It’s something of a guilty pleasure to come across a children’s book that doesn’t exactly seem to have been written with children in mind. Take The Rat, by G. M. A. (George Mottram Arthur) Hewett, the first in a series of “Animal Autobiographies” published by Adam and Charles Black in the early 1900s.
I give due credit to the Reverend Hewett, an Anglican priest who spent his life on the staff of Winchester College, Oxford–first as house master and finally as college chaplain–between 1878 and his death in 1927. Though his narrator, Samuel H. T. (the H. is for the one paw he lost, the T. to that half of tail he lost to a cat), speaks with the graceful and moderated tone of the gentry (“I cannot help feeling that I am a good fellow and a keen sportsman”), he does not pretend to be more than vermin in the eyes of his readers. And he’s willing to acknowledge that there are a few aspects in which rats lack something in refinement:
… fathers count for very little among us. Very few rats ever see their father, and a good thing too, for he is just as likely as not to eat one of his own children if food is scarce, and sometimes his wife helps him. Just fancy how you would feel if your dad strolled into the nursery or schoolroom one day, with his hands in his pockets, whistling a cheerful tune, and then, when you all ran up to him, hoping to be taken out for a nice safe walk, suddenly seized and devoured the tenderest and juiciest of you!
On the other hand, rats do treat the death of their own with a delicacy that can serve as instruction to Samuel H. T.’s young human readers:
We hardly ever use the word dead if we can possibly avoid it. It is too horrid, and so common and vulgar, too. You can always distinguish a really well-bred rat by the way in which he describes an accident. ‘Where’s Jimmy to-day?” asks somebody. “Feeding the hungry” is a nice answer when somebody has gobbled him up. “How’s your wife to-day?” he asks somebody else. “Dancing in the pig-sty” would mean “Caught by the leg in a trap.” “Singing in the larder” is a way of saying “Squeaking in a cage.” “Lying down with a bad pain in her back” can mean either “Killed by a stick” or “Nipped by a dog,” though we generally call the latter accident “Playing with the puppy.” You see, we are hardly ever ill, so that there is very little chance of people failing to understand. Perhaps you could now tell me how to say prettily and politely that your sister was dangling in the air with a noose round her neck, or that Billy was squashed quite flat under a large stone. Mind you make him quite flat. I could do that easily. I must tell you my answer: “Playing at being a pancake.” Now you make a better and politer answer if you can.
Indeed, Hewett’s rat doesn’t just teach his readers about manners: he instructs them in an admirable school of philosophy built around the uncertainties inherent in the life of a rat:
What a lot of “perhapses”! I love perhapses: they are so much nicer than knowing for certain. That is partly the reason why it seems to me that a tramp ought to be a happier man than you. You know all about your breakfast to-morrow: porridge, bacon and eggs, muffins and strawberry jam, coffee or tea—you can hardly put “perhaps” in once. But very often the whole of a tramp’s breakfast is “perhaps”; and although I am very fond of perhapses, I should not care to have nothing else for breakfast, however nicely it was cooked, unless they put an awful lot of sauce and trimmings round the side. And a rat is better off still. He never says anything without beginning with “Perhaps.” His whole life is so very perhapsy, though he can generally find something to eat, if only he is alive to eat it. We are really very particular about our food, when we have the chance of being particular, but if it comes to the worst there is hardly anything that will not do, until something nicer turns up.
Five other “animal autobiographies” were published A & C Black after The Rat:
- The Cat, by Violet Hunt
- The Dog, by G. E. Mitton
- The Squirrel, by T. C. Bridges
- The Fox, by J. C. Tregarthen
- The Black Bear, by H. Perry Robinson
Each book features twelve beautiful color illustrations but appears to have had a different illustrator. The ones in The Rat appear to be signed by an “S. Bagnot De La Berg,” but I can’t find a record of an artist with this name. Hewett must have been quite the jolly old sport, as his other work available on the Internet Archive, The Pedagogue at Play, features a frontispiece photo of himself sitting up in the snow, skies cattywampus in front of him. “There may be many spills” while skiing downhill, he cautions his reader. “I have had as many as fifteen in twenty minutes; not trifling stoppages, but good honest rollings in the snow.”