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Magdalen Eldon and Bumble

Stella & Rose's Books wish to thank Mr. John Gough for his kind submission of the following article

Magdalen Eldon wrote and illustrated three children’s picture-story books that feature a Pekinese dog called Bumble.

Bumble (1950)
Snow Bumble (1951)
Highland Bumble (1952)

Who is this Bumble? Bumble is a Pekinese dog, who happens to be half Chinese (of course, as a Peke) and half Scottish. Bumble also claims to be descendent of Sherlock Holmes, although none of the stories involve Bumble in solving mysteries, or smoking a pipe, or ….

Bumble lives with a large, lively family of mice, named Macmouse. They all live in Windwhistle Manor, a cosy hollow tree and old badger sett on a Devonshire moor, with a family of Scottish mice whose very many children have amazing names, a wise worm who lectures from an encyclopedia and an infestation of well-meaning beetles and some of the prettiest pictures ever made for children, or, perhaps, adults. Even the candy-striped book covers were delightful designs. Bumble 'owns' the tree/apartment house, and its farm, and the mice are his housekeeper tenants.

The first book Bumble is light, in narrative, but pleasant, although it does little more than introduce Bumble and the Macmouses. We see, for example, how Bumble helps the mice bring in the wheat harvest. (The attention to local seasons recalls Orlando, the marmalade cat, whose farming featured in a novelty peep-show book of that era, showing Orlando and his friends in the four seasons. Orlando was the creation of Kathleen Hale, herself a remarkable author-illustrator.)

One of the double-page spreads, for example, explains:

Bumble has an orchard of gnarled old apple trees that bear very sweet yellow apples in the autumn.
On still October days Bumble, the Macmouses, and many of Bumble’s friendly neighbours spend long sunny hours picking the apples. They carry them into the tree house in baskets, and after wrapping each one carefully in newspaper, lay them in tidy rows in an upstairs store-room.
The squirrels are particularly helpful in getting down the apples Bumble cannot reach.
Bumble is very brave on a ladder – if a little dizzy.

The pictures for this text show an elderly female rabbit dozing comfortably beside a basket full of apples; one rabbit, like William Tell’s daughter, with an apple on his head, while another rabbit carefully aims a wooden pop-gun at the apple; and some of the many Macmouses help to catch apples, while two rabbits use an apple to play football, and Bumble sprawls, rather uncomfortably, high on a long ladder, picking apples and dropping them to a loaded basket, while another pair of mice are trying to use a large saw to slice an apple in half – the apple is about a third as high as a standing mouse. Meanwhile, on the further side of one of the apple trees, a male rabbit is contentedly reading a newspaper.

There is a clear hint, in these mice and rabbits, of the famous Royal Doulton porcelain designs for Bunnykin rabbits, which first appeared in 1934, designed by 'Barbara Vernon', who was actually Sister Mary Barbara Bailey (née Barbara Vernon Bailey), the daughter of Cuthbert Bailey, the general manager of Royal Doulton during the 1930s. In fact, 'Barbara Vernon' was not a professional illustrator, but a nun in the Augustinian Canonesses of the Lateran. Sister Mary Barbara Bailey retired from producing drawings for Doulton & Co in 1950. A succession of artists took her place providing designs for tableware and figurines, including Charles Noke who had been an early designer of Bunnykin figurines.

However, rather than suggesting that Eldon imitated Bunnykin images, it is logical to acknowledge that almost all creators of clothed-animal designs owe some debt to Beatrix Potter’s characters, and the myriad of earlier whimsical illustrations of animals behaving like humans that are explored in Margaret Blount’s remarkable Blount, Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction (1975). Beatrix Potter, understandably, continues to inspire delightful stories and images of small animals dressed like humans, living social lives in the woods and hedgerows. One relatively recent example is from Jill Barklem (1951-2017) with her attractive stories of the people – they seem far more than 'creatures' – of Brambly Hedge, and the families of mice and other animals that feature in her eight stories.

We might, also, be reminded of Kenneth Grahame’s classic Wind in the Willows, as another possible influence, with its talking animals who live and dress like people. But Grahame’s Riverbank world is also part of a larger world of humans, whereas Bumble and the Macmouses’ world is free of humans.

The second of Eldon’s Bumble books (I think that this is, indeed, the narrative, as well as the publishing chronology) is Snow Bumble.

This is serious stuff!

