A Tale of Some Tails, and the Story
of their Shy Creator

Smithsonian, January 1989

Adventures really begin when Peter squishes his way into Mr. McGregor's
forbidden lettuce patch.


"YOU DON'T SUPPOSE I shall be able to continue these d ... d little books when I am dead and buried!!" The voice is that of a plump, weather-worn, middle-aged farmer writing to her publisher from Britain's Lake District in the year 1919. As usual the publisher is begging for another. As usual the author, now absorbed by really important things like rescuing lost lambs from the fells and seeing to her planting and poultry, is begging off. She had to confess that she'd never quite "understood the perennial charm" of that rabbit. She was "written out for story books," and her eyes were "tired for painting."

The publisher, Frederick Warne & Company, need not have worried. As things turned out, Helen Beatrix Potter's beautiful, quaint little volumes sold and sold, and went on selling. For in the decade from 1902 to 1913, Beatrix Potter's wry, spare prose and sunstruck watercolors had already created a countrified comédie humaine about more or less irresistible small animals. Among them: Peter Rabbit himself; Squirrel Nutkin, a saucy rodent with a death wish; Mr. Tod, the fox in the whipcord hunting jacket; resourceful Simpkin, a cat who imprisons mice under upside-down teacups; and, of course, Peter's brainier, braver cousin Benjamin Bunny.

Yet Potter's Peter, albeit a hare of very little brain, is still the most famous - and fastest selling - lagomorph in the world. The stories have been translated into 16 languages, including Greek, Welsh and Latin. Last year, led, as always, by The Tale of Peter Rabbit and now beautifully reprinted with a brand-new color process, her books sold some seven million copies in English alone.

In an age of "dumbing down" and kidvid violence, Beatrix Potter stories are indelibly, dinkily Victorian, marked by sly humor and shot through with references to things like camomile tea, patty-pans, muffetees and Rabbit-tobacco ("what we call lavender," Potter explains). The language is decorous, understated, subtle, occasionally studded with (good grief!) hard words. This, for example, is how The Flopsy Bunnies begins: "It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is 'soporific.' "

Potter, in fact, has a fine novelist's genius for first lines - and the use of memorably specific details. The Tailor of Gloucester, Potter's own favorite, begins: "In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets - when gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta - there lived a tailor in Gloucester." My favorite, her somber masterpiece The Tale of Mr. Tad, is more direct: "I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people." And Squirrel Nutkin, briefer still: "This is a Tale about a tail."

Sophisticated critics and creators from Graham Greene to Maurice Sendak have expressed affection for Beatrix Potter. Greene speaks of the prose, artfully simple, and those "brief pregnant sentences, which have slipped, like proverbs, into common speech." In a celebrated essay written in the 1930s he noted an artistic evolution, from simpler to more complex stories, and suggested (with tongue barely in cheek) that at some time before writing Mr. Tod she had experienced a gloomy epiphany; thereafter some of the little books were marked by smiling villainy and a much darker view of human (or is it animal?) nature. The author was outraged. Nothing of the sort, she wrote Greene, adding that in any case she disliked "the Freudian School" of criticism.

Greene came closer to explaining one of Potter's page-turning charms with a phrase that both praises her and pokes a little fun at lit-crit jargon, describing her best books as the "great near-tragedies." And it is true, the perils of Pauline have nothing on Peter Rabbit & Company. Despite their mild manner and intense domesticity, her stories often put their furry protagonists in cliff-hanging jeopardy. The Tale of Peter Rabbit naturally ends with Peter home safe, being dosed with that camomile tea. Yet in the decades that have passed since this reader first heard the story and brooded over the pictures, he has not forgotten its heart-thumping suspense. Was Mr. McGregor going to stomp Peter with his huge boot? Would he be able to turn Peter into a rabbit pie? (A fate, Potter lets us know, that had already befallen Peter's father.)

