The Velveteen Rabbit: Questionable Classic

As the mother of two girls, I treasure each and every chance to share books with them. But there is one book I will probably make them wait to read until they are much, much older: Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Became Real

I realize it is tantamount to children’s literature heresy in some circles, but I consider The Velveteen Rabbit one of the most deplorable works of fiction ever to come off the presses. I’ve hated it for as long as I can remember. The following excerpt is the portion that stands out most in my mind (and apparently in the minds of others – a brief search revealed that it is among the most popular readings at weddings):

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Here we have the Skin Horse – who has obviously been at the receiving end of a great deal of abuse at the hands of his young charge – providing sage advice to the Rabbit protaganist about becoming real – a painful process that requires being “loved” until you are used up and “shabby”. The Rabbit takes the Skin Horse’s advice to heart, and after his brief life as an abused and (later) discarded toy, he is transformed by the “nursery magic Fairy” into a real rabbit and allowed to live the remainder of his days in “Rabbit-land” (I kid you not, that’s what it’s called).

For some reason, this sadistic tale, which promotes martyrdom as the one true path to a higher plane of existence, is lauded as a classic and considered an indispensable tome to share with impressionable youngsters.

While I’m not one for unbridled egoism, the idea that you are not “real” until you have abandoned your identity and someone has loved you to pieces (literally, in the case of the Velveteen Rabbit), is just plain sick. Apparently, I am alone in feeling this way.

Margery Williams’ classic tale of a rabbit who allows himself to be worn to death in the name of “love” is rather reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s loathsome The Giving Tree, but far more reprehensible. You will recall that in Silverstein’s tale, a tree gives herself to a young boy until all that remains of her is a stump, which he then uses as a stool. If Silverstein’s story was truly about a tree, it wouldn’t be too dreadful (though mother nature certainly gets the short end of the stick!), but even a child can tell that the story is meant as some sort of allegory for self-sacrificing maternal love.

Oddly enough, Silverstein’s story has been at the receiving end of far more vitriol than William’s book. Roughly 1/5 of the Amazon reviews are in the one star range, and many readers highlight its disturbingly anti-feminist/abusive undertones. But even when viewed as allegory, Silverstein’s misogynist tale is still superior to The Velveteen Rabbit, because at least the intended audience (children) is meant to identify with the self-indulgent child, not the tree. Furthermore, most kids are, at the very least, surprised and annoyed by the boy’s selfishness.

In sharp contrast to the criticism launched at The Giving Tree, surprisingly few readers seem to find anything wrong with The Velveteen Rabbit. Yet, in The Velveteen Rabbit, the child-reader is drawn deep into the psyche of the rabbit, and manipulated into believing that maturity is about putting up with abuse at the hands of those you “love,” in the hopes that their abuse will somehow make you “real.” While the backlash against Silverstein’s book has been rather pronounced, William’s tale has enjoyed such consistent popularity that its disturbing message has even spawned a self-help book, entitled The Velveteen Principles (Limited Holiday Edition): A Guide to Becoming Real, Hidden Wisdom from a Children’s Classic. As with most self-help books, this work chooses to focus on becoming “real” as a process of authentication, in which one stops worrying about the superficial world and becoming more spiritually minded. Most adults seem to approach the book from a similar standpoint, preferring to gloss over or minimize the significance of the Rabbit sacrificing his life for a rather ungrateful and decidedly unworthy figure to whom he has attached his entire sense of self-worth (this is made all the worse by the fact that, as previously mentioned, the Rabbit has a very child-like perspective and is clearly meant to be a character that children will personally identify with).

Apparently generations of parents and caregivers have decided that it’s perfectly acceptable to celebrate the idea that love means having “most of your hair…loved off…your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” I can understand giving your life for someone you love, but it’s not a “sacrifice” that you make to some greedy bugger that makes your life miserable and then tosses you in a rubbish heap.

I realize that many of you will think I’m too sensitive about the book, but I think that’s the key problem: children take what they read very seriously! They read and re-read them dozens of times. The books we love as children significantly influence our worldview. I adore children’s literature, but this is one book I don’t plan on sharing with my kids until they’re old enough to apply some critical thinking skills to the subject.

