Uttley, Alison (1884–1976)

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Uttley, Alison (1884–1976)

Prolific British writer who is primarily known for her "Little Grey Rabbit" series. Name variations: Alice Jane Taylor Uttley. Born Alice Jane Taylor on December 17, 1884, in Cromford, Derbyshire, England; died on May 7, 1976, in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England; daughter of Henry Taylor (a farmer) and Hannah (Dickens) Taylor; educated at Lady Manners Grammar School, Bakewell; graduated from Manchester University, B.Sc. (with honors), 1906; attended Ladies' Training College (later Hughes Hall), Cambridge, 1907; married James Arthur Uttley (a civil engineer), in 1911 (died 1930); children: one son John (1915–1978).

Selected novels:

High Meadows (1938); When All Is Done (1945).

Selected nonfiction:

The Country Child (1931); Ambush of Young Days (1937); The Farm on the Hill (1941); Ten Candlelight Tales (1942); Country Hoard (1943); Country Things (1946); Carts and Candlesticks (1948); (ed.) In Praise of Country Life (1949); Buckinghamshire (1950); Plowmen's Clocks (1952); The Stuff of Dreams (1953); Here's a New Day (1956); A Year in the Country (1957); The Swans Fly Over (1959); Something for Nothing (1960); Wild Honey (1962); Cuckoo in June (1964); A Peck of Gold (1966); Recipes from an Old Farmhouse (1966); The Button Box and Other Essays (1968); A Ten O'Clock Scholar and Other Essays (1970); Secret Places and Other Essays (1972); Country World: Memories of Childhood (1984); Our Village: Alison Uttley's Cromford (1984).

Selected writings for children:

The Squirrel, the Hare and the Little Grey Rabbit (1929); How Little Grey Rabbit Got Back Her Tail (1930); The Great Adventure of Hare (1931); Moonshine and Magic (1932); The Story of Fuzzypeg the Hedgehog (1932); Squirrel Goes Skating (1934); Wise Owl's Story (1935); The Adventures of Peter and Judy in Bunnyland (1935); Candlelight Tales (1936); Little Grey Rabbit's Party (1936); The Adventures of No Ordinary Rabbit (1937); The Knot Squirrel Tied (1937); Fuzzypeg Goes to School (1938); Mustard, Pepper and Salt (1938); A Traveller in Time (1939); Tales of the Four Pigs and Brock the Badger (1939); Little Grey Rabbit's Christmas (1939); Moldy Warp, The Mole (1940); The Adventures of Sam Pig (1940); Six Tales of the Four Pigs (1941); Sam Pig Goes to Market (1941); Ten Tales of Tim Rabbit (1941); Six Tales of Brock the Badger (1941); Six Tales of Sam Pig (1941); Nine Starlight Tales (1942); Little Grey Rabbit's Washing-Day (1942); Sam Pig and Sally (1942); Hare Joins the Home Guard (1942); Water-Rat's Picnic (1943); Cuckoo Cherry-Tree (1943); Sam Pig at the Circus (1943); The Spice Woman's Basket and Other Tales (1944); Little Grey Rabbit's Birthday (1944); Mrs. Nimble and Mr. Bumble (1944); The Weather Cock and Other Stories (1945); The Speckledy Hen (1945); Some Moonshine Tales (1945); The Adventures of Tim Rabbit (1945); Little Grey Rabbit to the Rescue (play, 1946); The Washerwoman's Child: A Play on the Life and Stories of Hans Christian Andersen (1946); Little Grey Rabbit and the Weasels (1947); Grey Rabbit and the Wandering Hedgehog (1948); Sam Pig in Trouble (1948); John Barleycorn: Twelve Tales of Fairy and Magic (1948); Macduff (1950); Little Grey Rabbit Makes Lace (1950); The Cobbler's Shop and Other Tales (1950); Snug and Serena Pick Cowslips (1950); Snug and Serena Meet a Queen (1950); Going to the Fair (1951); Toad's Castle (1951); Yours Ever, Sam Pig (1951); Hare and the Easter Eggs (1952); Mrs. Mouse Spring-Cleans (1952); Christmas at the Rose and Crown (1952); The Gypsy Hedgehogs (1953); Snug and the Chimney-Sweeper (1953); Little Red Fox and the Wicked Uncle (1954); Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the Sea (1954); Sam Pig and the Singing Gate (1955); The Flower Show (1955); The Mouse Telegrams (1955); Hare and Guy Fawkes (1956); Little Red Fox and Cinderella (1956); Magic in My Pocket: A Selection of Tales (1957); Mrs. Stoat Walks In (1957); Snug and the Silver Spoon (1957); Little Red Fox and the Magic Moon (1958); Little Grey Rabbit's Paint-Box (1958); Snug and Serena Count Twelve (1959); Tim Rabbit and Company (1959); Grey Rabbit Finds a Shoe (1960); John at the Old Farm (1960); Sam Pig Goes to the Seaside: Sixteen Stories (1960); Grey Rabbit and the Circus (1961); Snug and Serena Go to Town (1961); Three Little Grey Rabbit Plays (1961); The Little Knife Who Did All the Work: Twelve Tales of Magic (1962); Little Red Fox and the Unicorn (1962); Grey Rabbit's May Day (1963); Tim Rabbit's Dozen (1964); Hare Goes Shopping (1965); The Sam Pig Storybook (1965); The Mouse, the Rabbit and the Little White Hen (1966); Enchantment (1966); Little Grey Rabbit's Pancake Day (1967); Little Red Fox (1967); The Little Red Fox and the Big Big Tree (1968); Little Grey Rabbit's Valentine (1969); Lavender Shoes: Eight Tales of Enchantment (1970); Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole (1970); The Sam Pig Storybook (1971); The Brown Mouse Book: Magical Tales of Two Little Mice (1971); Fuzzypeg's Brother (1971); Little Grey Rabbit's Spring Cleaning Party (1972); The Little Red Fox Book (1972); Little Grey Rabbit and the Snow-Baby (1973); Fairy Tales (1975); Hare and the Rainbow (1975); More Little Red Fox Stories (1975); Stories for Christmas (1977); Little Grey Rabbit's Storybook (1977); From Spring to Spring: Stories of the Four Seasons (1978); Tales of Little Grey Rabbit (1980); Little Grey Rabbit's Second Storybook (1981); Foxglove Tales (1984).

