‘THERE was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen.’
A rabbit is for life, not just for Christmas, as the saying almost goes. In Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit, published in 1922, we first meet the eponymous bunny jostling for position in a well packed stocking.
‘On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the top of the Boy’s stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming. There were other things in the stocking, nuts and oranges and a toy engine, and chocolate almonds and a clockwork mouse, but the Rabbit was quite the best of all.’
Initially things go well for the Velveteen Rabbit, but Christmas is a fickle day and with the toys locked in a battle royale for the child’s attention he is soon sidelined.
‘For at least two hours the Boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.’
He is relegated to a life in the toy cupboard or forgotten on the nursery floor, the victim of shinier, snobbier toys
‘Being only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon every one else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real.’
He eventually bonds with the Skin Horse, a wise old hand who gives the Velveteen Rabbit hope, informing him that like Pinocchio he could one day become real. But there is a price.
‘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.’
By good fortune the Velveteen Rabbit does eventually become a most loved plaything, setting him on the path to true rabbithood. But a brush with scarlet fever sees him condemned to the bonfire and he is stuffed in a rubbish sack in a cruel inversion of his beginnings in the Christmas stocking.
‘And so the little Rabbit was put into a sack with the old picture-books and a lot of rubbish, and carried out to the end of the garden behind the fowl-house. That was a fine place to make a bonfire.’
There follows a little Hans Christian Andersen style magic and the longed for transformation courtesy of the fairy flower whose job is to save forgotten playthings and make them real. Which will come as some relief to Woody, Dogger, the Mouse and his Child and the many other toys who have come and gone since the publication of this most understated and influential children’s book.
‘He was a Real Rabbit at last, at home with the other rabbits.’
Buy The Velveteen Rabbit illustrated by William Nicholson, Sarah Massini or Komako Sakai from Waterstones