The rabbit children in Mr. Tod are kidnapped and stuffed into a dark oven in a shadowy basement kitchen, waiting to be baked for badger Tommy Brock's breakfast. In The Flopsy Bunnies, after eating lettuce (which indeed proves soporific), more bunnies are caught napping by Mr. McGregor - whose role in Potter's cosmogony is roughly that of Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories. In yet another "dark" masterpiece, The Roly-Poly Pudding, Tom Kitten finds himself straitjacketed in a roll of dough, about to become a nouvelle cuisine protein delight for a sinister gourmet rat named Samuel Whiskers.

And then there is Squirrel Nutkin who, with a flotilla of fellow rodents, sets his fluffy tail as a sail and riding a twig raft lands on a nut-filled island presided over by a Tawny Owl named Old Brown.

Idiot Nutkin bedevils the long-suffering raptor with silly riddles, taunts and impertinences. Comes, finally, "a flutterment and scufflement and a loud 'squeak!'" But just as every right-thinking reader figures the little creep is about to get what's coming to him, the author makes a rare appearance in full regalia as Beatrix ex machina. "This looks like the end of the story," she writes, "but it isn't." And sure enough, on the very next page, Nutkin, no wiser but at least no longer able to use his tail for a sail - or for anything else - is let wriggle free.

In real life Miss Potter was totally unsqueamish, and rarely sentimental, about animals. A compulsive sketcher from the age of 8, she combined an artist's affection for creatures and countryside with a zoologist's exacting sense of detail. She had had an odd, lonely, extended childhood, living until she was nearly 40 in the nursery of her parents' house in London's fashionable Bolton Gardens. There she kept rabbits (whom she considered "volatile" and a bit "shallow"), a hedgehog, snakes, bats, frogs, snails and salamanders. There was a Peter Rabbit, and before him Benjamin H. Bouncer ("Bounce" for short) whom she bought for four shillings and sixpence in the Uxbridge Road and brought home in a paper bag. The rabbits had leashes and traveled with the family on long summer holidays. Peter, unlike his eponymous literary counterpart, was clever; at least he learned to jump on command. Yet even as a child, when a pet died Beatrix Potter would boil it down to skull and bones in order to study the articulation of the skeleton.

Perhaps this bred-in-the-bone blend of knowledge and love explains the empathy Beatrix Potter's tiny pictures stir in the reader, and the often dramatic viewpoints (today they would be called camera angles) she paints them from. Potter's sketches and watercolors disarm even the kind of people who (despite Kenneth Grahame's water rat and E. B. White's Stuart Little) say they can't abide anthropomorphic stories about cunning animals in little knit suits.

Some of Potter's animal characters, of course, especially mice, squirrels, young rabbits, tend to go about unclad, or as unclad as anything with a fur coat can be. A few, like Tom Kitten and Peter himself, show a real genius for shucking what little raiment they start out in. Practically nobody wears trousers. Yet even standing erect, wearing jackets and (sometimes) shoes, Potter's animals look like animals, see the world (and are seen) from an animal's point of view. Describing what he called the "chameleon poet's" power to feel empathy with nature, John Keats noted: "If a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel." Particularly in the closeups, when Peter Rabbit is low-bridging it under the fence to get into Mr. McGregor's lettuce patch or when McGregor's great boot whizzes just behind him as he leaps out the tool shed window, knocking over the geranium pots, it takes a reader with a heart of stone not to be right there along with him. Probably the most brilliant camera angle in Potter's work occurs in The Tailor of Gloucester. From just behind three busily sewing mice we see beyond them the threatening eyes and muzzle of the hungry cat Simpkin pressed angrily against a window.

After she had worked over a book (her method was to "cut, cut, cut," then "polish, polish, polish"), Beatrix Potter did not easily permit changes. For the third edition of Peter Rabbit, however, she let her editor at Warne & Company convince her to delete a picture of mean Mrs. McGregor offering the actual rabbit pie in which Peter's actual Papa serves as the main ingredient. The editor was Norman Warne. When the royalties from Peter Rabbit gave her enough confidence and income to buy a farm in the Lake District village of Sawrey, and at 39 to brave her parents' distaste for "trade," which included publishing, Beatrix became engaged to him.

