April 12, 2013

Pig Willy Musgrave: A Neo-Victorian Tale

I have a critical mind for Victorian values but a soft heart for some aspects of Victorian art and literature. My mind appreciates the spareness of Zen painting and philosophy yet I find myself viscerally attracted to the overdone decoration of such things as Victorian lace or those incredibly intricate Victorian Valentines I discovered this past February.

Although stories and illustrations for children in the Victorian age have their attractions, the Victorian values for child rearing seem alien from a twenty- first century perspective. Ditto on the nineteenth century views of nature. This was borne home to me on a visit to the British Museum Library one summer. Although Puss In Boots and Peter Rabbit are charming, the instruction books for children known as “Cautionary Tales,” are perplexing to say the least. Richly illustrated with animals dressed in knickers and hats who preside over children with body parts damaged from doing what they should not have, one could easily accuse the Victorian sensibility here as “overkill.” My favorite book for naughty children was one in which the end of every naughty deed gone punished was greeted with an illustration of a chorus of anthropomorphic cats standing on their hind legs with their paws raised in the air. I believe they wore outfits of plaid. Although I don’t have the text in front of me, I recall that their song went something like, “Meow, Meow, Mio, Mio. They shouldn’t have done it. We told them so!”

The Victorian relationship to the animal world was a curious one indeed. Domestic animals were good because they could be dressed up as little furry people. Wild animals were  even better because their heads could become interior decoration. It was an odd mixture of veneration for nature with disregard for animal autonomy. This point was made clear to me by a second object in the British Museum housed in a room full of Victorian era jewelry. I first spotted it from across the room. It was a necklace with gold filigree entwined around rectangular jewels. I could not imagine what jewels had such an iridescent quality. They glittered like neon lights. The object drew me closer and closer. Some rectangles were glowing green, others red. They caught the light and dispersed it like some unusual bioluminescent thing. When I was finally face to face with the necklace (or should I say head to head?) It became appallingly clear what I was looking at. The “gems” in the necklace were encased hummingbird heads! Mortified, I slowly backed away and out the door to an adjacent gallery which featured baubles that were not of zoological origins.

My quick retreat from the hummingbird necklace was marked by ruminations on what possible sentiments could have caused someone to commission a Victorian jeweler to even consider severed birds heads as part of an ensemble that would grace the neck of a well-dressed lady. What was that line of reasoning. Perhaps the nineteenth century sentiments went something like this:
“Hummingbirds are such wondrous works of nature. Their gentle hum soothes my soul. Their tiny feathers glisten like a thousand beads of precious gems stones. Would not their heads be sublime in my lady’s necklace?”

At some point, I’ll illustrate the hummingbird story with a painting that offers restitution to the souls of hapless birds. In the mean time, I put aside this truly misguided veneration of nature and turn to the gentler anthropomorphic animal literature of the nineteenth century. I’ve had a go with this style and have come up with an illustrated attenuated tale told in a somewhat sardonic imitation of Victorian children’s literature. The central character is a suitably coiffed pig in human clothes with a first, middle and last name, Pig Willy Musgrave, for whom the story is so named. There is no cautionary tale involved other than to keep one’s cat fed. Enjoy the story for the illustration.

THE TALE OF PIG WILLY MUSGRAVE: A Neo-Victorian Story of a Sleepy Pig

Late one summer evening, Pig Willy Musgrave sat down to sup on leg of lamb, yellow squash, mashed potatoes, and a mountain of good fig pudding. Tired in his head and fully satisfied in his belly, he fell into a deep and dreamless slumber under the light of a pale blue moon shining through his kitchen window.

Wee Pussy Kitkins was driven to great consternation, as Pig Willy had not fed him that evening. Wee Pussy meowed and meowed for his dinner but Pig Willy would not stir from his sleep. But the window was open a good crack so Wee Pussy crept through and climbed down a trellis into Pig Willy’s garden. There he harvested a trumpet flower with his needle white teeth. Then back up the trellis he climbed. Wee Pussy slid his furry self easily through the window and down onto Pig Willy. He stood with his little white legs on Pig Willy’s shoulder and stuck the trumpet flower into Pig Willy’s ear. Now he meowed and meowed again into the trumpet flower to be certain that Pig Willy would hear his cries. Just as Wee Pussy expected, Pig Willy stirred a little and began to open one eye slightly. Wee Pussy purred as he saw the coal black jewel shining under Pig Willy’s heavy lid.

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