Welcome back to a week of celebrating Elsa Beskow, an early Swedish children’s author and illustrator whose imaginative, kind-hearted stories still enchant us more than one hundred years after their publication.
Yesterday we looked at Beskow’s childhood delight in fairy tales and carefree summer days at the lake, and the way those elements are woven into her forest fantasies. Today I want to comment on two other threads in her stories — kindness, and the dignity of work.
When she was 15, Elsa’s beloved, merry father died of pneumonia. It was a severe blow. Their tattered finances forced her mother to move the family in with relatives. In an autobiographical sketch, Beskow recounts this life with her two aunts and bachelor uncle:
“We had a kind of collective household, and everyone did his or her share and we had everything in common. I remember how happy I felt the first time I succeeded in earning some money for a drawing and was able to run home with the money for the joint household. My sisters also began to earn their living at a very early age. In spite of economic difficulties we were a very happy family, and there was plenty of fun in our home.”
It was these happy memories that Beskow drew on when, amidst the horrors of the First World War, overcome by both fear and anger at the state of the world, Elsa wrote the first of the Peter and Lotta stories which would become such widespread favorites.
Aunt Green, Aunt Brown, and Aunt Lavender introduces us to Peter and Lotta, two small orphans who stumble into an acquaintance with three spinster aunts and one bachelor uncle. Each of these adult figures has decidedly particular ways and dresses accordingly.
Aunt Green vigorously works in the gardens, Aunt Lavender generally frills about in the parlor, and warm Aunt Brown bakes platefuls of gingerbread and toffee. Uncle Blue lives across the way. When the aunts’ dog, Dot, goes missing, there’s a hullabaloo of a search, and the two waifs who find him are welcomed in to become part of their household.
Although two of the aunts and Uncle Peter have a somewhat stiff sense of manners about them, their brittle shells begin to thaw once the children become part of their lives. As for Peter and Lotta, they ponder “how curious it was to have found so kind a person in the world as Aunt Brown.” In a later story, they also recognize that “sometimes one can make nasty people good, just by being really kind to them.” Certainly the generosity and cheerfulness which enveloped a grieving teen-age Elsa after her great loss had a monumental impact on her understanding of human well-being.
The storybook aunts, children, and uncle, plus Dot the dog and Esmeralda the cat appear in four additional episodes: Aunt Brown’s Birthday, Peter and Lotta’s Adventure, Uncle Blue’s New Boat, and Peter and Lotta’s Christmas. Throughout the series, it is their kindness and caring for one another, warts and all, that wins the day.
Several of the stories are quite funny. Aunt Brown’s Birthday is a comedy of errors, with the others attempting to surprise her but making a general muck of it! Peter and Lotta’s Adventure also sees an attempt at goodness backfiring in a whole series of unfortunate events including the two children being stranded buck naked in the forest! Yes. Definitely a story that wouldn’t survive the editor’s pen in 2018 with the children wandering in and out of the care and keeping of numerous unhelpful, and even shady, characters.
All of Beskow’s books are infused with warmth, gladness, and kindness. There is patience with the children, real and make-believe, the rascals as well as the meek, and a steadying response to missteps even when they cause immense troubles, even when some well-meaning children end up burning down the house in one story! Beskow’s stories are soothing, encouraging our best instincts and treatment of one another, just as she experienced in her unconventional home.
Elsa began to study drawing at a school in Stockholm at age 15 and began publishing her drawings at that time in a children’s magazine called Jultomten.
She also met a fellow art student and theologian, Nathaniel Beskow. They were married in 1897, the same year her first book, The Tale of the Little, Little Old Woman, was released.
From that point on, as Beskow has said, her life was “every year another book and every other year a boy.” She and Nathanial had six sons, whom she used as models for her picture books.
Sadly, the youngest died at age seven, killed by an ice boat while skating. One son, Bo, described his mother’s work in the midst of a busy family life:
How did she find the time to work with her picture books! She had to produce one a year in order to support the family; father’s obligations did not provide much in the way of financial return. We understood that father’s work was important; he was not to be disturbed, but mother only drew and painted — it was fun and we could disturb her as much as we wished. Mother was always available; she didn’t have her own work room, she wrote and drew at a large white table in the parlor. Everything and everyone in the house that moved passed by there, and someone always needed her help with something.”
Despite the weight of her responsibilities, Bo recalled that his “mother could work magic. Sometimes when it was gray and cloudy, she would take a stick and stir up the clouds and say: ‘Come out, sun!’ and the sun came out.”
