My fourth choice is The Tailor of Gloucester, by Beatrix Potter. Yes, it is a children’s tale – Potter’s dedication to a child called Freda references fairy tales. Potter claims in the same dedication that the story is true – in part. It is about animals as much as humans, Simpkin the cat being the protagonist, whose moral growth (his longue vengeance is finally abandoned) is the turning-point of the story. But I cannot resist including it, for it is also a story for adults, and it is so beautifully written that it seems to me to exemplify the ideal rhythms of the greatest English prose.
“In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets – when gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta – there lived a tailor in Gloucester.” Compare: “What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture” (Thomas Browne, Urn-Burial. 1658). Potter’s prose is almost poetry. “‘No breadth at all, and cut on the cross; it is no breadth at all; tippets for mice and ribbons for mobs! for mice!’ said the tailor of Gloucester.”
The story relates the near-downfall of the tailor, who must finish making a beautiful waistcoat for the Mayor of Gloucester’s wedding, but lacks “one single skein of cherry-coloured twisted silk” for the one-and-twenty button-holes. The tragic refrain “No more twist!” runs through the tale. Simpkin the cat is sent out on Christmas eve to buy some provisions and the twist. But while he is out, the tailor hears tapping noises, and frees little mice from under the tea-cups in which Simpkin had imprisoned them with a view to eating them later. On his return, Simpkin takes his revenge by hiding the vital skein of cherry-coloured silk in the teapot. The mice shame Simpkin with their Christmas eve songs, and their chorus of “No more twist!” Repentant, he hands over the twist to the tailor – too late! it seems, for the tailor is too ill to make one-and-twenty button-holes. But the little mice, in gratitude (it took me a long time, as a child, to deduce this) work all night to embroider the button-holes, all but one, to which they pin a tiny note, ‘NO MORE TWIST’. The tailor has the strength to make the last button-hole: the waistcoat is finished in time. The twist is his W, and this time it fits. I think The Tailor of Gloucester is my W.
First published by Frederick Warne, 1901