The re-opening of the William Morris Gallery

After a year-long, £5 million renovation, the William Morris Gallery has finally re-opened. The gallery is housed in one of William Morris’ homes known as “Water House”. The house is located in Lloyd Park in Walthamstow in northeast London. The building which houses the gallery dates back to 1744, and was William Morris’ family home during his teenage years.

To celebrate their reopening, the William Morris Gallery will be hosting an exhibit of Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry. This colourful tapestry (which is huge – 3 x 15 metres), examines “man’s passage from birth to death ‘via the shops.’”

It’s a wild and fascinating work and definitely worth getting a closer look at! And definitely a good choice for the re-opening of the gallery (I’m sure Morris would appreciate both the medium of tapestry and the consumerism-questioning message behind it).

If you are lucky enough to be in London for the 2012 Olympic Games, this would be a great  opportunity to take a side trip to see the museum as well. For more information, visit the William Morris’ Gallery’s new website.

 

Thank you for your patience

I recently made the decision to migrate from Blogger to WordPress after five years with Blogger. I had a good experience with Blogger overall, but these days I’ve had a difficult time finding time to blog on my PC, and I needed a better mobile platform (with two little kids, I find that if I can’t do it on my iPad, it won’t get done!).

All in all, it was actually a fairly smooth transition, thanks to my husband, who understands these things a lot better than I do! I still have some work to do (I would like to change the blog header, for example), but at least all the posts and comments are here. Unfortunately, I think email subscriptions might have been lost in the move, so if you get a chance, please re-subscribe.

Over the next few days, I will be tinkering a bit with the menu and the sidebar, so thank you for your continued patience!

 

Adventures in French Bread

These days there are two schools when it comes to homemade french bread: knead and no-knead. Personally, I rather like kneading bread, so at first I didn’t quite get the point of no-knead bread, which was all the rage a few years ago, thanks in part to an article Jeffrey Steingarten wrote for Vogue Magazine. I mentally filed it away under “I have to try this someday” and didn’t think much more of it.

Fast forward a few years later, and I am now a compulsive bread baker, thanks in part to my two year old, who is enchanted by everything that goes on in the kitchen. She insists on helping me prepare every loaf. In the past we’ve primarily stuck to an oat sandwich bread that’s a breeze to make.

We probably could have gone on happily making sandwich bread for eternity, were it not for an episode of “The French Chef” that got our creative juices flowing. My daughter’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree when she saw Julia Child making baguettes. She leapt off the floor and pointed excitedly at the screen, shouting “pan! Pan!” (we have a bilingual home, and she prefers the Spanish “pan” to the unromantic English “bread”). Despite my reservations, what could I do?

As a home baker, I’ve always been a bit leery of french bread, which I’ve always been told requires a baker’s oven. But if Julia Child, armed with nothing more than a turkey baster (this seems like a very inefficient method of getting the dough wet, but I think she just wanted to let people know you could do it with anything – she also brandished a “flit gun” for spraying the loaves, something I’ve never seen before in my life. Apparently it was originally used for insecticide. Yikes.), so could I. So, after watching the episode a half dozen more times (and getting the recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 2), my daughter and I set to work.

I have a tendency to adjust recipes as I go along. For example, Julia calls for 2 teaspoons of yeast, which is just RIDICULOUS, unless you happen to live in Antarctica. Edmonton is practically at the Arctic circle, and I managed to use 1 teaspoon active dry yeast (I can’t stand bread that tastes like yeast. I’m also cheap, but more on that later). I also added nearly 1/2 cup of extra water, because I think bleached flour absorbs more liquid and I tend to flour my kneading surface more than Julia does.

The bread turned out perfectly, but it took at least 9 hours, which is a bit of a challenge with two toddlers under foot, both of whom are desperately waiting to try the bread. Afterwards, I swore to myself I would just buy french bread from a bakery! But the results were delicious, and both of my kids were addicted almost immediately. My eight-month old now insists that every meal begin with bite-sized bits of french bread! What’s a busy mom to do?

