Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen

My friend M is a golfer, and when we go for country walks I have to ask her to slow down a little because her pace is so fast. She is a writer of influence, recently acknowledged by the production of a festschrift in her honour. Now retired she undertakes research for and edits the magazine of her chosen charity. She also looks after her grandsons most weeks. Miming a grandmother the other day one of her grandsons bent over, held a stick in his hand and shuffled across the room, looking for all the world like that road sign.

230 road signM tells this story with puzzle in her voice. The image of the old person is stronger than the reality. And again: ‘It’s not as if we are like Mrs Pepperpot,’ said one of the grandmothers at a recent community performance. We were exploring our experiences of being grandmothers. I had heard of Mrs Pepperpot. She evoked an image of a small neat woman with a tight bun. Old. But I had never read the stories.

It is time to look at the 19th in the series of older women in fiction, this one for children. And time to ask whether she shapes young people’s understanding of older women.

230 Mrs P cover

The Stories

Mr and Mrs Pepperpot live on a hillside in Norway. He is out all day working in the fields. Her role is domestic. In the first story she has a busy day ahead.

Firstly she must clean the house, then there was all the washing that was lying in soak and waiting to be done, and lastly she had to make pancakes for supper. (7)

In this first story, and every story about her, Mrs Pepperpot unexpectedly becomes the size of a pepperpot. This change inevitably brings a problem for her to solve, not least because she never wants anyone to see her when she is small.

Her creator was Alf Proysen, a Norwegian writer and musician who lived from 1914 to 1970. The Mrs Pepperpot stories first appeared in 1959. She is completely of her time. Her role in the Pepperpot household and her priorities were what was expected of an old woman before the second wave of feminism.

230 Alf Proysen

Mrs Pepperpot

It is established from that first story that Mrs Pepperpot’s priorities are domestic, and in particular the smooth-running of the household. The most pressing of her duties is the production of the food for Mr Pepperpot on his return from work.

‘Now for cooking supper,’ said Mrs. Pepperpot; ‘my husband will be back in an hour, and by hook or by crook, thirty pancakes must be ready on the table.’ (12)

In every story her sudden reduction in size produces a problem she must solve: match-making at midsummer, picking bilberries, finding lost items, spring cleaning.

What I like about Mrs Pepperpot

This little old lady is feisty. She may suddenly be reduced in size, but she still does what she set out to do. She uses a mixture of techniques and any allies she finds, including the animals. She bullies, bribes, nags and schemes to do to what she needs. And she uses magic. And then she grows back to her original size.

As both the diminutive and full size versions of herself, she demonstrates the following qualities

  • Resourcefulness
  • Adventurousness
  • Lack of daunt
  • Inventiveness
  • Quick thinking
  • Straight speaking
  • Determination
  • Guile

She doesn’t complain about her peculiar shrinking habit, just gets on with it. This old woman has the wit and the wisdom to be active and to manage difficult situations. She is also a learner.

As you know, Mrs Pepperpot can do almost anything, but, until last summer, there was one thing she couldn’t do; she couldn’t swim! Now I’ll tell you how she learned. (298)

What I don’t like about Mrs Pepperpot

Three things really worry me about these stories.

Mrs Pepperpot’s life is circumscribed by her domestic duties, especially food production and house maintenance.

I could construct a case that the size thing indicates the invisibility of older women. Older women often make things happen without appearing to, and without upsetting the perceived order and hierarchy of their community.

Mrs Pepperpot does not challenge her situation, visit the doctor, consult mental health specialists, but rather meekly accepts her lot, albeit making the best of things, and still fulfilling the all-import domestic functions of her role as grandmother.

Final thoughts

So does it matter that the Mrs Pepperpot image is dominant as an image of older women? Does it influence the beliefs of the young? While there is much to enjoy in the stories I would want the brave and redoubtable Mrs P to have an opportunity to escape from her life. And I would want young readers to have a more varied version of older women.

Mrs Pepperpot Stories by Alf Proysen. I used a collection published by Red Fox in 2011, collected from stories published from as long ago as 1959. 464pp

Illustrations are by Bjorn Berg. (Cover by Hilda Offen.) No translator is acknowledged. That’s not good.

Related

This is the 19th in the series older women in fiction. Two most recent posts are:

Josephine Tey The Franchise Affair

Barbara Pym Quartet in Autumn

The full list of older women in fiction compiled from readers’ suggestions can be found here: Older women in fiction series.

Over to you: Have you read Mrs Pepperpot? Is she an acceptable model of an old woman? Do children you know think of old people as cronky?

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10 Comments

Filed under Books, Books for children, Feminism, Learning, Older women in fiction, Reading

10 Responses to Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen

  1. What a great angle on the older women series, Caroline! I do remember the existence of Mrs Pepperpot but I don’t think I read any.
    I found your analysis interesting, and amusing, but I’m not quite sure what I think. To children, older adults ARE very old and it’s comforting for them to know that someone is going to make sure there’s food on the table, which might endear them to Mrs P. I’m wondering what Norah will think about it.
    Incidentally, I’m surprised your golfing friend walks fast as, to me, they always seem to creep along.

