January 12, 2004

Tom Thumb

I found a pair of charming little books in a second-hand place here on Saturday: The Wonderful Life & Adventures of Tom Thumb by Paul Britten Austin. This is a lively re-imagining of the old fairytale, one which relates the intrepid Mr Thumb’s ‘painful experiences in Youth; His glorious Victory at Waterloo [...]; His decoration by H.M. King George. Further, an exact account of how he was Bewitched by a Clockmaker; Was brought to trial on a Grave Charge, and thereafter condemned to one of H.M. Prisons, whence (as is well known) he escaped with the aid of sundry Mice’ etcetera, etcetera. Indeed, the tale as a whole is purportedly ‘related by a mouse.’

Front cover of the first volume of Britten Austin's 'Tom Thumb', with illustration by Mervyn Peake.

The books were published to accompany a series of broadcasts made by Britten Austin in 1954 and ‘55 on Swedish Radio, for the benefit of children learning English, and to that end, each volume has a glossary at the back providing Swedish translations for what were presumed to be the more unfamiliar English words in the text. For example, we see that ‘flabbergast’ is defined as göra flat, mållös and ‘fiddlesticks!’ as dumheter! It occurred to me that the book was rather haphazardly colloquial in a way that could be very difficult for a non-native speaker to follow, but, I learned, this had pretty much been the intention:

…I was working for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation and had written, for my own amusement, a kind of serial trying to evoke, even at cost of pastiche, the general atmosphere of English children’s books I had read as a child. And a friend of mine got the radio people here to use it as a text for a language course on English idioms - Paul Britten Austin (source here).
Back cover of the first volume of Britten Austin's 'Tom Thumb', with a synopsis so succint there is barely any need to read the actual book.

I supposed at first that the author must have been an embittered hack who had weathered numerous literary disappointments. I based this on the scant evidence of his portrayal of a Critic in the first volume and of a Publisher in the second, as follows:

…a person who went to the Theatre every night because he had to and because he was too lazy to think of any other way of earning his living; and so he revenged himself for his unhappy lot by writing the nastiest things he could think of in the next day’s papers - I, p. 94.
A publisher, dear children, is not an author. Nor is he a printer. In fact, it is difficult to say just what is it he does, apart from putting his name on your book when you have finished it - II, p. 106.

My supposition was as wrong as it was unkind: Tom Thumb was Britten Austin’s first publication - the first of many. His latest books (a volume of Napoleonic history and a translation of Hjalmar Söderberg’s novel Doctor Glas) were published in 2002.

Front cover of the second volume of Britten Austin's 'Tom Thumb', with an illustration by Mervyn Peake.

The reason that the books caught my eye in the first place was that the style of the illustrations on their covers seemed familiar, a feeling soon explained when I read that the illustrator was none other than Mervyn Peake. These may not be Peake’s finest works, and indeed they date from a period when his illness was beginning to adversely affect his art, but some of them are delightful, nevertheless. Peake’s involvement also accounts for the fact that the copies of these volumes I saw advertised for sale at abebooks cost roughly a hundred times more than I paid for mine.

Back cover of the second volume of Britten Austin's 'Tom Thumb', with synopsis.

Click on the images to see enlarged versions of the same.

Front cover of 'The History of Blebb and Glugg', a book within a book.

One more interesting feature of this publication is its literal treatment of the ‘book-within-a-book’ theme. In the second volume, mention is made of a publication glorying in the title of The History of Blebb and Glugg, the Giant Babies, and how they turned the whole world upside-down. We then find, glued to page 97, a tiny but complete pamphlet, less than an inch high, magnified for the image above, containing this same History.

Posted by misteraitch at January 12, 2004 03:32 PM | TrackBack

Lovely post as usual.

Posted by: Duckling on January 12, 2004 08:31 PM

My goodness! I just realised I have a small fortune sitting on my bookshelf...

Posted by: Janne on April 15, 2006 09:53 PM
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