It is based loosely on the close memory of a terribly hard winter with very deep snow that really occurred in Britain during the winter of 1950-1951 – shortly before the second Bumble book appeared. (It may also recall the impact of the Blitz during World War II, and the severe privations of wartime and post-war rationing across Britain.)

The central narrative issue in Snow Bumble is the struggle to survive the terrible storms and then the deep snows that completely isolate Bumble and the Macmouses.

Very quickly the large hollow tree is converted to a makeshift hospital and hostel for a growing crowd of neighbourhood animals whose homes have been destroyed or who have run out of supplies.

Bumble and the Macmouses organise polar-like sled and ski expeditions to help rescue lost animals. Bumble dressed like an Arctic or Antarctic explorer with his tartan scarf fluttering like a banner a dog-version of Robert Falconer Scott, Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen, or Ernest Shackleton is a sight to see!

Eventually the Macmouses find themselves reduced to their last handful of lentils. Bumble and his companions resolve to cook the lentils, and pray in the night. (There is a terrible hint of the last diary entries by Robert Falconer Scott, fatally trapped in an Antarctic blizzard, only a few miles from the potentially life-saving depot of store.)

Happily, in the night, rain starts to fall  the long hoped-for  and prayed for  Spring thaw has finally begun, in time for the animals to be restored to their old, happier lives.

Along the way a dangerously ill thrush is saved from near-death, and a grumbling widow-rabbit is rescued along with her tumbling brood of children. Eventually the invalid thrush is nursed back to health, and sings to welcome the Spring. Similarly, the widow-rabbit returns to her burrow, as grumbling and sour as ever, despite the Macmouses’ boundless hospitality. The image of the thrush, resting in a canvas deckchair, swaddled in a warm blanket, is marvelous, as is the grumpy face of the widow-rabbit.

For young children this is every bit as gripping as the great real-life story of Laura Ingalls Wilder epic of winter hardship, The Long Winter.

It deserves to stand alongside the (same era) young children's classic Pookie Puts the World Right (1949) by Ivy L. Wallace - which was also probably inspired by memories of other great winters and fierce storms, but in Yorkshire and the Scottish Border, rather than Devon.

What about Highland Bumble?

The story of Highland Bumble begins some weeks before Easter - the season of Spring - but it is then one long glorious (summer) party appropriately enough after the grueling hardships of Snow Bumble.

In some ways these culminating events of Highland Bumble might (in hindsight) resemble or hint at the national celebrations for the Royal Wedding of Elizabeth and Philip (1947) or the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953) of that time, or the Festival of Britain (1951), a large-scale national celebration intended to boost public morale in the long grey and grim aftermath of the eventual victories of World War II. However, considering the dates of these major events, and the actual publication date (1951, usually, although also 1952) of Highland Bumble (1951), it is most likely that the book alludes in a happy general way to the long-standing tradition of Highland (Scottish) Games, specifically the annual Braemar Gathering.

The story of Highland Bumble begins around Easter (probably after the terrible winter in Snow Bumble) when a mysterious cane basket is delivered to the Macmouses. It is actually addressed to Bumble, and has been sent from his distant relatives in China.

The basket contains a large strange egg. (This must be one of the strangest Easter eggs ever! But the egg, and its basket-work, and ribbon-wrapping, are strongly evocative of Easter and Easter eggs!) As the egg nears hatching it heats up, and then starts to crack and emit puffs of smoke! The multitude of small beetles who live in the darker corners of the huge tree house, naturally, organize a fire brigade service, with helmets and boots that are too big for them, and large fire hoses that drip everywhere. (The beetles in the Bumble books often provide an amusing subplot of their own, like miniature Keystone Cops!)

The egg then hatches out to reveal a dragon, called Mr Bootes.

Happily Mr Bootes is quite harmless, and immediately fits into the Macmouse and Bumble household.

Having been reminded by this Easter gift of his part-Chinese ancestry, Bumble then recalls his part-Scottish ancestry, along with that of the Macmouses. If only he could revisit his childhood highland haunts!

Mr Bootes, as a FLYING dragon, is the means of transport that helps most of the Macmouses and Bumble make the long journey from the south of England to the distant Scottish Highlands, for a grand Gathering of the many Mouse Clans, and others, and for great Highland sports. (The less daring members of the household drive to the Highlands. The beetles attempt to emulate the dragon’s flight by setting forth in a balloon!)

