guest blogger ~ Katie of We Heart Books
Annie Rentoul ~ Illustrated by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
First Published – George Robertson, 1908
Here is a book that is classically Australian, which conjures up thoughts of long hot summer days and nostalgia for a time that was simpler.
First published in 1908 (unfortunately I don’t have an original copy) The Lady of the Blue Beads was written and illustrated by Melbourne sisters Annie Rentoul and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. Annie’s narration is full of quaint Australian references; of mosquitoes buzzing, boomerang throwing and "blazing" sun. But it is her descriptions of the Australian landscape ~ bush and animals ~ that are actually very evocative, “Above, the sky was a dome of deepest blue – the blue that is found nowhere except in Australian summer seas and skies.”
Eight-year-old Margaret is the hero in the story. She is the "Lady of The Blue Beads" named for the blue beads she wears around her neck to match her eyes. She is one of those characters who is brave and bossy but never dirties her dress or loses her hat – everything I've strived to be!
Margaret believed in fairies and could see glimpses of them herself at night in her nursery. Then she gets an invitation to visit "Coconut Island the Realm of King Crunchem Quick, Cannibal King and Co." On her journey to the Island in a nautilus shell, she encounters Sprites and Fairies, Elves, Ghosts and Bogies and a squid named Fredrick.
“O come with me across the sea
To a beautiful palm fringed isle,
Where row on row the coconuts grow –
Yes the coconuts mile on mile
And if you feel hot, you are very soon not
If you plunge in the waves awile;
And if you feel cold, on the sands of gold
You can bask in the sun and smile.”
“The mermaids there, with golden hair.
Sing melodies low and sweet,
The murmuring caves and the winds and the waves
Their magical songs repeat.
And I have come o’er the white sea foam,
Little earth-child, to your feet.
Oh come with me across the sea,
Where the birds wing fat and fleet.”
The real beauty in this book comes from the watercolour illustrations by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite who was/is considered one of the best fairy painters in the world. In her colour plates her fairies are like butterflies. She doesn’t need glitter or sparkle; her fairies are effortlessly ethereal and graceful. They are drawn much like delicate little girls, just with wings, which I think really appealed to me as a child. She also depicted them alongside Australian animals like kangaroos, kookaburras, and koalas.
Ida stopped illustrating during the Second World War saying "the war stopped the taste for fairies — in parents anyhow — and the fairies fled, appalled..." Because Annie and Ida’s books were only given limited print runs of 1000 copies or less, their books are quite rare in the original, and it has been only recently that Ida’s fairies have been reprinted in a collection.
I’m not sure my two-year-old, Ned, will be interested in reading The Lady of the Blue Beads - maybe he will when he’s older, when he can appreciate that the story comes from another time in Australian history. But it is definitely the divine illustration that gives this book a very important place in Australian children’s literature.