Beatrix Potter and the Ideal life of Timmie Willie.
Updated: Sep 15
The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse was first published in December 1918.
Beatrix Potter was fifty-two when she wrote the story of Johnny Town-Mouse and Timmie Willie; the First World War was coming to an end but Beatrix, who, like Timmie Willie, preferred the countryside, was living a busy life with the farm and gardens. Before she finished her drawings, she suffered the loss of her brother, to whom she had been close during her childhood; although they had perhaps not been as close in life, his death still affected her deeply.
As usual, the drawings in this tale are wonderful and realistic, even if some might have said that it was not to the same standard as her previous ones, but Beatrix Potter was getting older and her eyesight was failing, so one cannot give her grief for that.
In ‘The Story of Johnny Town-mouse’, Timmie Willie travelled to town unexpectedly in a vegetable hamper. Curiosity and gluttony took over his reason. He had climbed into the basket and could not resist the peas and overindulged. When he woke up, it was too late. Perhaps Beatrix Potter wanted to show us what happens when we are too nosy.
Timmie’s experience was a frightening one; the cart was jolting for a long, long time. When it stopped in town, things did not get better for Timmie Willie. The town was boisterous. The description of the city, for someone of the 21st century, sounds quite a peaceful place: barking dogs, boys whistling, cook laughing, canary singing, etc., but for a little mouse from 1918, this was no fairground. I wonder what Beatrix would make of London nowadays; the description would undoubtedly be much more horrific.
When the cook opened the hamper, naturally Timmie Willie tried to escape, but as he jumped out, he scared the poor lady who called the cat. Timmie Willie ran around the room trying to find a way out. But how do you escape from a place if you have no idea where the exit is? And so, as he popped into a hole, dropped half a foot and he landed on a mouse dinner table. At first, Johnny Town-Mouse was angry but he quickly recovered his manners.
One can say that the arrival of Timmie Willie is the most dramatic, scary and eventful time he had in his entire life; after all, he was used to living in a peaceful garden, but Johnny Town-Mouse was a gentleman. He welcomed Timmie Willie and introduced him to his friends. The other mice had long tails while Timmie Willie’s was different. That is where Beatrix Potter’s talent of observation comes into place. How many of us knew that a field mouse was bulkier and had a shorter tail? That is why nowadays her books are still prevalent. Of course, they were intended for children but to stand the test of time and to still be favoured over one hundred years later, they must have been unique and indeed they were (and still are): educational, beautiful and with hidden messages that one can interpret in their own way.
The town mice and Timmie Willie could not be more different in actions, words and manners, and this probably comes from what Beatrix Potter saw about her contemporaries who lived in London and the countryside. People see things differently, even nowadays, between people who live in the city and the country.
The first night in town for Timmie Willie was not getting better. Although his host had reserved him the best cushion in the house, Timmie Willie did not feel secure as it smelt of the cat and that terrified him.
Even the morning breakfast did not please Timmie Willie. For someone who nowadays we would call a vegetarian, bacon is the last thing you want for breakfast. He dreamed of returning to the peaceful sunny bark that was his home. He became sick; he could not sleep, food disagreed with him… Beatrix Potter depicts the effect of stress on people and indeed living in the city can be quite stressful; perhaps that was how she felt about life in the city.
Her description of the countryside, a pro-country version, makes it sounds like heaven on earth: a sunny place to relax, peaceful atmosphere and beautiful scented gardens with the interaction of visiting friends. As she said at the end of the book, some people prefer to live in the country and she is one of them, hence the idyllic representation of it.
When Timmie Willie returned to his home, he was happy. However, now and then he still ventured near the hamper, not that he would have dared to attempt the experience of going to town again; deep down he was hoping that Johnny Town-Mouse would visit as he had promised. But nothing happened. It seemed that Timmie Willie was a little melancholic now that he had made new friends and missed them. If Beatrix Potter ever missed her life in the city, like Timmie Willie, her love of countryside was stronger.
In the spring, finally, Johnny Town-Mouse came and visited his new friends in the country. The maids had to spring clean the house and had to get rid of the mice while the family went to the seaside. That’s what happened in the life of Beatrix Potter when she was young: every spring they left London for several weeks to go to Devon or Hampshire while the house was cleaned from top to bottom.
Now that Johnny was in the country it seemed that the story had reversed. Timmie Willie was proud to show how life was in the country, and he was convinced that Johnny would never want to live in town again, but he was wrong. Johnny found it annoying and too quiet even if some of the noise frightened him, so he went back to town.
Because one person loves something does not mean that other people will like it too. We all have our own preferences and habits, and we cannot change other people, is probably the message from Beatrix Potter.
In her book The Life of a Genius, Linda Lear says that The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse is the most biographic one and I believe that Johnny Town-mouse represented the life of Beatrix Potter in London when she was younger, with her friends from the city and the Beatrix who loved the country is Timmie Willie.
Those enchanting little stories always make us dream in the end. This one shows us that life in the country is beautiful with the fragrances of the plants and flowers, and the peaceful sounds of nature. Beatrix shows us that we do not need all those material possessions to be happy; the countryside offers all we need – if we are a Timmie Willie, of course.
But Beatrix Potter also recognised that not everyone would agree with her, so she felt obliged to justify herself at the end of the book. But in the end, her message is: follow your heart and what you love most, then you will find your happiness.