Norman Warne suddenly died of pernicious anemia a few weeks later. She was devastated. "I thought," she wrote in a poignant and uncharacteristically revealing letter to Warne's sister, "my story had come right, with patience and waiting." Despite grief and apparent unworldliness, right from the start she understood the "proper" merchandising of her books, boldly rejecting many commercial spin-offs, because, as she noted, "most toymakers have no taste or sense of style." But she herself designed and sewed the first Peter Rabbit doll, stuffing it with lead shot so it would stand up straight, and hoping, in a note to Warne, that its plush covering was tough enough so children wouldn't swallow the shot. Over Warne & Company's protests, she insisted the price of the little books be kept low (only a shilling in 1902) and the size small (the exact size most of them are today) so little hands could easily buy - and hold - them. But anything that would stay true to the original artwork-chutes-and-ladders games, calendars, rompers sewed with Potter characters, Peter Rabbit mitts, slippers, tea towels and the ever popular cereal bowls - she was for.

The policy is still in effect at Frederick Warne today, despite the fact that in 1983 the company was bought up by Penguin Books. According to publisher Sally Floyer, a brisk Englishwoman who presides over the world­wide fortunes of Beatrix Potter books and products, the company continues to avoid "horrid" or "nasty" things. In practice this tends to mean anything made in shapes or out of materials upon which the Potter images cannot be decently reproduced. Floyer and Warne, however, have total confidence that the original books can go on attracting an audience broader than, say, the children of America's Masterpiece Theatre set, or any other precious few.

Nobody was talking Rabbits McMuffin

Early last year some Potter purists were jolted when the company agreed to a joint promotion with McDonald's. Nobody was talking Rabbits McMuffin, or even Eggs McGregor. But as one publishing executive told me, "You don't associate Beatrix Potter with McDonald's." One million Peter Rabbit "Happy Meal" boxes were sold, each decorated with Peter Rabbit games, each containing - along with the requisite McMeal - a paperback Potter book. When the one-month promotion was over, almost as many Potter titles had reached happy customers through McDonald's as are sold every year through U.S. bookstores. Floyer, who refuses to let her own four children have a TV set in the house, was delighted. "We have to face the fact that children live in a television age," she says, "and they want to collect things, decorate their rooms with favorite characters, and have them on their lunch boxes and T-shirts. Any publisher who just says 'We have this great line of books and you can go to the bookstore and buy them' will soon lose out."

Of late, quite apart from the English charm of Peter Rabbit et al., and the proliferation of merchandising spin-offs, which now net Warne & Company about $2 million a year, there are other reasons why Beatrix Potter, far from losing out, is practically coming in the windows. For one thing, the sales of children's books have more than doubled in the United States over the past five years, an upturn nobody can quite explain. For another, years after Beatrix Potter's death, the retiring author is at last becoming something of a celebrity, even on this side of the Atlantic. In America the process began with a splendid public television version of her life based on an equally splendid biography by English writer Margaret Lane. Last year Potterphilia was richly expanded by a huge exhibition, "Beatrix Potter: Artist and Storyteller," at the Morgan Library in New York, which generated stacks of surprised and delighted media coverage and attracted 127,000 visitors. For three months streams of readers, two and three deep, most of them adults, made a slow progress from picture to picture, some making little pencil sketches of her pictures, some so excited that they chatted with perfect strangers. (One woman exclaimed: "All I can say is, she must have had a very patient rabbit! ")

Gathered in from the Tate, and London's Victoria and Albert Museum, from the British National Trust and from private collectors, were all the papers and pictures that since World War II have kept turning up, often in the farmhouses that she owned around Sawrey and used as scenes and backdrops for the stories. Photographs, cleverly illustrated personal letters, watercolors and drawings by the score of the cats, dogs, ducks, little pigs, foxes, hedgehogs, squirrels, mice and rabbits that would become her dramatis personae, as well as of weasels, bats, water beetles, damsel flies, slop buckets, fossils, shrubs, flowers and country scenes from all over England. There were even microscopically detailed paintings of fungi from her early studies, which, in 1967, some 72 years after she did them, served as technical illustrations for a popular guide by W.P.K. Findlay, a former president of the British Mycological Society.