Alice Jane Uttley, known as "Alison" to her friends and readers, was born in 1884 and grew up on remote Castle Top Farm in Derbyshire, England, which had been in the family for more than 200 years. She had a close child playmate in her brother George, although the two grew apart after she went off to school. Uttley's father was one of the earliest influences on her later writing career. Although he could not read, he had a remarkable skill for storytelling, and his "strange, grim stories," handed down by his ancestors, were fondly recalled by his daughter. In an essay in Wild Honey (1962), entitled "The Ladder to Writing," Uttley compares her father's stories to those of Thomas Hardy: "I found the life depicted in the books very similar to tales told by my father," she writes, "of his childhood in our farmhouse, with shepherds and ploughmen, guisers and fairs."

Uttley's mother, a devout Christian, but also a lover of literature and the arts, infused her daughter's early years with religion, but also sang and recited poetry to her and read aloud

from her husband's books. Many long winter nights were spent listening to Dickens, Defoe and Stevenson, a pastime shared by the entire family, including the servants. Uttley's reading was further enhanced by books brought by visitors or by the boarders the family took in during the summer months to supplement the farm income. Indiscriminate in her tastes, she would read whatever appeared on the parlor table, even an occasional history or philosophy book left behind by a vacationing professor.

Uttley was both an imaginative and highly sensitive child, characteristics that impacted her first school experience at Lea Board School, when she was seven. Like her later character Susan Garland in the autobiographical The Farm on the Hill (1941), she was frightened by her long walk to school through the woods, and imagined that while certain rocks were friendly, others were to be avoided at all costs. "Some stones must be trodden upon always, they demanded human companionship, and the touch of hand or foot. Others were inimical, sinister sharp-tongued, and cruel." Uttley would seek out a companion for her trek home from school by promising a story to anyone brave enough to join her.

Though attendance was sometimes a problem at Lea, Uttley received a scholarship to the Lady Manner School, where she flourished, particularly in science and mathematics. She won a second scholarship to Manchester University, earning a B.Sc. in physics, and in 1906 became the university's second woman honors graduate. After spending one year at a training college at Cambridge University, Uttley worked as a physics teacher at the Fulham Secondary School in London; there, she became interested in socialism and was active in the women's suffrage movement. Through her political involvement, she met with Ramsay Macdonald, who would later become prime minister as head of the Labour Party. In 1911, she married engineer James Uttley, whom she had met through his sister while studying at Manchester University. She married, quit her teaching job, and moved with her husband to Cheshire, where she gave birth to the couple's son, John, in 1915.

