You could blame the Doctor. It’s not entirely his fault, but at an early age I discovered the Dr. Dolittle books and was captivated: talking animals, quirky illustrations, an idyllic-mythical English past without dragons? I’m moving there, please write.
I was reminded of this when Amanda Vickery tweeted about favourite children’s book illustrators and the article in the Guardian, and I thought of how much my son’s drawings have lately reminded me of Lofting’s, and how much he and I love the books. Yes, they’re racist, and they are of their time. They’re mild fantasies, they’re anthropomorphic, they’re silly, and at a certain level, misogynistic (see the treatment of Sarah Dolittle, the doctor’s sister). But really, don’t you want a duck to be your housekeeper?
Lofting, born in England in 1886, studied there before coming to America to study civil engineering at MIT in Cambridge, MA. The clear line of his Puddleby drawings are infused with the drafting he could have learned as an engineer. He served with the Irish Guards on the Western Front during World War I, and the Dr. Dolittle stories grew from the letters he wrote home to his children.
As a child, Dr. Dolittle had all the things I liked: talking animals, adventures, English villages and cities, and a wardrobe from the past.
My son likes Dr. Dolittle because the stories are about things he’d like to doing: “talking to animals, going on wild adventures, doing all this crazy stuff, and going with the flow.” He says the stories inspire him to learn about animals, and “to get out there and be with them..” (I assume he means at Coggeshall Farm). Dumber, beware.
Lofting moved his family to Connecticut after he was wounded in the war, and died there in 1947. Most of the books he wrote were published in the 1920s, though some anthologies of stories were published posthumously. An inveterate (congenital?) literary snob, I considered the posthumous works rather lesser, even as I read them several times.
Whether you approve of him or not, Lofting remains one of the gentle fabulists of the early 20th century, and the fact that my son reads him today is testament to the staying power of gentle, animal-centric fabulist fiction.