Sunday, 11 January 2009

Like rabbits

Click on images to see larger version.

Interesting bibliographic observation via Lily: I've just been looking at two books about the English countryside. One is Through the Woods, The English Woodland April-April (Gollancz, 1936); this is an extended essay by HE Bates celebrating a year in an English wood, illustrated by Agnes Miller Parker. The other is Fifteen Rabbits (Pilot Press, 1945) by Felix Salten (creator of Bambi, who makes a cameo appearance in this book); illustrated by one Sheila Dunn, it's a simply-told but very dark (of which more later) sentient-rabbits story in a not-very-defined setting (alongside a cast of distinctly English animals, it features elk, i.e. Alces alces a.k.a. moose).

A particular point of interest is the artwork. Stylistically, there's nothing to compare. The Bates book has an exquisite series of 72 wood engravings in the style for which Agnes Miller Parker is rightly considered one of the finest wood engravers of the 20th century (see the British Library for the Ian Rogerson book, and Scran for a selection of image thumbnails). The Salten has line drawings, competent but of a rather lower artistic order; Sheila Dunn isn't well known but the Dictionary of Twentieth-century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Mark Bryant, Ashgate, 2000, ISBN 1840142863) finds she was a cartoonist and commercial illustrator who contributed fashion drawings to Vogue, cartoons to Punch, worked for a children's magazine, and drew advertising art for Quality Street, Cadbury's and Morley Silk Stockings, as well as illustrating books that also include Compton Mackenzie's Unpleasant Visitors (1928) and Renni the Rescuer (1944, also by Salten, about a battlefield rescue dog).

Style apart, however, several of the illustrations have remarkable similarity of composition (Parker left, Dunn right, if it isn't obvious) and given the respective dates and vast artistic superiority of the older, there's no doubt in which direction the influence flowed.

Bambi, by the way, is so inextricably associated with Disney that I'd never realised that its origins are entirely non-American, which does explain something about Fifteen Rabbits. As Bambi, an Austrian deer tells, the 1923 Bambi. Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde was the pseudonymous work of Siegmund Salzmann, a prominent Jewish Austrian writer born in 1869 who spent most of his life in that country apart from his final years in Switzerland, to which he escaped on the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938. A European setting, then, is why there are elk in Fifteen Rabbits, which was first published in Vienna as Fünfzehn Hasen: Schicksale in Wald und Feld. The background also explains the darkness of the 1929 story, which has been read as an allegory of Fascism (the fate of one of its rabbit protagonists is imprisonment and death).

Salzmann/Salten was a versatile writer whose work went well beyond children's fiction; nowadays he is generally viewed to be the anonymous author of the infamous 1906 Josephine Mutzenbacher - The Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself. Google Books has preview access to the work itself here - not safe for work or minors, I guess, but as it was written a century ago it comes across as more quaint than shocking. I doubt Disney will ever take up the option on that title, but they did extremely well out of his other works posthumously; he died in 1945, and the 1950s saw Bambi, the 1957 squirrel movie Perri (based on his Die Jugend des Eichhornchens Perri) and the 1959 The Shaggy Dog (a shape-shifting story based on his Der Hund von Florenz). There's a good biographical sketch of Salten here inside The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890-1938, Harold B. Segel, Purdue University Press, 1993, ISBN 1557530335.

PS: Another detail to add to the rather dark backstory to Salten's books: they were translated into English by Whittaker Chambers, the American writer, editor, Communist party member and Soviet spy, whose testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee led to the conviction of Alger Hiss. As to Bambi, perhaps surprisingly even he isn't entirely uncontroversial: see The Trouble with Bambi: Walt Disney's Bambi and the American Vision of Nature (Ralph H. Lutts, Forest and Conservation History 36, October 1992: 160-171) argues for the damaging effect of the Disney icon in its failure to foster an understanding of ecology.

- Ray


  1. Interesting ... I've spent some time, since you posted, browsing your links.

    The idea of Bambi as a spiritual forerunner of Spiegelmann's Maus intrigued me in particular.

    I have a distant, long faded childhood memory of some tenuous family connection to Sheila Dunn (in her Quality Street persona)...

  2. The idea of Bambi as a spiritual forerunner of Spiegelmann's Maus intrigued me in particular.

    Salten was certainly in a time and place where it's tempting to trace influences. The roots of Nazism were almost literally in the Bavarian/Austrian woods. Salten was a successful author and journalist in Vienna when the young Hitler was a down-and-out artist in the same city. The Vienna social and political scene involved conflicts that would be played out large: for instance, the early 1900s saw the political roots of the 1938 Anschluss.