In Arthur Ransome's Coot Club (1934), the Hullabaloos are the "bad guys": obnoxious tourists, three men and two women, who roar around the inland waters of the Norfolk Broads in a rented powerboat, blaring popular music and generating a bow wake that threatens to swamp small craft belonging to locals.

Their behavior also threatens nesting water birds.

The male Hullabaloos grab a local boy, Joe, by the coat, accusing him of something he did not do. Joe wriggles out of his coat. After a local policeman intervenes and refutes the accusation, Joe is no longer under threat. On page 92 of the 1990 edition (David R. Godine):

"And my coat?" said Joe.

He came warily forward and picked it up, put it carefully on and then pulled out of an inner pocket a large white rat, which sat on his arm, sniffed the air contemptuously, and looked about it with its round pink eyes.

"Take that thing away," screamed the woman.

"Now then, 'Livy. You don't mind that. Not wearing skirts...." The fat man of the three stopped suddenly as the woman in orange trousers gave him a resounding slap in the face.

This seems to allude to a folk belief, joke, saying, or men's obscene suggestion, about rats and skirts.

Perhaps the fat man means: "You don't have to worry about the rat running up your leg and threatening your private parts, because you're wearing pants."

First, in 1934 would a middle-class female English tourist wear pants while vacationing on an inland power boat?

For purposes of literary interpretation, I think we can disregard the technical question of whether a rat would just as soon run up a man's pants as up a woman's skirt.

The fact that a British newspaper published the following story from New York suggests that the idea has salacious tabloid-style appeal: Daily Mail, 11 June 2012. The same incident appears a day later in the USA: New York Daily News, 12 June 2012.

But is there some specific item of folklore, prevalent in 1930s Britain, to which the fat man alludes?


2 Answers 2


The NYC subway incident proves that a rat running up a human being's leg is not just a fantasy. Note that the victim, Ana Vargas, was wearing trousers. It could have been a man's leg, but in that case the Daily Mail might not have made a story out of it. Would a man frightened by a rat have generated mouse clicks?

The linked image, on the other hand, the Le Bel / Niquet painting from around 1800, corroborates the idea that "rat runs up inside a woman's skirts" was a popular, salacious idea at that time.

It does not depict a real or typical farm scene, rather a male fantasy. A girl who grew up working on a farm would probably not hesitate to stomp a rat herself.

And the farm girl would not be so stupid as to let some young man disrobe her --- unless she wanted him, or unless he gave her no choice.

Even Genesis 3:15, part of our Western cultural heritage, does not say that women will be scared of snakes, but rather that the woman's descendants will smash the serpent's head.

A woman freaking out at a rat, a spider, or a snake is a cultural construct. As we see in the painting, the woman's helplessness when confronted by a rat gives the young man his chance to violate her privacy.

The title of the painting, "La voilà prise", translates as "Got her!" The cat has the rat in its teeth, but "rat" is masculine in French. So the title does not even pretend to refer to the cat catching the rat. It means that the young man has "got" the young woman. He is the rat.

Then there is Cupid, symbol of sexual desire, right there on the man's shoulder. Whereas the woman looks scared. Of the rat, or of the man? Probably both.

Is it really only women who fear rats? How about Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984?

To bring this back to Arthur Ransome: Recall that the Hullabaloos are jerks, extravagantly inconsiderate. "'Livy" (Olivia?), the squeamish Hullabaloo, stands in dramatic contrast to the girls Port and Starboard, to Mrs. Barrable, and to Mrs. Dudgeon, all of whom come across as hardy and adventurous, even to a fault.

Livy the tourist is horribly upset by having merely seen a rat, several metres away and under the control of its owner. And the fat man---one of her party---needles her with the idea that a rat could run up her leg. So she slaps him hard, which demonstrates the extent of her fear and rage. This scene demonstrates how off-kilter and clueless the Hullabaloos are. It sets us up for the climactic wreck of their rented puker boat.

("Puker boat" is a commercial fishing term for a power boat operated by an amateur on vacation. See, for instance, Ken Kesey "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.")

Another example of the device of a woman being afraid of a rat running up her skirts is on page 174 of Patrick O'Brian's Post Captain (Norton, 1972). Miss Lamb is a young English woman who has demonstrated her pluck by serving, in drag, as a "powder boy," under fire, during a bloody naval battle. But now the Brits are locked up deep in the hold of the French vessel, near the bilge, and she is back in feminine clothing.

Miss Lamb woke with a scream: `It was a rat! A monstrous great wet rat! O how I regret my trousers!'

Again we have the notion that fear-of-rats is the domain of women and that this is caused by their wearing skirts. In spite of the fact that we have seen that a rat can run up trousers too. That the rat is "monstrous great" and "wet" suggests that the author does not want his audience to miss the rat's phallic quality.

Thank you @Kate Bunting for the Le Bel / Niquet painting
and for observing that women of an earlier time did not wear drawers.

Thank you @mikado for the 1930s fashion information.


Almost certainly he means what you say. Not so much folklore as a folk memory of what may have been a real possibility (see this) in the days when women wore full-length skirts and no drawers.

Yes, fashionable women sometimes wore trousers for active pursuits in the 1930s.

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