I grew up with the Little Grey Rabbit books. When I had children myself, I suddenly realised that Alison Uttley must be a real person. This was before Professor Denis Judd's wonderful authorised biography.
I discovered that she had lived at Castle Top Farm, and persuaded my family to find it with me. We climbed the hill and stood at the gate for so long that Mrs Clay took pity on us and invited us in. She said she often spoke to admirers of Alison Uttley. She mentioned seeing a grey rabbit on the lawn. It hadn't occurred to me before that moment to consider why Alison Uttley had chosen a grey rabbit. I said: 'I'm excited to hear about the grey rabbit, Mrs Clay. I think you should write and publish that you have really seen one.' But I noticed that she then sounded a little vague, as if she wasn't quite sure that she had.
Back home, I looked at the first paragraph of The Squirrel, the Hare and the Little Grey Rabbit. I have an old Xerox copy of the handwritten manuscript from the John Rylands University Library. I saw that the phrases about Hare and Squirrel were full of corrections. But Little Grey Rabbit seemed to emerge effortlessly without any need for editing.
In the rest of the series is a group of brown rabbits, and also a black rabbit. They are given a few characteristics, but not a distinct unforgettable character like Little Grey Rabbit.
Grey rabbits in the wild seem to be rare in Derbyshire. I have not yet met anyone except Mrs Clay who claims to have seen one. When Professor Judd edited and published The Private Diaries, I thought this might contain an entry about the origin of Little Grey Rabbit, but it didn't. I wrote to him, not very hopefully, because I was sure he would have published something so significant. Sure enough, he replied: 'I am not sure about the choice of colour, except that the rabbits that the child Alison would have seen at Castle Top Farm would have been grey'. Later, he wrote: 'I have suddenly remembered the answer: it is because she wears a GREY dress!'
On the front cover of The Private Diaries, the picture of Little Grey Rabbit looks brownish, the same colour as Hare. So I checked with the first editions of the series. Surely Alison Uttley must have given her approval to the beautiful Margaret Tempest illustrations?
The first picture opposite the first page of the 1929 publication of The Squirrel, the Hare and the Little Grey Rabbit shows Grey Rabbit raking, in a grey dress and distinctly grey fur. Clearly, she has always been a grey rabbit.
So I am curious to know whether Alison Uttley had seen a real grey rabbit, perhaps in Lea Woods during those long walks to and from school, as Professor Judd has suggested. Or did she invent her?
Little Grey Rabbit, created by Alison Uttley, drawn by Margaret Tempest.
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