Don’t expect your kids to be as taken with The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan as they might be with Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin. But this Beatrix Potter story — #17 in her Peter Rabbit series — is my new personal favorite Potter.
The story is about Ribby, a cat, who invites her friend Duchess, a dog, for tea. Duchess is “dreadfully afraid” that Ribby plans to serve mouse pie (which she absolutely cannot eat) and so comes up with a cockamamie plan. She will sneak into Ribby’s kitchen with a replacement pie, swap the two without Ribby knowing, and then enjoy the party, all without causing offense. Of course, Duchess’s plan goes all screwy. She unknowingly eats the mouse pie, thinking it’s her veal-and-ham pie. And when she sees there’s no patty pan left inside the pie dish (I had to look up what a patty pan is — a tin pan inside a pie that helps hold up the crust), she goes into a nervous fit, thinking she’s swallowed it. The doctor is called, the whole neighborhood hears about it, etc, etc.
At heart, this is a story about two bored gentlewomen who fill their empty days by planning and attending tea parties over which they make unnecessary fuss. Their social engagements are as artificial and prescribed as a formal dance. The morning of the event, the two friends, rushing to get ready, pass each other on the street but don’t even greet each other.
“They only bowed to each other; they did not speak, because they were going to have a party.”
Ribby madly dusts, polishes and puts out her “best china tea-set.” Duchess (after breaking into Ribby’s house and swapping pies) brushes her fur and “passed the time until the clock struck four,” because she has clearly nothing else to do. Then, she arrives a bit too early and she must “wait a little while in the lane” so she may arrive fashionably late at a quarter past four.
The friends exchange rehearsed pleasantries:
“Is Mrs. Ribson at home?” inquired Duchess.
“Come in! and how do you do, my dear Duchess?” cried Ribby. “I hope I see you well?”
“Quite well, I thank you, and how do you do, my dear Ribby?”
and put on a show of gracious congeniality while secretly judging each other.
“How fast Duchess ie eating!” thought Ribby to herself.
The comedy is as sharp as in any Barbara Pym novel. These friends would rather lie to each other than risk a social misstep. And the whole afternoon devolves into chaos and hysteria because neither of them say what they really think.
And the illustrations —with the profusion of garden flowers, exquisite interiors and Ribby’s lilac silk gown and embroidered apron — are some of the most beautiful of all of Beatrix Potter’s works.