Here was the record of an extraordinary person, charged with talent and knowledge, who, from childhood, had been compulsively, compellingly, ceaselessly laying hands on the world. If the "d ... d little books" did not exist, Beatrix Potter would be more than worth the attention that they eventually brought her.

She was born in 1866, a contemporary of Kipling (and of Freud). She was shy, immensely intelligent. Her life, at first afflicted by loneliness, sickness and depression, dramatically divides into two outwardly ill-matched halves, one as youth and spinster in Bolton Gardens, the other as country wife in northern England. Tremendously busy, hating the pretentiousness of literary chatter about how she came to write her stories, she gruffly rejected most inquiries. As the books grew more and more renowned, their author all but vanished from the public's mind.

People, of course, had heard the story of how she wrote Peter Rabbit, nine years before it was published, as an illustrated letter to the 5-year-old son of her friend and former governess Annie Carter Moore. (The letter also has a famous first line: "My Dear Noel, I don't know what to write to you so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits .... ") But that was about it. So unknown was she, that in the 1920s a persistent rumor ascribed the authorship of the little books to Beatrice Potter Webb, the wife of Fabian Socialist Sidney Webb. By the 1930s many an affectionate reader simply imagined that the author of such old-fashioned stories must be dead.

What she had become, of course, and remained for 30 years, from her marriage in 1913 to country lawyer William Heelis, was a tough-minded, frugal, furiously energetic farmer. She threw herself into farming with passion and precise delight, gradually acquiring 4,000 acres in and around Sawrey, and five working farms, starting with Hill Top. She served as the first (and last) female president of the Herdwick Sheep breeders' Association and as a judge of agriculture shows, where she was a familiar figure, by then a stoutish, red-faced party in tweeds thick enough to stop a bullet, woven from the wool of her own sheep.

Long before her death in 1943, with characteristic practicality - and help from the National Trust - she had pioneered sensible means of saving the land and traditional ways of the villages and farms in her region. She had also arranged for a local farmer to scatter her ashes over one of her favorite fields. Not even her husband, who died shortly after her, knew which field it was.

Nobody knows today, either. It was only after World War II that the first of what would eventually become a stream of Potterphiles began visiting Hill Top. They pieced together the details and episodes of her buried life, and paced the nearby villages which, they were astounded to find, were full of still-existing scenes and landmarks, houses and furniture, and even local inns, unchanged since they had been drawn or painted into the little books more than a half-century before. Today the farms and villages, with Hill Top as the focus, make a kind of museum area, which 80,000 Potter fans throng to each year. But for the first literary pilgrims, exploring the place must have been as exciting as discovering Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, without the Snopes family - unless you count the ill-smelling, carnivorous Tommy Brock.

One of the earliest and most graceful of these literary seekers was Margaret Lane, who swiftly wrote the first of her two charming and perceptive Potter biographies. The most faithful and tenacious was Leslie Linder. He is the one who, more than any other, laid the groundwork that eventually resulted in the Morgan Library show. Linder painstakingly assembled and edited more than 5,000 letters, paintings and memorabilia, producing A History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter. More important, in 1952 he got hold of something that may be Beatrix Potter's most remarkable creation, a manuscript she had never spoken of, whose existence no one suspected. It was not a children's story, but a 200,000-word "secret journal," kept from about age 14 to age 30 (roughly 1881 to 1897). To be sure it stayed secret, she inscribed much of it in a hand tiny enough to have been written by mice and in a secret code of her own devising.

The code seems deceptively simple. Its alphabet consists of a few letters that are themselves (a and x), a few that are merely transposed (m for n and vice versa), several wholly new symbols, and some Arabic numbers that, besides their direct numerical values, stand for words. The number 2, for instance, also signifies "two," "too" and "to," while 3 is used for both "the" and "these." Even so, it took Linder and a part-time cryptographer six years to break the code, and another eight to translate the whole text and get The Journal of Beatrix Potter into print.

