Reviews 2014

Empowering Transformations: Mrs Pepperpot Revisited

Empowering Transformations: Mrs Pepperpot Revisited. Maria Lassén-Seger and Anne Skaret (eds.). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2014. 128 pages. £39.99 (hardback).

This is a momentous centenary year for Nordic children’s literature. Norway’s Alf Prøysen, Sweden’s Britt G. Hallqvist and Finland’s Tove Jansson were all born in 1914, and their contributions to children’s literature through stories, illustrations, poetry, songs and translations are being celebrated in style with special issues of journals and edited volumes of critical papers forming the most significant academic contributions to the festivities. Empowering Transformations: Mrs Pepperpot Revisited, edited by Finland-Swedish Maria Lassén-Seger and Norwegian Anne Skaret, is a collection of eleven chapters on the work of Alf Prøysen (1914-1970), ten of which are concerned with his delightfully feisty character, Mrs Pepperpot, who made her debut in Sweden in 1955.

Prøysen overcame his humble origins as a crofter’s son living on a farm in the rural inland county of Hedmark to become one of Norway’s most well-known story tellers. In addition to writing novels, short stories, and songs for children and adults, Prøysen regularly produced drama and other entertainment for radio and television. In addition, Prøysen collected Norwegian folk songs, and translated several children’s books into Norwegian. In Swedish and Norwegian, Prøysen’s best loved character is known as ‘Mrs Teaspoon’ because she inadvertently shrinks to the size of a teaspoon at inopportune moments. In miniature form, she gains the ability to communicate with animals and is no shrinking violet: despite her diminutive stature, she stands up to bullies, tackles injustice and still manages to complete her household chores. Mrs Pepperpot is always up for an adventure, and has kept readers around the world entertained.

As the Introduction and the chapter by Björn Sundmark make clear, Prøysen’s rescourceful minikin lived an independent life on both sides of the lengthy border between Sweden and Norway. The stories have not simply been translated between the two languages or adapted to suit the various media in which Mrs Pepperpot appeared. As the editors explain “When dealing with Prøysen’s Mrs Pepperpot stories, it is … crucial to understand that the material consists of a manifold textual landscape covering a plethora of editions, media, languages, and illustrations. These stories are, in fact, as unfixed as their shape-shifting protagonist” (Lassén-Seger and Skaret 2014, p. 4). The articles in the collection attempt to reflect this diversity.

The collection is divided into three sections: 1) Power, Ethical Impact and Gender 2) Nature, Technology and Authorial Background 3) Illustration, Intermediality and Translation. The papers in the first section focus tightly on the Mrs Pepperpot stories, the second examines her and her author’s world and the final section examines Mrs Pepperpot’s adventures in other formats and languages. Combined, the collection includes articles drawing on most of the major theoretical approaches common in children’s literature: Cognitive literary studies (Maria Nikolajeva), Adult-Child power relations (Maria Lassén-Seger), Queer theory (Mia Österlund), Eco-criticism (Svein Slettan and Hans Kristian Rustad), and psychoanalysis (Bjørn Ivar Fyksen). Although there is no chapter explicitly addressing translation theory, Charlotte Berry discusses translations of the Mrs Pepperpot stories into English. Although such a mix has become de rigeur for celebratory volumes like this, the result is pedagogically sound. Setting a companion volume like this when teaching a course on children’s literature for undergraduates inevitably results in a clearer understanding of how the various theoretical approaches can be applied. Moreover, the same stories and often the same events within the stories are discussed in several of the chapters. The result is undeniably a little repetitive when the collection is read cover to cover but, for an undergraduate readership, such repetition usefully illuminates the types of question each theoretical approach can address, their limitations and their strengths. That said, only Maria Nikolajeva – who is introducing a recent addition to the critical arsenal: cognitive narratology – outlines the nature of the school of thought in any detail. The others assume readers are familiar with the basic principles as they apply their terminology with a light touch.

Another subject area one expects to find in a collection like this is a discussion of the afterlife of the character as she is adapted into different forms. The final section addresses Mrs Pepperpot’s adventures in illustration, sculpture, radio, TV, song and advent calendar. All three chapters on adaptations involve a comparative approach. The editorial duo compare the characterisation of Prøysen’s country woman in the illustrations of the Norwegian and Swedish editions, Skaret discusses a bronze statue in relation to its setting and alongside the book illustrations. Sundmark’s chapter is the most ambitious as he examines connections between the film and radio versions of the stories as well as ephemera such as the advent calendars. These contrasts not only shed light on the media under discussion, they also reveal and, to a certain extent, explain the different reception of Prøysen’s work in Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The only work which is not about Mrs Pepperpot is Bjørn Ivar Fyksen’s examination of a late short story by Prøysen for adults, although the protagonist is a young girl. This chapter illustrates the point made in passing in many chapters, namely that Prøysen’s humble origins inform much of his writing. He determinedly sides with the under-dog: the working classes, children, women and, to a certain extent, animals.

Empowering Transformations is an important piece of scholarship for those interested in Nordic children’s literature. It is written in an engaging, easy-to-read style so as to make it accessible to a more general reader. The decidedly celebratory tone of the collection leaves one wondering how Prøysen’s no-nonsense character would respond to a collection written in her honour? I suspect with a cry of ‘Göta Petter!’ as she inopportunely shrank, after which she would flatter her kitchen utensils into whipping up pancakes for all her admirers. Happy Birthday Mrs Pepperpot!

Lydia Kokkola
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden