I don’t know what to write you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were–Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.
So began a letter, 100 years ago, from Beatrix Potter to Noel Moore, the 5-year-old son of her former governess. It would later become “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” perhaps the most famous work of children’s literature and what Graham Greene called “the finest story in the English language.”
“I never tire of Beatrix Potter,” Marianne Moore said, and over the years, others have agreed, among them British writers W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and George Orwell. Potter herself, however, always insisted that her American readers understood her best.
What is there to understand? First of all, her style. Potter had a gift for understatement. When, for example, Peter’s mother warns him not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden, she says simply: “Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”
That is a fine line, though not so fine, perhaps, as the one in “The Tale of Ginger and Pickles” where Ginger (a cat) and Pickles (a terrier) run a grocery store that is sometimes patronized by mice: “Ginger usually requested Pickles to serve them, because he said it made his mouth water. ‘I cannot bear,’ said he, ‘to see them going out at the door carrying their little parcels.’ ”
Which is to make another point about Beatrix Potter. Death is never far away in her books. While there is throughout a voice of comprehensive sympathy and understanding, Potter’s is the natural world of predator and victim. There is nothing mamby pamby here. Remember Mr. McGregor and your heart, like Peter’s, skips a beat. As Maurice Sendak has observed, the finest and most powerful illustration in all of the world of children’s books appears in “Peter Rabbit” where a cat silently watches a goldfish in a pond.
This genius is evident in Potter’s depiction of Peter because she was able to create both a well-drawn and realistic rabbit, and a figure for a misbehaving boy. Potter understood that pictures can’t simply illustrate what is in the text, but must do something more. Words tell how Mr. McGregor retrieves Peter’s discarded clothes and makes “a scarecrow to frighten the blackbirds,” while the picture opposite makes clear just how frightened the birds are or aren’t: They are seen lollygagging around the base of the scarecrow.
The special flavor of Potter’s visual style is easy to recall. It is a world seen in miniatures, a dollhouse world, a world seen through the naturalist’s microscope. For her, there is none of the splash and size and panorama of, say, Jean DeBrunhoff’s Babar the elephant stories. Instead, Potter’s pictures seem like cameos upon the page.
Smallness was important to her. At first, Potter had “Peter Rabbit” privately printed because she could not persuade publishers to bring the book out in the size she felt was appropriate for children’s hands (5 3/4 by 4 1/4 inches).
I was reminded of all this recently as I toured an exhibit of Potter’s work at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. Yes, at a Science Center! Beatrix Potter was a remarkable woman. In her early life and into her 30s, she was a brilliant amateur biologist who produced countless detailed drawings of plants and wildlife. She made more than 300 meticulous drawings of mushrooms and fungi, and she wrote scientific papers on these subjects–one of which was presented on her behalf to the prestigious Linnean Society, since women weren’t allowed to be members. The studies of Potter the naturalist eventually led to “Peter Rabbit,” “Two Bad Mice,” “Jeremy Fisher,” “The Tailor of Gloucester“ and her other well-known books. Her income from these would later fund her pioneering work in environmental conservation.
As a child, Potter was almost a prisoner, kept in her parents’ London home, educated by governesses, rarely traveling anywhere unaccompanied. Her great joy came in the summers, in vacation rentals in rural Scotland and elsewhere, where (largely free of parental supervision) she could indulge her naturalist’s interests and capture and draw the woodland creatures she made pets of. It says something that she was 47 when she first moved out of her parents’ home and married, over their objections. As her biographer Margaret Lane has observed, the great pain in Potter’s life came from the clash between her responsibilities as a daughter and her desire for some happiness of her own.
Peter Rabbit faces a similar dilemma when his mother tells him not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden. Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail are “good” little bunnies (and wear pink) and behave. But the blue-frocked, boyish Peter succumbs to Edenic temptation–not because he is “bad,” but because (as Potter writes) he is “naughty.” Here is a delicious difference. And so, we come to see Peter not as nascent criminal and petty thief but as a mischief-maker and rascal, a hero along the lines of Tom Sawyer and the larcenous Jack in “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
“Peter Rabbit,” then, is both secret autobiography and subversive story. It talks of escape from confinement, disobedience, guardians thwarted and the joys of irresponsibility. Indeed, at first, Peter is quite mature and human-like, clothed and upright; but by the end, he escapes by going wild and becoming more rabbit-like, losing his clothes and running on all fours. Of course, you shouldn’t be fooled by the ending–calculated to satisfy parents–where Peter has to go to bed early because of a stomach ache brought on by his misbehavior. That’s a small price to pay for adventure. If you really want to know where Potter’s own sympathies lie, ask children which of the book’s characters they would like to be.
Beatrix Potter almost put the world of children’s books behind her when, late in life, she married and became Mrs. Heelis of Hill Top Farm. From then on, she also became something of a neighborhood legend, always dressed in boots and an eccentric pile of tweed skirts, raising her Herdwick sheep, admired and respected by the farmers she worked alongside of, often asked to judge sheep-raising contests at country fairs. Soon thereafter, she also took up the cause of the National Trust, raising funds and donating some 4,000 acres of her own to this conservancy to make sure that her beloved Lake District always remained as it was.
What she wished to preserve was a world of country homes she had known during the summers of her childhood, a world she would later write about and even later come to inhabit. It is a world we so much associate with Beatrix Potter that when we close her books, it is almost like closing up a summer cottage we remember–a rural place with stone or wooden floors, a cast-iron range, cupboards and dressers full of mismatched crockery, a mousetrap discarded in the corner, flower pots standing in window frames, a vegetable garden abandoned to haphazard profusion, the smell of hay and of water, and farewells to the neighbor’s collie. For all this and more, we celebrate Beatrix Potter on Peter Rabbit’s 100th birthday.
Caveat emptor. Many of Beatrix Potter’s books are no longer protected by copyright, so some publishers have begun to issue other versions of her stories–often in formats and sizes different from what Potter intended and with pictures drawn by other, less accomplished artists. Avoid these and look for editions published by Potter’s original publisher, Frederick Warne (a division of Penguin). Warne is issuing two centennial editions of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” (at $16 and $150), the more expensive of which contains facsimiles of both Potter’s own first printing and the first commercially published edition.
The best biography is still Margaret Lane’s 1946 “The Tale of Beatrix Potter.” A wonderful collection of essays in appreciation of Potter and her work is “So I Shall Tell You a Story,” edited by Judy Taylor. “A Victorian Naturalist,” is a collection of Potter’s botanical art compiled by Eileen Jay et al.