By the late 1960s, even in notably un-Jung and still­not-easily-Freudened Britain, psychologizing was in vogue. People who wrote about the journal tended to emphasize her young woman's bouts of gloom, her difficulties with her parents, the disadvantages and loneliness that had to have resulted from not going to school, as well as from living all those years in the nursery of 2 Bolton Gardens. Indeed, sparsely scattered through the journal is evidence that as a girl she was given to sick headaches, culminating in rheumatic fever which lasted throughout much of her 19th year, when (temporarily) her hair fell out and her bones were sometimes so painful that she screamed whenever she had to be turned in bed.

She was overly fond of childhood, which she associated with collecting and studying animals, especially during the long summer vacations. She had deep misgivings about growing up. Perhaps, though she never mentions it, this was because, being shy, brainy and having little money of her own, she faced the grim prospect of being an old maid in Victorian England. There was little hope, either, of a profession. "I am up one day and down another. Have been a long way down today," she writes at 16. "Will things never settle? Is this being grown-up?" And again, "How much I have to be thankful for, but these odious fits of low spirits would spoil my life." The memory of a spacious summer place they no longer rent, she says, "is the only bit of childhood I have left. It has been a terrible time since, and the future is dark and uncertain, let me keep the past." Nevertheless, she confided to the journal, "I will do something sooner or later."

Clearly she had bouts of deep depression. Clearly she suffered most of the standard difficulties of being the daughter of rich, conventional Victorian parents who, as Margaret Lane memorably puts it, "had fallen without knowing it under the most enervating and stultifying influence of their century - the sterile spell of moneyed and middle-class gentility." There were six servants. No one spoke at breakfast, and you had to be exactly on time for meals. In London, at least, she was not free to come and go much, and her mother seems to have been a selfish pill. Above all, though her younger brother, Bertram, her partner in drawing and studying animals, went off to university, she only had tutors, followed by art lessons. Because of her parents' horror of "trade," even when her books began to sell it took her months of anguish and argument to defy them about Norman Warne. By 1913 she was 47, the author of 20 celebrated books, comfortably well-off and established in Sawrey. Yet she only got their permission to marry William Heelis because Bertram sided with her and shocked their parents by admitting that he had been "unsuitably" married for years without telling them.

Sometimes the fates seemed to be against her in special ways, too. Just before turning 30 she wrote a scientific paper on the germination of spores. The paper was accepted for delivery at the Linnean Society, but then it turned out the society did not permit women on the premises and it had to be read by a man. It was only then that she finally got up the courage to try publishing her stories.

But to emphasize Beatrix Potter's psychological woes is to miss the main point that her life and journal exemplify. For her triumph over gloom, self-pity and all setbacks of fortune came about precisely through the prime Victorian virtues of work and discipline. The nursery, though in some ways constraining, was the only practical place where she could go on studying lichens and mushrooms, watch her hedgehog go into hibernation, assimilate the zoological treasures hauled back after each vacation, read, draw and paint in a solitude that an early marriage or even a busy social life would have deprived her of forever. If life in the nursery prolonged childhood, it also prolonged scientific and artistic growth. Though she was shy, she knew her own powers. "If I had been caught young enough," she once wrote, "I could have become anything." But she also noted that her buried life had happily left her creative imagination untrammeled.

Millais kidded her about blushing

As the journal makes clear, she was far from locked away. Her parents were acquainted with everybody, from Edward VII's mistress Lillie Langtry, to politicians like John Bright (of the Anti-Corn Law League). Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais was a close friend. He kidded Beatrix about blushing, and once told her, "all sorts of people can draw, but you ... have observation." If she couldn't go unaccompanied in London, her father took her about considerably, especially to the Royal Academy shows. The journal lists and describes dozens of paintings, often with her sharp, funny and irreverent comments. Trained as a lawyer, Rupert Potter nevertheless did not practice, but like so many Englishmen he painted watercolors and became a celebrated photography nut. He taught Beatrix to use a camera, too, while tirelessly turning out skillful portraits of the family and of famous contemporaries. His best was of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, whom the young Beatrix did not like. When Tennyson died in 1892 she mourned him in the secret journal with the comment "What a pity it was not Mr. Gladstone."

