I’ve said before that when I’m in Ireland I go to the Skibbereen Farmers Market every Saturday. After doing this for enough years, I now have a number of friends, who know me by name. There’s the suspected murderer, the young woman who makes wonderful shortbread cookies, my favorite used furniture dealer, and a variety of people whose wares I buy each time (bread, cheese, fresh vegetables, soap, etc.).
I always stop and talk to Charles Vivian, who has a booth with antiques of all sorts. He’s lived and worked in England, Australia, and most recently in Ireland. Oddly enough, he knew some of the dealers my grandmother used to work with when she was at Lipton Tea (although Charles is far younger than my grandmother would be now).
As if that’s not enough, he’s also an independent book editor, and an author. A decade ago he published his first novel, a mystery entitled The Ballingaddy Find, which of course I bought and read. In simple terms, it’s about a family finding a hoard of Viking gold items on their property in Ireland and the legal issues to claiming ownership.
This year he offered me something he thought would interest me—a small book titled Snowdrop or The Adventures of a White Rabbit, published in London, Edinburgh and New York in 1873. The author is given only as “Written by Herself” or on the flyleaf, “Written by Himself.” That is to say, written by the rabbit, whichever gender s/he turns out to be. It’s a small book, beautifully bound with beautifully executed engravings.
The rabbit Snowdrop resides at a girls’ boarding school, where Snowdrop, who we first meet as a young bunny, is a great favorite amongst the pupils (and also surprisingly articulate in his language), and who apparently knows how to read.
What is even more endearing is that this book was a gift, to young Mabel Edith Godfrey from her grandmother, on Christmas 1874. Being an insatiable genealogist, of course I had to find out who Mabel was, and I did track down some details: she was born in 1862 (so she was ten or eleven when she received the book); she married in 1890; and she died in 1891, shortly after the birth of her first and only child Mary. Mabel’s father was a Baronet. John Fermor Godfrey, who, as it turns out, lived much of his life in County Cork or County Kerry, yes, in Ireland. Her mother’s name turned out to be Mary Cordelia Scutt, so one might guess that our Mary, the first girl child of the Godfrey family, was named for her mother.
Why am I dithering on about this? I read it because I was curious about why Charles thought it would interest me, and he was right. It is a charming picture of a certain kind of upper-crust British life at a particular time, meticulously executed, with delightful illustrations. This copy is in fine condition (which makes one wonder whether Mabel ever read it, or just put it on a shelf). It is well written (especially since the author was a rabbit!), and intended merely for entertainment. If there are moral messages involved, they are low key.
It’s hard to say now what young Mabel would have made of this book. It could be that she had just begun attending such a school, or conversely, maybe her family was trying to prepare her to leave for boarding school. Which most likely would have been in England, even though her family seemed rooted in Ireland.
The only oddity is that a number of the illustrations verge on frightening. For example, there’s one image of the rabbit watching a number of large beetles eat a dead mouse. And one where the school’s cook seems to be preparing to cook the rabbit for dinner. And yet another where one of the students appears to be attacked by live eels. Rather mixed messages, wouldn’t you say?
Can you imagine giving such a book to a child as a Christmas gift?