By Bridgman, Joan
Contemporary Review , Vol. 277, No. 1615
RICHARD Adams, who has just celebrated his eightieth birthday, can look back on a remarkable life where fame arrived unexpectedly at the age of 52. There had been little to forecast this during the anonymous years of public school, wartime service and 25 years in the Civil Service -- all powerful influences towards conformity and convention. But, irritated by sentimental rabbit tales and enraged by the permissive society of the 1960s, he stepped into another life in writing Watership Down, a book about rabbits intended for his children. Although only published in a first edition of 2,500 in 1972, it was initially hailed as a children's classic and progressed to large sales when it was selected by Kaye Webb for Puffin because she was delighted by the way the rabbits talked to each other 'Like civil servants'.
With American publication it became an adult and world-wide bestseller, selling over a million copies in record time. In 1985 Penguin Books declared it second in their list of all time bestsellers with sales figures of 5 million, second only to Animal Farm, but ahead of The Canterbury Tales and The Odyssey. It transformed the public perception of rabbits from that of cuddly bunnies into heroic warriors who fought savagely for dominance, and who were described with a degree of biological realism unheard of in children's fiction. The animals defecated (passed hraka), sought mates and conceived young. Even the rabbit equivalent of a miscarriage, the reabsorption of young, is described. Although The Times's recent obituary of the naturalist, Robin Lockley, described the naturalist's book, The Private Life of the Rabbit, as the inspiration for Watership Down this was not the case. Adams did not discover Lockley's book until he was about halfway through his first version. It did help to add biological exactitude a nd the holograph shows his subsequent revisions to credit female rabbits with the leading role played in digging warrens. Indeed, Lockley has been heard to say that the major storyline of a band of bucks going off in search of a new warren was impossible. They would have left more sensibly as mated pairs -- but this would have destroyed the plot.
The world of children's publishing was not prepared for a book of such stunning originality and the typescript was rejected several times. 'It was seven times a lemon' says Adams, who has carefully preserved the rejection letters. He wrote the novel unaware of the conventions of length, age range, level of difficulty and acceptable subject matter in the genre of juvenile publishing at that time. It was first published by the small publishing firm of Rex Collings, who admired the typescript precisely because it did not fit the formula, a judgment vindicated when the book became a critical and commercial success. Sales have been given continuing impetus by B.B.C. radio readings, an animated film, a musical version, a dramatic performance in Regent's Park and currently a children's television series. It has never dropped out of the public consciousness for long. The title has become synonymous with rabbits. London cabbies say of the garrulous 'He's got more rabbit than Watership Down'. Enterprising butchers adv ertised 'You've read the book, you've seen the film, now eat the cast'.
Richard Adams celebrated his eightieth birthday in May of this year, surrounded by his family which now includes his daughters and sons-in-law and six grandchildren. He must have looked around the festive tables with some satisfaction since earlier in his marriage he longed for children. This early frustration is one of the ingredients of Watership Down, where a questing band of buck rabbits search for a new warren and then realise that without mates and progeny to populate it their trials were worthless. Like Hazel, the hero of his novel, Adams felt the primitive delight in the continuation of his blood as he looked at his descendants: '. . . the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses'. …