Then I remembered the whole “no-knead” concept. But most of the no-knead recipes want you to bake the bread in a dutch oven, and I don’t really like that idea. It seems a bit lazy and my toddler loves to shape the dough. I started wondering if there was a way I could combine the recipes to create an easy recipe that wouldn’t take all day to make.

A quick internet search and I had discovered several plausible sounding recipes. (The big problem was that none of them had enough salt. Julia’s bread called for 2 1/4 teaspoons, and I wouldn’t want to reduce the salt content by much, unless you have high blood pressure, etc.). Of course, I have perfected my own version, which follows.

The Recipe:

1/4 tsp active dry yeast
scant 2 cups warm water (1 5/6 cups if you want to be precise)
3 cups flour, plus extra for kneading (I know it’s “no-knead”, but I’ll get to that later)
2 tsp salt

Part 1. The night before.

Begin by dissolving the yeast in the warm water. Let it sit for at least 3-4 minutes.

While the yeast is getting friendly, place 3 cups of flour in a bowl large enough to allow the mixture to expand to 3 times its bulk (about 10 1/2 cups – Julia recommends filling the bowl with water to know the precise level at which the dough has expanded to 3 1/2 times it’s original bulk). Add 2 tsp of salt to the flour and mix.

Stir in the yeast and water mixture until well incorporated. Scrape the sides of the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Then cover the plastic wrap with a damp towel.

Allow to rest for 12-14 hours (I do this before going to bed, so that it’s ready to go after breakfast the next morning).

Part 2. In the morning.

Prepare your work surface with enough flour to prevent the dough from sticking.

Uncover the dough. It should have tripled in bulk and be bubbly and rather sweaty looking.

Using a spatula, turn the dough out onto your work surface. Allow it to rest for a moment while you wash out the bowl – you’ll be needing it again in a moment.

Flour the palms of your hands and sprinkle some flour over the surface of the dough. Knead the dough 4-5x, just to squeeze out the air bubbles. Flatten it into a circle and squeeze out all the large bubbles of air. Fold the dough in half, and then in half again. Try to make it look a bit rounded (Julia says it should like a “rounded cushion”), and return it to the clean bowl. Cover it with the plastic wrap and towel and let it rest for 2 more hours.

Part 3. Shaping the dough.

By now the dough should be looking all bubbly again. Turn it out onto your floured working surface. Once again, flatten it into a circle and squeeze out the bubbles.

You can shape the dough however you’d like, but I prefer a long single loaf, which is done by folding the dough in half lengthwise. First you fold the far side to the center, and then you bring the near side of the dough to meet it in the middle (sort of like you’re making an envelope). This part isn’t really all that critical, but you will want to make sure it rises seam-side down, unless you want it to look funny.

Part 4. The final rise.

The next step is where I differ from pretty much every baker out there. Everyone – and I do mean everyone – insists that your french bread must rise on floured towels. This is nonsense, and messy to boot. I firmly believe it should rise on the surface you’ll be baking it on. (Leave a comment if you think I’m crazy, but I’ve had amazing success with this method).

After shaping the dough, I pick it up off the counter and put it on a parchment covered baking sheet, seam side down. If you are making baguettes, which won’t fit in a standard oven anyway, then you might need to use towels, but for any other shape, your hands will work just fine, and you can arrange the dough a bit once it’s on the baking sheet.

Sprinkle a light dusting of flour on the surface of your dough and cover with plastic wrap, followed by a wet towel. Allow to rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until it has increased 2 1/2 times in bulk. After 1 hour, pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

Part 5. Scoring.

The signature cuts on the surface of french bread are both beautiful and useful. They allow the dough to expand just a little bit more! To create them, slice through the top layer of the dough using a sharp knife. I strongly suggest using a utility knife (obviously a clean one that isn’t covered in plaster!). Wet it with warm water first, and it will cut cleanly and easily through the dough (plus it’s a lot easier to hold than a razor blade!!).

Part 6. Baking.

You’re almost there! Now we need to replicate the baker’s oven as well as we can. This is done by spraying the dough with water, which allows the dough to rise a bit more during the beginning of the baking process. I use a standard spray bottle for this (obviously one that has never been used for cleaning products, etc.!). Spray the dough until the surface is wet, and then place it in your pre-heated 450 degree oven. Bake for 3 minutes.

