The Beatrix Potter You Didn’t Know
The author of “Peter Rabbit” on Her 150th Birthday
Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), by all reports, lived a very sheltered childhood in in London. Her great escapes came in the summers when her parents would rent houses in the country, and she and her brother would play outdoors and capture small wild animals and make pets of them. Still closeted with her parents in her twenties and thirties, she became an amateur scientist who specialized in detailed drawings of fungi; and she might have won renown except that women were denied admission to scientific societies.
In 1892, to amuse the children of her former governess, she created an illustrated letter that was the first draft of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. This came to the attention of the publisher Warne & Co. and they published that little book and the many that would follow (The Tailor of Gloucester, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, et al.). Her romantic relationship with and engagement to Norman Warne, son of the publisher, ended sadly with his premature death in 1905.
Thus began the second half of her life in England’s Lake District. At forty-seven, she married the local land agent William Heelis and for the next thirty years would lose herself in rural life: buying and occupying farm houses, joining her neighbors for sheep-shearing contests, and occasionally turning out one of her “little books.” She died in 1943 at the age of seventy-four, having been elected the first woman’s president of the local Sheep Breeders’ Association.
Since her death, Beatrix Potter’s picture books have become classics for the very young. Through successful marketing by her publisher Frederick Warne (now a division of Penguin Books), “Beatrix Potter” has also become a upmarket brand associated with a floral and ersatz Victorian-nursery style used to market products like lavender soap, decorative wallpaper, and Wedgwood China.
Potter would have objected to the “preciousness” now used to market wares in her name. She was a no-nonsense country woman. Indeed, if you can get past the mamby pamby aroma advertisers have created around her name, when you actually read her books, different impressions of her emerge . . .
The Essential Scariness of Beatrix Potter. The misty-eyed look adults get at the mention of her little books suggests how they have forgotten the many anxious moments that fill them. For instance, when Peter Rabbit’s mother explains why he is not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden, she warns: “Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” Matter-of-fact, Potter does not pull any punches, nor shrink from the mention of death. Indeed, the story soon turns terrifying once Peter enters the forbidden garden: “Round the end of the cucumber frame, whom should he meet but Mr. McGregor!”
Rather than cute, if the truth be known, the world of Potter’s books is really one of constant threats and vulnerability: where Tom Kitten is trussed up in a roly-poly pudding and about to become someone’s dinner, where Jeremy Fisher is swallowed by a trout, where a fox has designs on Jemima Puddle-Duck, where an owl holds Squirrel Nutkin in his claws, and where a cat has captured Benjamin Bunny. But only an honest adult, ready to set aside sentimentality, will notice the essential scariness of Beatrix Potter. Then passing time in her world seems less like a holiday in a summer cottage in the Lake District and more like a passage through some carnival House of Horrors.
Tiny Worlds, Class Politics. Among miniaturists, the author to reckon with is Beatrix Potter. Among her little books, her favorite was The Tailor of Gloucester which tells of a complete and parallel mouse world behind the walls of old houses in that English town. With their own staircases and trapdoors, their own society and occupations, their own clothes and customs, these mice carry on with little notice from humans and in an alternate cosmos of encyclopedic completeness. This story of seamstress mice–Margaret Lane has suggested in her biography The Tale of Beatrix Potter — was inspired by Potter’s radical cousin Caroline who was concerned with the underpaid and underappreciated women who sewed embroidered dresses and labored like medieval miniaturists on every jot and tittle of these garments. In other words, Potter was concerned with the “little people” — as billionaire Leona Helmsley once referred to ordinary people on the street.
How Children and Grown-ups See the World Differently. The presence of sentience in insentient things is neatly presented in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. Destroying things left and right, the mice have made a mess in the nursery. When the little girl in the story returns to that room, she carries her two dolls (Jane and Lucinda) with her. Potter writes: “What a sight met the eyes of Jane and Lucinda! Lucinda sat upon the stove and stared, and Jane leaned against the kitchen dresser and smiled; but neither of them made a remark.”
In a stroke of genius that juxtaposes the sentient and the insentient, Potter pictures, on the opposite page, these dolls in dramatically rigid and stick-like postures. To say this differently, Potter’s picture shows the dolls as any adult might see them: as stick-like, unmoving, and non-living objects. But Potter’s words (where Lucinda “stares” and Jane “smiles” at the mischief the mice have caused) speak about the dolls as a child sees them: not as objects but as living creatures with emotions since the dolls are “stunned” or “amused” by the misbehavior of the mice. For kids, toys are alive.
Jerry Griswold is the author of Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature (Johns Hopkins U. Press).