The Story Behind Margerie Williams' "The Velveteen Rabbit"
“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
- The Velveteen Rabbit
The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real, (1922) is a British children's book written by Margery Winifred Williams Bianco (1881 - 1944) and illustrated by William Nicholson (1872 - 1949). It follows the story of a stuffed velveteen rabbit that yearns to become real through the genuine love of its owner. Since its debut, it has become of the most famous children’s books in the world.
Williams was a professional writer and translator who started her career at just 19 years old. Over the course of her lifetime, she “published a compilation of over 25 novels and children’s books.” Having been born into a family that was fiercely dedicated to educating its children, Williams and her sister were strongly encouraged to read often as well as to use their imaginations whenever possible.
By the time Williams’ father — a man whom she absolutely adored — died when she was only seven years old, his infectious love of literature had been firmly imprinted in her heart. “Her favorite books from her father's library included the three volumes of Wood's Natural History, which contributed to her early study of animals that is reflected in so much of her work.”
Although she was born in London, her family relocated to the United States when she was nine, first settling in New York and then in rural Pennsylvania shortly thereafter. Williams attended the Convent School in Sharon Hill, until the age of 17. At this time, she was already trying her hand at writing. Her first book, the adult novel The Late Returning (1902), was published in England the year she completed her studies there.
When Williams was 23, she wed Francisco Bianco, a book department manager from Italy, with whom she had two children. “After the birth of their son in 1905 and a daughter in 1906, the Biancos lived in Paris and London until 1914, when World War I took them to Turin, where Francesco served in the Italian army.”
Even though Williams put off writing for a number of years to care for her children, she remained a voracious reader. She “became really interested in the work of Walter de La Mare, a poet she believed wrote clearly from a child’s point of view.” This sparked a creative shift in her own work, which she resumed in 1921, after the family moved back to the United States. Using her own children as inspiration, Williams wrote her most celebrated work.
Following The Velveteen Rabbit, an interesting pattern started to form. Watching her children grow up, playing with toys and animals, breathed fresh air into her plots and characters. She “published Poor Cecco [in 1925] and in 1927, The Skin Horse..these novels told stories of animals that possessed human traits and emotions...The Little Wooden Doll [1927, told] a story about a doll who had been abused by two children and was restored by a third child.”
Williams continued to write well into her years. She tackled young adult fiction, adult novels, and short stories. Her children helped her career by illustrating some of her works. Her legacy was passed on to the next generation, much like her father’s legacy was on to her. But The Velveteen Rabbit remains her most beloved work, and it likely has to do with the uncanny sincerity, unconditional love, and absolute tenderness that its readers can detect in every line. While her characters were often toys, the emotions Margery Winifred Williams Bianco dealt in where most certainly real.
“And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy–so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.”
- The Velveteen Rabbit (1922)