After 3 minutes, remove the bread. Spray it again. Return it to the oven for another 3 minutes.

After 3 more minutes, remove the bread and spray it again. Return it to the oven and repeat the process after another 3 minutes.

The final time (to clarify, you spray at the 3, 6 and 9 minute marks), remove bread and spray again. Return to the oven and bake for 16 more minutes, for a total bake time of 25 minutes. You might want to rotate the baking sheet half way through if your oven is hotter at the back than the front. Be sure to allow the bread to cool completely (2-3 hours) before storing or cutting (my daughter usually grabs a hunk of it before then!).

After trying Julia Child’s method vs. the “no-knead” way, I would say that the crumb is nearly identical (perhaps because I used 1/2 the yeast that Julia recommended). My “less-knead” bread is ever so slightly denser, which gives it more of an artisan quality, whereas Julia’s recipe seems to yield Safeway-esque light loaves (sorry, Julia). Also, since I bake bread at least twice a week, I love that I can use 4x less yeast in the no-knead version. And because it only takes 4 hours on the day you bake it, the no-knead recipe gives me time to get out of the house in the afternoon, which, as Martha Stewart would say, is a “good thing”!

As a reminder, if at any point to baking you have an emergency on your hands (and with two little ones, this is always a possibility), you can always put the dough in the fridge and start again later (refrigeration just slows down the rising process). If you have a nine hour chunk of time to make bread, then use Julia Child’s version, which can be found on page 55 of  Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 2 (but reduce the amount of yeast!).

As with all bread, I think repetition is the key to getting it perfect. I have baked bread at least once a week for the past three years, so I sometimes feel I have a “connection” with it (I swear my older daughter does too! She’s been baking her entire life!). You start to get a sense of how moist the dough should be at every point in the process, and what it’s texture should be, and that’s when it really becomes second nature.

Has anyone else out there experimented with no-knead vs. traditional french bread? Do you have any tips to share?

Art History Carnival May 2012

Welcome to the May edition of art history carnival!

art history

Our first post is an examination of the “fête galante”, which is “a genre of painting that portrays upper class society celebrating or enjoying outdoor gatherings and amusements.” If the enormous popularity of PBS’ Downton Abbey is any indication, this genre of art has certainly not lost its appeal. Lauren presents The Pilgrimage to Cythera captured the 18th century posted at Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century, saying, “This post takes a close look at Watteau’s famous Pilgrimage to Cythera discussing the artist’s technique and inspirations and introduces some unanswered questions left for the viewer to consider.” I guess everyone enjoys a good “fête galante” and this post is a delightful exploration of the genre!

Helen Webberley presents ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly: inter-war American landscapes: Grant Wood posted at ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly, saying, “Last year I examined a series of landscape paintings that seemed to share nothing but their inter-war timing. Paul Nash, Eric Ravilius, Harry Epworth Allen, Reuven Rubin, Dorit Black and Rita Angus came from Britain, Australia, Israel and New Zealand.
These landscapes’ boldly presented hills and roads emphasised their treatment as mass and form. And like cubist painting decades earlier, the mountains became interconnecting planes of varying depth. What about on the other side of the Atlantic? American artist Grant Wood (1891–1942) also painted bold landscapes, creating a sense of vast and easy movement. In evolving a style of artificial geometries, clean surfaces and relentless patterns, Wood was a true Art Deco painter!”



Susan Benford presents Rembrandt Paintings in the Rijksmuseum posted at Famous Paintings Reviewed – An Art History Blog, saying, “Rembrandt paintings are the most famous artwork in (and the indisputable pride of) Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, dedicated to showcasing the best of the Dutch Golden Age…these four Rembrandt paintings – plus “Night Watch” – are some of the most outstanding artwork in the Rijksmuseum.”



Mark White takes his readers on a scenic tour of some beautiful examples of how walking has been portrayed throughout art history in his piece Walking Back to Happiness: Walking and Art posted at whitemarkarts.

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of art history carnivalusing our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

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