    • Caroline

      I guess I was reading Mrs Pepperpot from an adult feminist point of view! Yes children might like her donesticity better than I do.
      My golfing friend may walk slowly when she golfs. I wouldnt know, but a bent over crone she ain’t.
      Caroline.

  2. It’s funny looking back on my love of this book because as a child I obviously didn’t evaluate it in line with seventies and eighties feminist theory BUT I do recall feeling resentful that her husband got to leave every day. Although my mother worked part time as a nurse, I saw my own father flying around the world, doing glamorous things and visiting amazing places while she held the fort.

    Any chance she got to leave her smaller world involved herculean planning and multi-stage instructions.

    So I don’t think children are blinkered to confining cultural and social tropes until an adult sheds some light on them. It’s the context that needs to be gently demonstrated.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this Nicola. It was probably a taken for granted that your Dad belonged to the outside world, ?literally flying around it? but it took so much effort for your mother to engage with it. I guess many, many people grew up with that experience, me included.
      I always want children to have alternative models, although they dont always accept them, as M’s grandchildren dont!
      Caroline

  3. Interesting post, Caroline. Also interesting that Anne wonders what I think about it!!
    I do remember Mrs Pepperpot stories being available. I can’t remember if I ever read any so, if I did, I didn’t find them memorable. It was definitely a story of its time though and probably has historical significance from that point of view. It’s wonderful to see how far we have come. It would be more concerning if older people were constantly portrayed in this way in current publishing. I don’t think it is as common any more, but I’m sure I could still find plenty of examples if I looked. I can immediately think of a few that support the case either way.
    I laughed at the grandson’s depiction of “a” grandmother. Yes, it is definitely a stereotype. I’m sure if he was asked to role play “his” grandmother it would be different. It is frustrating that the stereotypes are so pervasive, but it’s also humourous. When celebrating 100 days of school I would always ask my children to write a description and draw a portrait of themselves at age 100 years. They provided a window into children’s thinking about age.
    A few weeks ago the topic of the role of grandparents in providing child care for working parents was raised in a TV chat program. I was very surprised at the comments made by the hosts, who would have been younger possibly, no older, than my children, about the frailty of grandparents and their inability to keep up with the children, to provide stimulating activities and to perform such “difficult” tasks as strapping them into car seats! I assume their parents are in my age group, and I am definitely not that decrepit yet. I’m sure their parents aren’t either. Possibly their grandparents are, but maybe not. Many grandparents in my age group are still working, and if they are not, are leading active and involved lives. There is definitely a mismatch between perception and reality. (As shown by the grandson’s play acting described earlier.)
    Though I also have to agree with Anne. Children do think adults are very old. I remember thinking, as a child, that anyone over 23 was old. Even as a young adult people just five years older seemed much much older. And anyone over 5o – well, they were ancient. I am now over 60 and while I don’t feel as ancient as I thought others were, I must remind myself that to others I am! We kid ourselves that our generation is “younger” than the previous. Whose kidding? I believe it! But to children? I think we still look old; and changing the stereotype, the perception of what old is, is difficult.

    • Caroline

      Hi Norah,
      thanks for these thoughts. I can see what you mean about the difference between a child’s view of something and their view of THEIR something. I vividly remember my daughter saying girls dont drive tractors, the day after we had been on my sister’s farm where …
      We do get stuck in old versions of ages: your story about the chat show illustrates that. How do we lift people out of that?
      I guess you write books about ageism!
      Thanks for the long comment.

      Best wishes
      Caroline

  4. As soon as I saw this on Twitter I HAD to come and read your post. I DO remember Mrs Pepperpot from my childhood. She was featured on Jackanory a long running BBC TV series designed to encourage youngsters to read. As a child I loved the magic and the resourceful adventures of Mrs Pepperpot, I dreamed of a Grandmother who could take me on such magical experiences. I didn’t know the author was Norwegian.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for these comments and welcome to Bookword. You are an enthusiastic supporter of Mrs P. I have to admit that I didn’t know there was a TV series. I hope if you didn’t have such a grandmother someone else took you on magical adventures!
      Caroline.

  5. Eileen

    We three authors sent all 15 chapters to our publisher Policy Press yesterday and I am now catching up with all my correspondence. It is great to read this – I don’t know this character at all but I’d recommend the film Grandma starring Lily Tomlin that was released last December. This really challenges the stereotype of an older woman in the grandparent role. Love e x

    • Caroline

      Lets challenge all the stereotypes.
      I missed Grandma sadly. But I did see Lily Tomlin in a hilarious TEDtalk about friendship, with your mate Jane (I bought a few years) Fonda. It was very funny.
      C xxx

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