Uttley began writing after a chance encounter with philosophy Professor Samuel Alexander from her Manchester days, during which he confused her with another of his students and inquired as to whether she was still writing poetry. This provided the impetus for her to begin writing the story of her early years at Castle Top Farm, which later became The Country Child. Although it was her first written book, it was not her first published. When she showed the manuscript to her husband, he declared it rubbish and threw it across the room, after which she locked it away. By Uttley's own account, her first published work, The Squirrel, the Hare and the Little Grey Rabbit (1929), was written for her son John, who had just left for boarding school. "Every day in our walks, in England, Wales and France, I told stories of hares and weasels, wolves and foxes, each one different and new," she recalled. "I was compelled by a strong urge to write down a tale and send it to him."

In 1930, after suffering from bouts of severe depression since his World War I service, James Uttley committed suicide, leaving his wife penniless. To support herself and her son, Uttley took up her pen in earnest, publishing The Country Child and producing over 100 books in the course of the next four decades. The "Little Grey Rabbit" series, which grew to include over 30 titles, are tales of anthropomorphic animals, a mode that Uttley used throughout her career. "There is a lot of Uttley herself in the character of Grey Rabbit: the resourceful countrywoman, the lover of tradition, customs and festivals, the sensitive observer who enjoyed all the signs and sounds and smells of the countryside," observes Peter du Sautoy in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. The Grey Rabbit books, illustrated by Margaret Tempest and later by Katherine Wigglesworth , brought Uttley international recognition which grew with each regular addition to the series (often timed by the publisher for the Christmas market).

Uttley's other popular animal characters, Sam Pig, Tim Rabbit, Brock the Badger, and Fuzzypeg the Hedgehog, also inhabited a rural Victorian village similar to the one in which Uttley was raised. Although she was frequently compared with Beatrix Potter in this regard, according to Barbara Carman Garner , Uttley maintained that "she did not write to escape the environment of her youth, as Beatrix Potter had done, but to enter more deeply into it and give it immortality."

Like her autobiographical The Country Child, Uttley also wrote a number of other non-fiction books directed at an adult readership, among them Ambush of Young Days (1937), The Farm on the Hill, and two unsuccessful novels, High Meadows (1938) and When All is Done (1945). Considered by some to be her best book for adults is A Traveller in Time (1939), a fantasy based on her childhood, but also drawing from a local plot to rescue Mary Stuart , queen of Scots, in 1569.

In the course of her career, Uttley was critically compared to Lucy Maud Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder . Noting that the women were essentially contemporaries, Garner writes, "Montgomery, Wilder, and Uttley were all interested in the same essential qualities that enrich life, and each wanted to record her own childhood experiences in her fiction for others to share." Like Montgomery, notes Garner, Uttley was also interested in dreams and recorded her own in her diary, which ultimately comprised more than 40 volumes. She published a collection of essays, The Stuff of Dreams, in 1953.

After her husband's death, Uttley made her home in Buckinghamshire, near Beaconsfield, where she lived for the rest of her life. Her strong and sometimes dominating personality made it difficult for her to get along with many of her relatives, but she was supported throughout her years by a few close women friends. Although she never remarried, she had two male friends who stood by her after her husband's suicide: Professor Samuel Alexander, who helped finance her son's education, and Walter de la Mare, who also became an adviser. Uttley, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Manchester University in 1970, died in 1976, at age 91, in Buckinghamshire. Her son John, with whom she had an intense and later difficult relationship, committed suicide in 1978.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Contemporary Authors Online. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 2000.

Garner, Barbara Carman. "Alison Uttley," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 160: British Children's Writers, 1914–1960. Detroit, MI: The Gale Group, 1996, pp. 289–299.

Judd, Denis. The Life of a Country Child (1884–1976): The Authorized Biography. London: M. Joseph, 1986.

Saintsbury, Elizabeth. The World of Alison Uttley: The Life and Times of One of the Best Loved Country Writers of Our Century. London: Howard Baker, 1980.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer