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.
M 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.
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.
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
- Lack of daunt
- Quick thinking
- Straight speaking
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.
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.
This is the 19th in the series older women in fiction. Two most recent posts are:
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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