If there is anything pleasant in life, it is doing what we aren’t meant to do. If there is anything pleasant about criticism, it is finding out what we aren’t meant to find out. It is the method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out as essential what the author regarded as incidental.
So wrote Monsignor Ronald Knox in his essay on the fecundity of the literature of Sherlock Holmes. Those who read the profound words of other fecund literary sources could not hope to read words more profound than these. Msgr. Knox goes on to say, “to the scholarly mind anything is worthy of study,” and by this principle, the pastorals of Beatrix Potter may be considered as parables.
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse is a tiny tale about tidiness—which is really no small matter. Whatever is said about cleanliness being next to godliness, cleaning is at least a prominent theme within the rhythm of reality. The terrestrial season invites spring-cleaning; the liturgical season invites soul-cleaning. Regarding this latter season, Lent—for all its severe associations—is rooted in the sunniness of springtime. The word “Lent” is etymologically related to the word “lengthen,” signifying the lengthening of days as the world shakes off wintry darkness and turns to the dawn in the eastern, or Easter, sky. As the natural motions reflect the supernatural, so too is domestic life analogous to beatific life; and Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse is a champion of the challenge to keep both house and heart free from invaders and in good order—on earth as it is in heaven; or, as the case may be, in a bank under a hedge.
For living in “such a funny house,” Mrs. Tittlemouse is a very formal person. She is a “terribly tidy particular little mouse,” fraught with a fastidiousness that amounts to a neurosis over cleanliness. She is constantly distressed by the discovery of uninvited guests in her “yards and yards of sandy passages, leading to storerooms and nut-cellars and seed-cellars, all amongst the roots of the hedge.” A beetle. A ladybird. A bold bad spider inquiring after Miss Muffet. Finally and most alarmingly, an infestation of bumble bees. All of these intrusions and interruptions punctuate the stress and struggle of maintaining an orderly and ordered universe both within and without: a truth in both housekeeping and soulkeeping.
The scrupulousness of Mrs. Tittlemouse is at once something of a blessing and a curse. Admirable as it is in some fashion, when it comes to her abode, Mrs. Tittlemouse tends to worry overmuch; which worry will not add a single hour to the span of her life—or to anyone else’s. Thus is born the impotence of impatience. In Mrs. Tittlemouse’s state of perfectionist panic over the disclosure of Babbitty Bumble’s bees and their hive of untidy dry moss in her acorn storeroom, she stumbles upon a far greater quandary. It never rains but it pours, or so the world seems to work.
Retreating to the parlor to recover her sanity, Mrs. Tittlemouse there discovers the greatest threat to sanity that her mind can conceive: Mr. Jackson. Mr. Jackson, who never wipes his feet. Mr. Jackson, who lived in a drain below the hedge, in a very dirty wet ditch. Mr. Jackson, who coughed in a fat voice. Mr. Jackson himself, “sitting all over a small rocking-chair, twiddling his thumbs and smiling, with his feet on the fender.”
It is at this crisis point that an alarming principle of trespassers and trespasses comes to the fore of this tiny little tale. As with any unwelcome guest who lamentably overstays his lamentable welcome, Mr. Jackson had to be asked if he “would take some dinner?” While the smaller marauders were all shooed away with clattering dustpan and without much ado, it is this larger one that is invited to sit, to dine, and to be entertained. It is this disastrous, dripping interloper that must be gone about with a mop who is bidden to preside at the head of the table and is served by the lady of the house, Mrs. Tittlemouse. Could this be akin to a horror captured by Evelyn Waugh in his own tale of a household, Brideshead Revisited?
Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night.
Though Mr. Jackson does stay for dinner to the chagrin of Mrs. Tittlemouse, it is too dark a thing for this analysis to posit that the good-natured, grubby toad serves as representative of some secret pet sin. There are brighter avenues for the intellect to pursue. Every mouse hole and every human soul hold imperfections that must be borne; the bearing of which allows them to play unforeseen roles in the economy of peace. The horrific calamity of the reclusive Mrs. Tittlemouse is that she must surrender to Homeric hospitality. As St. Francis de Sales taught, great opportunity is afforded to sinners by their faults. Mr. Jackson affords such an opportunity, and he is decidedly not the type of opportunity Oscar Wilde quips about concerning fault when he says, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” He is an opportunity for humility.
The occasion of Mr. Jackson is the passion of Mrs. Tittlemouse—a sufferance that drives her to distraction and, ultimately, deliverance. After failing to provide suitable fare for the toothless toad, Mrs. Tittlemouse shuts herself up in the nut-cellar while Mr. Jackson squeezes down the bee-infested passage desirous of the honey he smells, engaging with Babbitty Bumble and company as he disengages their nest.
Never was there such a mess as the one that polluted Mrs. Tittlemouse’s little house when all was said and done. “The untidiness was something dreadful.” Swooning over the wreckage, she immediately makes her door too small for Mr. Jackson. With the words, “Will it ever be tidy again?” emanating from her exhausted soul as it suffers its dark night, Mrs. Tittlemouse falls asleep. It is finished. The cataclysm is past. Rest overcomes. A single act of charity has led to a new beginning through a via dolorosa.
Mrs. Tittlemouse awakes in the early spring morning, puts her kingdom to rights in a burst of spring-cleaning, and invites her folk to a springtime celebration. For Mr. Jackson, who makes an appearance at a window, acorn-cupfuls of honeydew are served. Even he, even Mr. Jackson, had a function in creating this scene of joyous life; and though he can no longer enter the sanctum, he is acknowledged as a type of Felix Culpa.
For all of her resourcefulness, Beatrix Potter never lost sight of reality—even its tensions and terrors. Peter Rabbit’s father was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Jemima Puddle—Duck’s eggs were devoured by her canine rescuers. Squirrel Nutkin was mutilated by Old Mr. Brown. The world of Beatrix Potter is the real world: moral, but not moralistic, a world of pursuit and prey, of anecdote and accident, of dangers and delights. The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse is not only a tiny tale about a terribly tidy wood-mouse. It is also a tiny portal to the terribly tidy spiritual mysteries of the Easter lustrations: rites that must be suffered to make all things clean and new again in the Risen One.