own a copy , read count: ??

Warning: this review is very considerably longer than the book under discussion.

I have no idea how old I was when I first read The Tale of Two Bad Mice. I only know it feels as familiar as family photographs. Every detail of it is so familiar that once I must have known it inside out, though I doubt I’ve read it for half a century.

I imagine it would have first been read to me, and then I would have read it myself, and I was an early reader, so maybe at about four years old I learned that mice were part of the loved universe. Later we (my little sister and I) had some Beatrix Potter tales on 45 rpm orange records. I remember Jemima Puddleduck was read—wonderfully well—by Cicely Courtneidge. I can hear her voice now. But The Tale of Two Bad Mice was not recorded, or it if was, we didn’t possess it.

Even the fly-leaf inside the cover is familiar: here all the famous characters are displayed, as they are in every Beatrix Potter story. There is Mrs Tiggy Winkle (probably my favourite), Jemima P, Benjamin Bunny, Jeremy Fisher, The Flopsy Bunnies and their mother, The Tailor of Gloucester, Tom Kitten, Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin (we also had him on a record) and Mrs Tittle-Mouse (I remember her less well.)

Opposite the title page a full colour plate has Tom Thumb (one of the two bad mice) just about to smash the doll’s house pudding with a pair of brass coal tongs. At this point, neither he nor his wife, Hunca Munca, are wearing any clothes.

In Beatrix Potter the pictures tell the story, not just the words. The opening page faces a picture of the doll’s house, with Jane (one of the dolls) sitting on the chimney, and Lucinda sitting in front of the front door. So we can see they are fairly small dolls—they would certainly fit into the house. And then there they are inside. Jane looks like a peg doll to me. She is tall and thin. Lucinda is softer, with a blue dress and a ribbon round her hair. We learn that “Jane was the Cook; but she never did any cooking, because the dinner had been bought ready-made, in a box full of shavings.”

I don’t think I knew what shavings were, but you can see from the picture that it was some sort of packing. And the picture of the food is really lovely: “two red lobsters and a ham, a fish, a pudding, and some pears and oranges”. Any child who has played with pretend food knows about things like this. The food looks marvelous and for some reason I feel I know this sentence off by heart: “They would not come off the plates, but they were extremely beautiful.”

We did not have a doll’s house like this, but I longed for one. Anyone who read The Tale of Two Bad Mice must have longed for this sort of doll’s house. Later my father made us one, but it was not like this, and we never had the marvelous plaster food either.

And from this book, I knew what ‘pram’ was short for. I knew because Jane and Lucinda were out when the two bad mice arrived. They “had gone out for a drive in the doll’s perambulator”.

From the picture you can tell that Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb have exquisite ears, pricked for every sound of danger. Even their whiskers are precisely tuned. When they go into the doll’s house, light streams from the dining-room and their wee paws are outstretched with amazement: “Such a lovely dinner was laid out upon the table! There were tin spoons, and lead knives and forks, and two dolly-chairs—all so convenient!”

What a phrase to learn at the age of four or five—“all so convenient”! Just as Beatrix Potter educated the eye, she expanded the vocabulary.

Then the mice proceed to destroy the lovely dinner bit by bit, because they find it is not in the least edible. They are very BAD mice, and that is part of the pleasure for a small child reading, a GOOD child. Here is the high point:

“Then Tom Thumb lost his temper. He put the ham in the middle of the floor, and hit it with the tongs and with the shovel—bang, bang, smash, smash!

The ham flew all into pieces, for underneath the shiny paint it was made of nothing but plaster!”

But I think I love the following sentence even more: “Then there was no end to the rage and disappointment of Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca.” What a phrase—“rage and disappointment”! Can’t you just feel for them, bad as they are?

I specially like the picture that shows them, one on the mantelpiece, one on the ground, trying to put the fish (which would not come off its plate) into the “red-hot crinkly paper fire in the kitchen”.

Through the colour plates, you can observe the mice making the best of a bad job, a bit of pleasurable wrecking, then some stealing (because “Hunca Munca had a frugal mind”—imagine learning the word “frugal” from a mouse!) They make away with a cradle, for example, and, as the dolls return in their perambulator, you see the two mice fleeing for their lives, one carrying a small chair, the other with a brush and some blue stuff that looks very like Lucinda’s dress.

I think my favourite bit in the whole book is this:

“What a sight met the eyes of Jane and Lucinda! Lucinda sat upon the upset kitchen stove and stared; and Jane leant against the kitchen dresser and smiled—but neither of them made any remark.”

Why did Jane smile?

Because her smile was painted on her face.

Why did neither of them make any remark?

Because they were dolls.

And how is it that children both know these facts and can still believe wholly in the picture of domestic bliss on the next page? Here is Hunca Munca, dressed in Lucinda’s blue dress and sitting on a wooden chair. She is cuddling a baby mouse on her knee, dressed in something very like a white christening robe, its little tail curling out and its pink paws waving like tiny hands. Beside them is the doll’s cradle, topped with a pink quilt, under which four more baby mice are fast asleep, their tails drooping over the edge of the basket.

In this tale, the mice are naughty but they are endearingly alive. The dolls are just—dolls. The little girl who owns the house gets a doll “dressed like a policeman” and we see him, looking quite ridiculous a few pages from the end. In front of him (he is standing floppily with pigeon-toes and a blobby nose), Hunca Munca is holding up her mouse baby, as if to watch an interesting object at a museum. This time she is wearing a pink dress. Behind the policeman doll, other mice (unclothed) are in front of the doll’s house. One has his paws up on the window, through which Jane is peering anxiously. Upstairs Lucinda is peering out too. They are besieged by mice. The policeman doll is three times their size—he would never fit into the house and he is doing nothing whatsoever to protect it. Because he is just a doll.

It is a fascinating mixture of reality and fantasy, making the mice real because the dolls are not, making Tom Thumb explain mouse traps to his babies because nobody wants them really to get caught.

And on the last two pages, moral order (like the end of a Shakespeare play) is restored because Tom Thumb finds a crooked sixpence to pay for everything he broke, and Hunca Munca turns into a cleaning lady, arriving with her dust-pan and broom to sweep the doll’s house every morning.

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