When I saw The Hepzibah Omnibus in a bookstore in London a few months ago, I began wondering, “Why do I know the name Olwen Bowen?” A quick glance at the title page cleared up the mystery: “Foreword by Clemence Dane.” Kate Macdonald and I had read and discussed Dane’s massive theatrical saga, Broome Stages, earlier this year, and though neither of us much cared for the book, I did remember a few facts from the author’s life–in particular, that she and Bowen had lived together for nearly forty years.
Unlike Dane, who wrote fiction, drama, and nonfiction, Bowen confined herself strictly to writing for children. Although her last book, Tales from the Mabinogion, was a retelling of stories from the King Arthur legends, most of her books were set in worlds inhabited almost exclusively by animals and insects. Her titles were simple and straightforward: Runaway Rabbit; Taddy Tadpole and the Pond Folk; Dog’s Delight; A Terrier’s Tale.
The Hepzibah Omnibus collects four of her animal tales. The first two, “Hepzibah the Hen” and “Hepzibah Again,” take place in the farmyard shared ruled over by the vain Hepzibah and her friend, the equally self-absorbed pig, Gertie Grunter. Most of the Farmyard Folk stick with alliteration when in comes to names: Reginald Rat, Kathleen Cow, Cuthbert Cockerel, etc.. Each chapter is a small object lesson that usually comes as the result of some animal foible–vanity, pride, jealousy–but always ends happily. Rather like Aesop with the edges sanded down. It’s a world where even the rodents loved their most fearsome predator:
And all the Farmyard Folk were very grateful to Barny, the Barndoor Owl. They liked to hear him at night as he flew about among the barns, calling out to himself as he flew, “I see you! I see you!” just out of habit; for they knew that he was a very friendly person really and they all felt much safer when he was about.
The next tale deals with Yap, a young fox with still a bit too much fellow-feeling in his heart to realize that the rabbits might not feel quite comfortable with him crashing their Rabbit Fest in a rabbit suit. In most chapters, though, he proves exceptionally adept at team-building. At different times, he joins causes with a toad, a vole, an otter, three badgers, and a hedgehog. The alliances usually seem to involve getting some kind of food, but I guess we don’t have too feel too much remorse over the sacrifice of eggs, fish, or fruit. And when it does involve something a little closer to home, it’s a roast chicken that Yap’s father, Barker Fox, steals from a circus tent, not a live one.
I found the last tale, “Beetles and Things,” by far the most charming, perhaps because of the illustrations by Harry Rountree (the illustrations for Hepzibah and Yap are by L. R. Brightwell). Montgomery Beetle, in particularly, looks a bit like Harry Langdon. As with the farmyard, the insects exist in a peaceful, alliterative form of coexistence, in which Septimus Spider would never dream of ensnaring Ena Earwig or Bill Blue-Bottle. The only inter-species competition in the book is over a lot of overripe plums (and, of course, that gourmand Thomas Tit gets most of those).
It’s hard to imagine that many kids would enjoy The Hepzibah Omnibus these days. Bowen wrote for children capable of dealing with compound sentences and with a wider vocabulary that the sort of 4-5 years olds who might still go for simple animal stories: “Lena Fly and Bill Blue-Bottle flew quickly away, while Cedric, Ena Earwig, and many of the others spend a cramped and uncomfortable afternoon curled up in any tiny niches and crevices they could find in the tree itself.” And, on the other hand, I’m not sure I would put Hepzibah on a par with The Wind in the Willows as a timeless classic of children’s literature. But I was happy to give up an hour or so of my time to see what Olwen Bowen was up to while her partner was busy hammering away at Broome Stages.