Snowdrop, or, How Books Have Changed

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.

1 cover

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.

3 Snowdrop

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.

2 message

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.

4 fat child

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?

6 beetles

5 cook in kitchen

7 eels


Can you imagine giving such a book to a child as a Christmas gift?

19 Thoughts

  1. What a find this book was! Yes, it does seem a tad too much for a child though.
    I do have one question for you: why do you feel that person you mentioned is a murderer? Were you serious??

    1. I was indeed. The crime of which he was accused (some 20 years ago) was the model for my book Cruel Winter. While I changed a number of details (like the gender of the accused killer), I used all the forensic evidence reported, which given the time was rather skimpy. He is British, and the Irish have never arrested him because the courts felt there wasn’t enough evidence, but if he leaves Ireland the French will arrest him (the victim was French but had a vacation home in Ireland). So he still lives where he did when the murder occurred, with the same woman he was living with then, and sells his books of poetry at the weekend markets. This year he told me that he was planning to write a dark thriller about a convict falsely accused who wants to solve the murder, and he asked if I thought it would sell. Well, sure, why not? He certainly has name recognition, and Irish books are popular. One more weird experience for me in Ireland!

  2. The book is a treasure, because, not in spite of, the weirdness of improving fiction for children in that era. Rather like “Eric, or Little by Little,” of which I have a first edition. It was given to my father-in-law, whose name was Eric, and may have scarred him for life. Two questions: are you going to tell us about the suspected murderer? And why, if she worked at Lipton Tea, did your grandmother work with antiques dealers?

    1. Re my murderer “friend” see the last reply. I find it funny that I actually have his phone number, and he offered to lend me his gardener. Re my grandmother, she was something like the assistant to the chairman of the board of Lipton in New York, and she was responsible for assembling a collection of antique silver tea items (tea pots, tea caddies, sugar bowls, etc.) for promotional use. She took the collection on the road to England in 1958 thanks to Lipton. It was something of a retirement gift for her (since her mentor was retiring), and I still have all the postcards she sent from Europe. One of the vendors of the silver pieces lived about a block away from her apartment in Manhattan, and I knew him (as well as his brother, who had a shop in London). (My, I seem to have led an odd life, but I’ve met a lot of interesting people!)

      1. I love your “odd” life! The world is a much more interesting place if you open yourself up to “odd” experiences and people. I’m like that. You and I know how to have a joyous life!

  3. So interesting! Your closing question reminded me of a discussion in a children’s literacy class years ago. One of our classmates was from another country and didn’t know what to make of a Doctor Seuss book in which a cat in a hat invades the home of young children one afternoon and involves them in bizarre activities. She was horrified that we’d leave children unattended and, worse, read such a story to them. We’d never thought of it that way 🙂

  4. Definitely a picture into how people viewed what was appropriate for children “back in the day,” but it would definitely not be considered appropriate these days.

  5. I love how your mind works, Sheila and how you managed to track down the family who owned the book. What a cool gift and even more lovely that you’ve made such wonderful connections.

  6. I’m not surprised by the gruesomeness of the book. Children were considered little adults and it never occurred to adults that they weren’t ready for such experiences. I”m sure there were a lot of traumatized kids in those days.

    I love that you took the time to delve into the past of the book an discovered so many interesting aspects of it.

    1. When I went to look for more information about it online, I was surprised to find how many times over the past century-plus it has been reissued or reprinted. It’s a very unusual book. (Reminds me of a book I read in fifth grade, whose name and author I have forgotten, in which the main character (a young girl) goes sledding and knocks out some of her teeth.)

  7. What an amazing find! It makes one wonder of those that originally had the book along with the writer of it.

    We think it odd for such pictures in a child’s book, but you have to consider the times. I’m sure it was very acceptable for the times. Just think my generation watched things like the Roadrunner and Wille E. Coyote as mere cartoons for amusement. By today’s standards, they have to have disclaimers for violence on cartoons. Just as my generation can’t fathom what the later generations are thinking, I’m sure that is use thinking of past generations like this one.

    I think to have a wonderful copy of ” Snowdrop or The Adventures of a White Rabbit” would be a wonderful addition to ones library collection.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  8. I’d have to read the book, but it might be appropriate for a 10 year old. I was reading The Hardy Boys by that age.

    Then again, I know not all the gifts from my grandma were appropriate. So maybe it really wasn’t.

  9. Love your descriptions of the village you are in and the people there. Its fun to get to know them a little each time you mention them. The “murderer” must be the talk to the town on lots of occasions and it must be hard for him to feel normal sometimes. What a character in a book with so many possibilities!
    On the subject of children’s books, it is where we learned what an ogre was, and a troll and what the “beast” was in Beauty and the Beast and how Snow White was poisoned and why the hunter hunted! Without the trolls under the bridges, I am not sure a fairy tale would have been remembered very well! Even children’s literature had suspense and mystery and bad “guys.” And the rabbit in the kitchen with the cook? The “supermarket” didn’t clean it up before the cook got it in those days!

  10. Your article is most interesting! When my children were little, I stayed away from most of the “fairy tales” and instead made up happier stories for them. I’ll never forget the first time we all watched Bambi, my kids cried and cried. Ah, well days gone to the by. Your friend the murderer is intriguing and the woman he Still lives with. I have to wonder did she believe in his innocents or just never cared one way or another. What about the community? Did they wonder?, know? care/or not care? and now 20 years later, has it just all been forgotten or forgiven? I guess in the reality of it all, the only ones who really matter in it, is the murderer, the victim and the good lord. He, I guess can live it and has lived his life day in, day out..the victim is dead and gone, so doesn’t care..the good lord will eventually have his say.

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