Alison Uttley

More than just an author of childrens books
Many people know Alison Uttley as the children’s author that created beloved bedtime stories in the 1930s but there is more to the life of this complex women and her journey into writing was preceded by a love of science. At this point in her life, Alison was not Alison Uttley; she was still known by her birth name of Alice Jane Taylor. Alice was born in Cromford, Derbyshire in 1884 and developed an interest in Physics as she was educated. This interest was developed when she enrolled in Manchester University’s physics course and became their second female honours graduate in 1906. While she was studying in the city, Alison became more aware of the world and began writing poetry and once she graduated she decided to train as a teacher in Cambridge and eventually move to Fulham to teach at a girl’s secondary school. Teaching may have been her first career move but it was writing that would make her famous.

Alison Uttley's blue plaque

Blue plaque of Alison Uttley’s on a wall near her birth home.

Alison Uttley’s illustrious writing career.
Many of Uttley’s fans know her best as the author of a series of children books telling tales of woodland creatures such as the Little Red Fox and her most famous creation, Little Grey Rabbit. This appealing little rabbit would become a household favourite and find adventure in a range of stories where he celebrated birthdays, went to the circus and even had a spring cleaning party. He was joined by other creations, such as Sam Pig and a Wise Owl, and soon Alison had a list of over 100 books to her name. These children’s tales are still popular today as were so much so in her day that they were the reading material of choice of the Queen when she required a bedtime story for her own children.

 Alison Uttley relaxing

Alison Uttley relaxing

Alison’s collection of works goes beyond her short stories and children’s tales; she also wrote a series of novels for younger readers and a cookbook called ‘old Farmhouse Recipes’. ‘A Traveller in Time’ is a historical fantasy novel that tells the story of a time-travelling youth that is sent back to the era of Mary Queen of Scots and it shows the aptitude for creative writing and descriptive prose that made her a much-loved author. This talent was first showcased in 1931 when she published a novel called “The Country Child”, which was a fictionalised account of her childhood on a farm and was no doubt the starting point for her later tales of adventurous rabbits. Her recipe book came much later in 1966 and, while it was non-fictional, it offered the same insight into her childhood and creativity as her stories – it may not have been the most accurate recipe book in the world but it was one crafted with love and care.

Alison Uttley’s writing career lasted for decades with a number of published works and she was rewarded for it with an honorary doctorate from her alma mater in 1970; however, as her personal life and diaries show, there was a different side to Alison and a deeper reason for turning to writing.

Alison’s tragic personal life and true personality.
Not long after Alison moved to London, in 1911, she met and married James Arthur Uttley. When war broke out, James left to fight and although he returned from the conflict, the psychological scars were so deep that he developed depression and eventually drowned himself in 1930. Alison was left a widow with a young son and she turned to writing as a means of supporting herself. Testimonials and diary entries suggest that she became a devoted mother to John, often to the point of extremes, and that it was no surprise that he moved to Guernsey with his new wife to create some distance. Tragically, just a couple of years after his mother died, John also committed suicide by driving his car off a cliff. Some people close to the family have suggested that he too was depressive and that his mother’s personality may have had an negative impact on his life and that of his father.

The idea that Alison could influence such depression and had a negative personality may be a shock to people that only know her for her children’s stories but there is a much darker side to the woman that was recently exposed when her diaries were published in 2009. It appears that she got along with few people, deriding those she did not like, and had an especially bad relationship with her illustrator Margaret Tempest after they fought over ownership of the characters. She was particularly bitter when talking about her rivals; she hated comparisons to Beatrix Potter – which were inevitable – and called Enid Blyton “vulgar” and “common”. Additionally, these diaries show an unusual paradox in her interests and beliefs. Alison was clearly a women of science and she admits to being interested in nuclear fission but she continued to believe in fairies and the paranormal.

Alison Uttley’s legacy as a British literary figure.
Little as known about Alison’s death on May 7th 1976 apart from the fact that it was in hospital; at 91 years of age it is likely that old age simply caught up with her. At the time of her death, Alison was celebrated as the creator of Little Grey Rabbit and her other childhood classics and, although she may not have shared the same fame and reputation as the peers she despised, she was awarded with a blue plaque in her family home in Bowdon, Cheshire and her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Prior to 2009 and the publication of those revealing diaries, Uttley would most likely have lived on in peoples memories as the women that made fantastical stories about rural England and inspired a generation. Now, her image has been tainted slightly and one could argue that the celebratory memoirs did not have the desired effect. In the end, it does not matter whether she was a sour women that potentially contributed to her family’s depression, what matters is that all her positive qualities, like her imagination and creativity, were expressed in her many stories and they can still be enjoyed today.