When I was two, my family – Mum, Dad, and my new-born brother – left the UK, and settled in a suburban town around thirty miles from New York for a few years. We lived in a stocky, clapboard house; the garden was enclosed by tall strands of yews and firs. In winter, you had to use a shovel to excavate the car from the heaped-up snow. My memories of The Velveteen Rabbit – certain scenes, some intermittent sense of its tone and feel – have become so confused with the patchy impressions of childhood that when I re-read the story now, the narrative unfolds into those impressions – the terrible bonfire of toys is about to take place in that snowy, out-of-town garden; the woodland in the story – initially the site of the rabbit’s shame but where his final, joyful liberation takes place too – belongs both to Margery Williams’ description, and to some dim, watery sense of early life. Mum must have read the story to me again and again: the velveteen rabbit’s humility, his yearnings and disappointments, the finely judged material presence of the bedroom and garden settings – the “mechanical toys with their superior ideas” and “the games in the raspberry thicket” – the first story I consciously remember bringing with it some kind of atmospheric change.
First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1921 and widely in book form since