The Tale of One Artist and Two Mice

Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca were “two bad mice.” They were husband and wife who lived behind the walls of a nursery. One day when all was silent in the house, they crept into the dining room where a dinner feast greeted them. They tried the ham and the fish, the pudding and the pears but couldn’t understand why they were hard as gems and glued to the plates. Tom Thumb got mad and pounded the ham with a shovel, breaking it into a dozen pieces; he threw the fish into the ‘crinkly paper’ fire, only to discover it would not burn. What the mice didn’t understand was that the house they were in belonged to a pair of dolls who had been taken for a walk. Having no luck with the food made out of painted plaster, Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca decided to help themselves to a few things they could use: pots and plates, a pillow, a chair, and most certainly a cradle. When the dolls returned they didn’t say a word. The two mice, however, paid for everything they had broken and taken. They put the six-pence Tom Thumb had found under the rug by the hearth into the Christmas stocking of one of the dolls, and early each morning, while the dolls were still asleep, Hunca Munca would sweep their miniature house clean.

You’re most likely thinking this is a tale for a child and perhaps you may even recognize it. But what you may not realize is that both Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, once upon a time, were quite real; they belonged to the story’s legendary author and watercolorist Beatrix Potter.

In 1903, Potter was visiting her cousins in the Gloucestershire countryside and found two field mice in the kitchen and rescued them. From the holidays she spent as a child in Scotland and England’s Lake District, she had already developed a passion for nature; and with her brother, she had a menagerie of small animals, a balm surely to the stranglehold Victorian society and her “exacting” mother had on her life. With mice in hand, she called on her editor—and within two years her “unofficial” fiancé—Norman Warne (her publisher Frederick Warne’s son who would die of leukemia soon after their engagement) to build her mice a cage; in his spare time he apparently preferred a hammer to a pencil. Potter then went about taming the mice; she named them after Henry Fielding’s heroes from his satirical play The Tragedy of Tragedies, or the Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great. She found in Hunca Munca the perfect ‘pet’ and the perfect model, and the perfect-sized inhabitant for a doll’s house. Although there seems to be silence when it comes to Tom Thumb’s fate, Potter would take Hunca Munca out of the cage and play with her, and take her away in a traveling case on her summer holidays. So when Hunca Munca accidentally died, Potter was devastated—especially since it seems she was the cause. She wrote to Warne, “I have made a little doll of poor Hunca Munca. I can’t forgive myself for letting her tumble, I do so miss her. She fell off the chandelier…. I think if I had broken my own neck it would have saved a great deal of trouble.”

The English writer and editor Robert McCrum wrote in a review of a new biography of Beatrix Potter, “Repressed at home, isolated in the world… [Miss Potter] was an awkward young woman who found solace in drawing her animal companions.”

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Primary source and quotes: Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, 2007.

Other sources: bpotter.com; The Beatrix Potter Society; Robert McCrum, “The original green goddess,” The [London] Observer, January 6, 2007.

(Image from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, story and illustration by Beatrix Potter, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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