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  • Tailpiece:The Tale of Two Bad Mice
  • Suzanne Rahn (bio)

The last years of the nineteenth century and first of the twentieth were years of considerable political ferment in England, culminating in the General Election of 1906, which gave the Labour party an unprecedented fifty-three seats in Parliament. "You'll have a revolt of your slaves if you're not careful," said E. Nesbit's Queen of Babylon in The Story of the Amulet, and she was not alone in her prediction. The Story of the Amulet (1906) is very much a product of those days of turmoil, and so, in part and from an opposite political standpoint, is Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows (1908), in whose final chapters a lower-class mob of stoats and weasels invades the stately home, Toad Hall, and must be forcibly driven out again.1 That even a shy, sheltered, comfortably middle-class children's author like Beatrix Potter might be affected by this atmosphere is suggested by her Tale of Two Bad Mice, published in 1904.

The story begins with the description of a "very beautiful doll's house; it was red brick with white windows, and it had real muslin curtains and a front door and a chimney."2 The house is inhabited by two dolls, Lucinda and Jane (the Cook). One day, when Lucinda and Jane are out for a drive, two mice—Tom Thumb and his wife, Hunca Munca—3venture into the doll's-house. They help themselves to the "lovely dinner" laid out in the dining room, but when they discover that the food is only painted plaster, "there was no end to the rage and disappointment of Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca" (p. 30). They smash the food and "set to work to do all the mischief they could," especially Tom:

He took Jane's clothes out of the chest of drawers in her bedroom, and he threw them out of the top floor window.

But Hunca Munca had a frugal mind. After pulling half the [End Page 78] feathers out of Lucinda's bolster, she remembered that she herself was in want of a feather bed.

[p. 37]

The two mice manage to carry off the bolster, a cradle, some clothes, and several other items before the dolls return to view the scene of destruction. Retribution seems imminent:

The little girl that the doll's-house belonged to, said,—"I will get a doll dressed like a policeman!"

But the nurse said,—"I will set a mouse-trap!"

[pp. 53-54]

But the story ends, rather surprisingly, with the two mice voluntarily paying for the damage they have done; they stuff a crooked six-pence into one of the dolls' stockings on Christmas Eve,

And very early every morning—before anybody is awake—Hunca Munca comes with her dust-pan and her broom to sweep the Dollies' house!"

[p. 59]

Two Bad Mice has always been popular with children. It is a good story; it has suspense and humor and vigorous action and character interest as well, for the bland and ineffectual dolls are a perfect foil for the daring, impulsive, and resourceful mice. It satisfies the young child's strong and complementary needs for adventure and for security, the adventure of disrupting one's world and the security of putting things back just as they were. (It is rather like Peter Rabbit in that respect, except that Peter's naughtiness is the outdoor variety—running away, getting lost, trespassing—and the naughtiness of the two mice is the indoor variety, getting into things and playing with them and breaking them.) Finally, as protagonists mice have a particular appeal. As Margaret Blount reminds us:

Stories about them outnumber those about any other kind of animal: perhaps it is easier to imagine them members of their own hidden social systems and to think that when out of sight they might be a part of a miniature mirror world. Their fur and appearance help them to win our love, their apparently timorous and desperate courage, our sympathy; and they are easy to "dress."4 [End Page 79]

Moreover, they are exactly the right size to...


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