Her husband’s work as a minister, which necessitated the income Elsa brought in, involved efforts to address poverty in Stockholm.
The Beskows themselves lived in an area north of Stockholm called Djursholm where life, it seems, had that same, rustic idyllic nature Elsa loved as a child. The community of intellectuals there maintained a sort of comfortable simplicity, pursuing artistic interests, relishing outdoor gardening, with hired help for the more onerous tasks. This was the era of National Romanticism with its keen desire to revitalize folk crafts which were in danger of dying out. As neighbors, residents enjoyed”swimming, boating, and picnicking in the summer and in the winter skating and sledding.”
Nathaniel Beskow, however, was increasingly troubled by the plight of the poor and the widening gap between haves and have-nots in Sweden. Inspired by urban efforts such as London’s Robert Browning Settlement and Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, Nathaniel Beskow cooperated in a similar enterprise called Birkagården’s Hemgård.
The center provided education and enrichment, believing in the dignity of self-sufficiency, and Nathanael significantly worked toward greater integration of the social classes.
So here is another mixture of ingredients in Elsa Beskow’s life: Important employment at a young age; a lively, demanding household; the constant juggling of family and writing; and her husband’s efforts to enable economically-disadvantaged people to find more satisfying lives and work. All of this seeps into Beskow’s stories. There, children and adults enjoy the dignity of real, meaningful, important, work, creativity, and craftsmanship. While both human and woodland children robustly play in her tales, they just as cheerfully tackle their work.
This deep satisfaction of a job well done is especially clear in two books, Pelle’s New Suit, and Emily and Daisy. In Pelle we also see that admiration for traditional craftsmanship.
Pelle is a little boy who has outgrown his suit of clothes. Instead of asking his mother for new ones, Pelle takes it upon himself to barter his relatively-unskilled labor for materials and the skilled labor of adults in the neighborhood.
Like many a good farm child, Pelle has a lamb of his own which he cares for all by himself.
After he shears the lamb’s wool, his grandmother agrees to card it if he’ll weed her garden. His other grandmother spins it into yarn in exchange for his tending her cows. Next, Pelle rows across the lake by himself to earn money for dye.
Pelle dyes the wool himself, hanging up great hanks of indigo yarn to drip dry beneath the birches on a sunny hillside. Babysitting his sister while his mother weaves the cloth, and raking hay and feeding pigs while the tailor sews it, are the final steps in arriving at Pelle’s new and well-earned suit of clothes.
Beskow created another savvy, hard-working child, this time a little girl, in her book, Emily and Daisy. One thing about Beskow’s books — the girls were not sitting idly by admiring the active boys! And this in the early 1900s.
Emily, Sylvie, Rosalind, Lotta, the three aunts, and many female woodland figures play boisterously, act courageously and independently, and have nicely-spiced personalities of their own.
The dignity of manual labor and stalwart responsibility, and a deep appreciation for craftsmanship, run through most of Beskow’s books if you have eyes to see.
I’d love to go on and describe some of Elsa’s other marvelous stories and chat with you about more fascinating tidbits I’ve learned in researching her life, but this post would get entirely too long!
Don’t forget to enter the giveaway! I’ll repeat the guidelines below with links to Facebook posts and Instagram accounts for sharing.
Come back tomorrow for coffee and conversation with Julie Steller, maker of the charming Scandinavian elf hats in the giveaway.
And on Thursday I’ll have resources for finding Beskow’s books, online articles about her, and some Beskow read-alikes.
So here’s the deal. You can enter the drawing multiple times throughout the week. Two prizes will be awarded on Friday morning, February 2nd.
First Prize will be Peter in Blueberry Land, an elf hat (size 6-12 months), and a selection of five Beskow postcards.
Second Prize will be an elf hat (size 0-6 months) and four Beskow postcards.
Apologies, but U.S. shipping addresses only.
You can be entered by:
*newly following the Orange Marmalade Books blog
*newly following Orange Marmalade’s or Steller Handcrafted Goods‘ Facebook pages
*sharing this week’s Facebook posts from Orange Marmalade or Steller Handcrafted Goods (you can do this multiple days)
*newly following Orange Marmalade or Steller Handcrafted Goods on Instagram
*liking the Instagram posts this week from Orange Marmalade or Steller Handcrafted Goods (you can do this multiple days)
The more times you enter, the better your chances 🙂
See you back here tomorrow!