I'm not sure why, but the Little Grey Rabbit books have always seemed a bit peripheral. Perhaps because they are not dissimilar in concept to the more famous bunny, Peter Rabbit, and his friends.
But when it comes to tales about cute little rural animals living in cute little cottages eating seed cake, what's not to like? I've always been fond of Little Grey Rabbit, perhaps for the very reason that it's never number one of anyone's list of children's classics, but at the same time it's always been solidly there in the background. I also covet a pack of Little Grey Rabbit playing cards.
Alison Uttley's characters are a mixture of adorableness and total surreality - I especially love Fuzzypeg the hedgehog. The book about him tells of his first birthday. He visits the ever-neat and maternal Grey Rabbit in her blue apron (adult females in Beatrix Potter and Alison Uttley always seem to wear aprons), and then Moldy Warp the Mole. What a weird name!
The illustrations by the gifted Margaret Tempest show Mrs Hedgehog's prickles sticking through her dress as she cooks Fuzzypeg his breakfast - he waits for it in a highchair by the fireside. Then he takes an old-laid egg and rolls down a hill with it, and it breaks, releasing a foul smell.
The story is really quite bizarre.
The plot kicks in when Fuzzypeg mistakes a dog for a lion, and a human (never identified as such, because of course Fuzzypeg has no concept of humans) traps him under a flowerpot. Of course a search party led by Grey Rabbit finds him and they all end the story happily eating a picnic of acorns baked in their skins and crab-apple cider.
Alison Uttley saw herself as a storyteller above all - and her other well-known book, A Traveller in Time, is beautifully written. Her own story was a tragic one - her husband killed himself in 1930, and she was forced into writing to support their son - who deliberately drove his car off a cliff two years after Uttley's death in 1976.
Her journals, published in 2009, revealed there was 'misery behind the animals in cotton frocks', as The Guardian put it. Uttley was a proud and often vicious woman who hated her illustrator, couldn't stand being compared to Beatrix Potter (how the latter's greater success must have rankled) and also had no time for Enid Blyton, who lived nearby.
The diaries show she was seriously unkind to or about almost everyone who crossed her path. As the biographer Kathryn Hughes wrote on the diaries' publication, Uttley was 'a woman of more than ordinary rage and bitterness.
Most of us already know that the vintage stars of children's fiction usually turn out not to have been sweet old ladies but professional toughies who loathed anyone under 30. But whether we really benefit from learning that the creator of Little Grey Rabbit was actually a prize cow is another matter.'
Personally, it won't stop me enjoying the books, but the backstory certainly adds an interesting irony to my own perception of them as peripheral, and may explain some of the crazy bits.