The full-spread picture of the Highland Games is enchanting! Caber tossing, Highland dancing, tug-of-war, and so on, all being performed by very serious mice, many of them in kilts, sporrans, bonnets, and Highland tartan. These illustrations are gorgeously detailed: fine-line black and white drawings, with pastel-shaded water-coloring. There are mice – of course everywhere! doing wonderful things! Imagine a mix of Lilliputians, Angelina Ballerina, and the high-viewpoint, with the tiny details of Where’s Wally (or Waldo), to get a sense of the mouse-ness, the smallness, and the crowded detailed imagery.

Another of the great delights of Highland Bumble is the full-page spread that shows the diverse naming of the very many Macmouse children it reads almost like a Book of Baby Names, with hints of traditional mythology, Shakespeare, and classic literature.

The cover illustration shows Highland Bumble, gloriously attired in his clan tartan, and tam-o’-shanter, or highland bonnet (like a large floppy French beret) about to dance a highland fling. Note, in the background, Mr Bootes the dragon, cooling off in the loch, with his long reptilian body appearing above the water-line like a loch-monster! Note also the Macmouses standing around Bumble.

The story ends, as it inevitably must, with Mr Bootes growing so large that he can no longer stay with Bumble and the Macmouses: clearly he will have to leave, forever, and fly home to China. The page that illustrates this shows the enormous body of the friendly dragon wrapped more than twice around the huge base of the tree house in which Bumble and the Macmouses live.

(My recollection is that, in Australia, around 1955, it was possible to buy printed calico fabric with pictures of tiny mice, which, if not created by Magdalen Eldon herself, were probably inspired by the Bumble books. Why did I not put some scraps into a quilt or scrapbook? Alas!)

Ah, me, nostalgia is a beautiful thing, especially when, even seen in the cold light of aging adulthood, the childhood experience is indeed, absolutely genuinely as touching and beautiful as the Eldon books.

These Bumble books are long overdue for facsimile reprinting!

Moreover, Magdalen Eldon herself is long overdue for proper recognition and resurrection of reputation.

It is not too much to claim that she is one of the greatest author-illustrators of the 1950s! And among the best, ever!

(Incidentally, the other great Pekinese-themed children’s book is by Pauline Clarke a fantasy adventure in a magic Chinese world of pekes and wicked cats and monkeys. But that is another story, …)

What follows in this discussion is a kind of Post Script to my outline of the “Bumble” trilogy.

Around 1995, I wrote to William Collins, the publishing company, with some of my fond childhood memories of Magdalen Eldon’s Bumble, as well as Ivy L. Wallace’s Pookie books, urging Collins to re-issue these beautiful children’s picture-story books. I do not think I had any reply.

Then, around 2005, I began to discover the world of Amazon-dot-com books and reviews. Lured by the exciting words “be the first to write a review” I dived in, reviewing some of my favourite books that were listed at Amazon, but had no information about them, and no review that might explain the attractive features of the books, and the authors. Naturally, I reviewed Magdalen Eldon’s Highland Bumble, the lone title listed at Amazon.

Out of the blue, in April 2011, to my great surprise and delight, I received an e-mail from Rosalind Reid:

I was delighted to read your account of all 3 of Magadalen Eldon's books. Magadelen Eldon was at school (Les Oiseaux Convent in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent) with my mother and several other Scots girls (Frasers, etc.). She was tall and beautiful and had many, many friends and admirers who invited her to be godmother to their children. I was one of these lucky ones. … all the mice featured on that page are Magdalen Eldon’s godchildren! You will see me featured as a delightfully pretty young mouse, called, of course, Rosalind (I was named after my aunt who was named after her mother’s dolls who all had Shakespearian names!!). …I think the tree was on Dartmoor. … Magdalen Eldon was about my mother’s age (i.e. born exactly 100 years ago). I think her husband was in politics, as was the husband of Lady Phipps, the co-author of The Childhood of Jesus [illustrated by Eldon, her only book currently in print] who was in the British Embassy in Germany before the Second World War broke out.

Then, in the same utterly unexpected, surprising, and delightful way, in November 2011, I received an e-mail from John Eldon, the oldest son of Magdalen Eldon, responding to my Amazon review of Highland Bumble:

The writing of Bumble was in fact a very family affair.

My mother had two pekineses, “Muffin” and “Bumble”. Muffin was funny, affectionate and brave, while Bumble was bad-tempered, snapped at everything that moved and was terrified of mice. My mother always said that celebrity had gone to his head.