A critical maverick in other ways, she took a dim view of the established creeds of her day ("prejudice and tradition count for three-quarters in matters of religion") but found solace in the language of the Psalms, as well as in the poems of Wordsworth and the letters of Matthew Arnold. She read the newspapers avidly, making comments on everything from the fall of Khartoum to the disorder sown in London by the Irish Home Rule bombings. "Really, we shall be as bad as France, soon," she sniffed.

She even read the financial pages and had a head for figures. One of the subthemes of The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, one of her funniest books, is what happens to storekeepers who extend too much credit. She also had a prodigious memory. At 28 she decided to learn six of Shakespeare's plays by heart. A year later she had them all letter-perfect (not counting "this" for "that" as a mistake), and Henry VIII, Act V, which she "never knew well."

Brief, highly specific portraits and descriptions leap from the pages of the Journal, as they do from the little books. She visits the dentist (for the first time) and reports that "his fingers tasted muchly of kid gloves." Her pages are full of grim Dickensian oddities garnered from all over. Because there used to be a bounty on rats, she notes, small boys fished for them "with hook and line" down the grids in the streets. Each year, it is said, "the streets and dustbins of Manchester produce 7 tons of dead dogs and 13 of cats." In 1882 she reports the death of an old woman who watched the beheading of Louis XVI in 1793. (It was this sentence with its Arabic and Roman numerals that first gave Linder a clue to cracking her code.)

But most important, the journal, like the sketches and the paintings, shows her extraordinary delight in the English countryside and its living creatures seen during vacations that her parents took the two children on every summer. At first their rentals were in Scotland, later in the Lake District where Beatrix found Sawrey. She and Bertram roamed the hills and fields, foraging for frogs or lichens, examining mushrooms and badger sets, sketching everything from scenery to salamanders. When one of their pet animals died, they often stuffed it or boiled it down to take to London. Near the end of her journal Beatrix describes a moment when she disturbed a shelf in the nursery and a rain of tiny glass eyes and mouse skeletons smashed to the floor. She picked them up and reassembled the skeletons, enjoying the "beautifully minute differences and fittings together of the bones."

In another age, she might have been an eminent scientist. Her methods were painstaking, her observations sharp, her thoughts original. But her grandparents had been sturdy folk from the north of England, and she was drawn back to the country. Art, not science, proved to be her escape vehicle to nature, which she once described as that "unchanging world of realism, which in our Northern clime is stiffened by hard weather . . . and the strength that comes from the hills." The marriage to Heelis merely confirmed that she had left the south and the heart-wearying roar of London behind for good.

Readers fond of literary symbolism may choose to see Beatrix Potter herself in Pigling Bland, the book she brought out the year she married: it includes a picture of two little pigs strolling together, and another of a boy and girl pig running away together to escape the market. But Mrs. William Heelis would have none of that. "The portrait of two pigs arm in arm," she wrote a friend, "is not a portrait of me and Mr. Heelis, though it is a view of where we used to walk on Sunday afternoons! When I want to put William in a book - it will have to be some very tall thin animal."

French novelist Albert Camus, no lover of nature, once observed that the life of a writer is often the return, through art, to those images upon which the heart first opened. Beatrix Potter was plainer spoken. "What heaven can be more real," she wrote in her journal a short time before she stopped keeping it, "than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and common-sense, to fear no longer the terror that flieth by night, yet to feel truly and understand a little, a very little, the story of life." And that is precisely what her "d ... d little books" would eventually convey.


Additional reading:

  • The Tales of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane, Frederick Warne (London) 1946
  • The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881 to 1897, transcribed by Leslie Linder. Frederick Warne, 1966
  • Beatrix Potter: Artist Storyteller and Countrywoman by Judy Taylor, Frederick Warne, 1986
  • Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear, St. Martin's Press, New York, 2007