“Are you one of them foreign bears? We get a lot of overseas visitors at this time of year,” he said, turning to the Browns.
“I come from Peru,” spluttered Paddington, as he got his breath back. “But I live at number thirty-two Windsor Gardens in London, and I think I’ve lost my hat.”
(Paddington Helps Out 19)
I mentioned in a recent post that on revisiting the Paddington novels that I was pleased to discover that Michael Bond’s stories about the bear from darkest Peru were as charming as ever. Reading the first three books in the series, I’ve been thinking about where this charm comes from. In his postscript to A Bear Called Paddington, Michael Bond offers an interesting reflection on Paddington’s world. Besides noting that Paddington was always as real for him and his wife as he is for readers, and that he initially wrote the stories as though he were writing for adults (both aspects which definitely contribute to the stories’ enduring humour and readability), Bond reveals
Although Paddington’s adventures always take place in the present, I always picture him going home at the end of the day to the rather safer pre-war world which I remember from my childhood. (157)
I wonder if this safety also provides much of the charm of the novels. Paddington is never saccharine, but his stories do evoke an air of nostalgia. I’m aware that part of this nostalgia is rooted in my own memories of the great numbers of of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British stories I grew up reading. I’m also aware that these stories, including Paddington, reflect a world of middle-class privilege, and an air of gentility that has its roots in conservative patriarchal nationalism. It’s hard to ignore that Paddington’s world is old-world British: The Brown family’s domestic chores, for example, are divided by gender in typical ways, with Mrs Brown and Mrs Bird doing the clothes shopping and the cooking and cleaning and Mr Brown driving and painting the home (though admittedly not always very well; Mrs Brown also makes many important family decisions, though her husband has the nominal last word). Paddington’s story is in many ways about learning to be British: the Peruvian bear eagerly learns to follow the rules about riding the Underground and British customs like Guy Fawkes day. He’s also happy to let the Browns name him after the now-iconic English rail station. And he’s always in situations where he learns (usually by mistake) what is and is not “proper” manners. He is unarguably, as Stephen Fry’s cover blurb notes, “a British institution.”
And yet. Much of the time Paddington is encountering British people who insist so much on the proper rules they’ve forgotten how to see outside them in any ways. Many of these figures (especially next-door neighbour Mr Curry and the shop assistants at high class stores like Barkridge’s and Crumbold & Fern’s) are miserable because of it. When Paddington shows up he often reveals the way that rules and habits don’t have any intrinsic sense, or are needlessly confusing, or alienating to outsiders (and Bond draws attention to the way that this alienation is also critical to the world of Paddington when he notes that “Paddington’s ‘best friend’, Mr Gruber, is important because he knows what it is like to be a refugee in a strange country”, 157). Paddington shows how the rules around etiquette and good taste in theatres and restaurants are so restrictive, confusing, and anxiety-producing that they interfere with the ability to actual enjoy a play, a movie, or a good dinner.
Most of all, Paddington exposes the ways that people are often so caught up in blending in and not causing a scene that they have lost not only the ability to enjoy themselves but also the ability to enjoy meaningful relationships with other people. The world of Paddington ends up divided between those who give in to Paddington’s excitement for every day living, his startling new way of seeing the world — and the chaos to which his way of seeing things occasionally leads — and those who refuse to give in to the bear’s charisma. Those who give way to Paddignton often end up laughing at themselves, but also have a lot more fun. Those who refuse are intractable grumps.
I wonder if part of the safety of Paddington’s world is that most people in it are forgiving, malleable, and generally willing to help out a bear in a mess. The Mr Currys of the world are miserable, but generally incapable of lasting harm. And this is a charming (if still nationalistic) world to visit.
2 April 2013 ~ Hamilton
Bond, Michael. A Bear Called Paddington. London: HarperCollins, 2003.
—. More About Paddington. London, HarperCollins, 1997.
—. Paddington Helps Out. London, HarperCollins, 1997.