The books were written during the long, cold post-war winters when food, fuel and almost everything you can think of was in short supply. As a family we had twice had our homes destroyed by German bombing, and as you know rationing in England went on for many years after the end of hostilities. During the periods when my mother was writing we would gather round the fire to discuss her marvellous drawings, talk about future turns and twists to the story and think up stupid jokes to be inserted into the text. The farm we lived on was near a small village called Rackenford in Devonshire and many of the landscapes were sketched from the surrounding countryside. The Macmouses’ house really existed!

Snow Bumble was, as you rightly say, based on the terrible winter of 1952 which hit the West Country particularly hard, and lasted, it seemed at the time, for months.

My mother always wanted to base one of the books in Scotland - where she was born and spent her happy childhood - so Highland Bumble was an obvious follow-on from the first two books. The references to Barra, Rhum, Skye and Eigg are all places where we, as a family spent much time together. My parents were also fierce defenders of the Stuart cause, and made sure that whenever a toast was drunk at family meals, there was a vase of flowers in the middle of the table!

The Macmouse children were named after the many small cousins we had at the time. We were a large Catholic family who bred like rabbits, according to my grandmother.

My mother was worried about christening the famous Pipe Band as the “Queen’s Own Voles”, so she wrote a personal letter to the Queen Mother who gave her Royal Consent. I believe she was a great Bumble fan.

Although my mother had quite a few godchildren I can tell you that:
 Rose Macmouse was called after her greatly loved youngest sister who died aged only 16. She also had a niece called Rose;
 Fiona, Tessa, Kim, Hugh, James, Charles and Rose were her nephews and nieces; and
 Willy, Araminta, Harriet, Robert, Ninian, Victoria, and Rosalind were either children of cousins, or indeed godchildren.

The rest were chosen from favourite Shakespeare plays, or Scottish heroes.

My brother and I helped to choose the names, so I am fairly certain I have got this right.

My mother went to the Les Oiseaux Convent School but was asked to leave for organising a “strike”. She told the nuns that as good little Catholic girls they couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. Apparently there were caterpillars in the salad!

These serendipitous e-mails explained so much!

Magdalen Eldon was also, as noted, the illustrator for The Life of Jesus, by her friend, Francis Phipps. (As far as I know, this is the only book featuring artwork by Magdalen Eldon that is still in print.)

Independently of “Bumble” or Phipps, although also using the well-established Macmice images, Eldon also wrote and illustrated two small-format picture-story books, Tobias (apparently published in 1954), and the “sequel”, Tobias Two (1954). These are simple stories of a young church mouse, Tobias Church-Mouse, a stone-carved angel in the church, and the Church-Mouse family. Judging by the few examples that can be located through internet searches, these two books resemble comic strip stories, with speech-bubbles that add a little to the printed narrative on the facing page. One of these is a nice joke: “I do hope the bees won’t think we are bee-hives”, says one of the young Church-Mouse children, as she dons her straw hat that looks, indeed, like an old-fashioned straw skep bee-hive (the kind of one-use bee-hives used before reusable wooden hives became the standard design).

An online search of the British Library finds these other Eldon-linked books:

My Faith. A Book for Under-Sevens. Edited by J. C. Heenan: Illustrated by Magdalen Eldon, John Carmel Heenan, (1905-1975). London: Burns & Oates; Macmillan & Co., 1956

Am I Alone? A Christian’s Approach to the Problem of Loneliness. Magdalen Eldon. London; published for the Women's Group on Public Welfare by the National Council of Social Service, [1960].

Despite this, at least one question remains. If Snow Bumble was based on the hard winter of 1951-1952, the reported publication date of 1951 seems to anticipate the actual end of that hard winter. Perhaps Eldon was thinking of an earlier winter, and the onset of the 1951 winter triggered her, or her publishers.

To conclude: Magdalen Eldon created – story and pictures – two of the best picture-story books ever made. We may hope that they may both be reprinted – sooner, rather than later – so that Snow Bumble and Highland Bumble can be enjoyed again, and into the future!

Contributed by John Gough

References and Further Reading

Blount, M.J. 1975. Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction. Morrow, Scott Foresman, New York.

Eldon, M. 1950. Bumble. Collins, London.

Eldon, M. 1951. Snow Bumble. Collins, London.

Eldon, M. 1952. Highland Bumble. Collins, London.

Eldon, M. 1954. Tobias Two. Collins, London.

Phipps, F, & Eldon, M. 1948. The Childhood of Jesus. Collins, London.


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