To celebrate 150 years since Beatrix Potter’s birth, the writer and her famous characters will be appearing on British fifty-pence coins alongside Shakespeare and the latest portrait of the Queen.
A classic British writer of predominantly children’s books, Potter left a lasting legacy through both her creative work and her interest in conservation and natural science.
Biographer Linda Lear describes the young girl Potter as “a sharp observer of society but a reluctant participant in it”, born into a wealthy Victorian family and spending much of her childhood in isolated natural havens in Scotland and the Lake District. Art and Nature were the author’s first great passions, and Potter illustrated all her own books, usually in her favorite medium of watercolour.
The accuracy and consequent educational qualities of her writings were new in the genre of animal fables. Although clearly anthropmorphised, Potter’s characters demonstrate real animal instincts – the fox steals the baby rabbits to make them into a delicious pie, and shopkeeper cats must use all their will power to resist eating their mouse customers. As a proficient scientific illustrator, Potter’s drawings also presented realistic images of her characters, in contrast to her contemporaries like Kenneth Grahame whose Mr Toad in Wind in the Willows liked to comb his hair…
Lear suggests that the teenage Beatrix Potter created a fantasy world around her pets and nature to give purpose to the otherwise dull life of a Victorian woman. Inspired by her own rabbit Peter, her first publication The Tale of Peter Rabbit was a great success and provided her with income and independence that was so rare for a woman of her time. Showing entrepreneurial style, Potter soon made Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck dolls, as well as expanding her merchandise to include a Peter Rabbit painting book. She is spoken of as one of the first ‘commercialisers of childhood’.
Today her legacy surpasses just literature, with the celebrated film Miss Potter, new book The Further Tales of Peter Rabbit written by Emma Thompson, and Peter Rabbit’s very own app. You can even visit The World of Beatrix Potter, an attraction park in Bowness-on-Windemere, and Potter’s old house Hill Top, a ‘time capsule of her life’ left to the National Trust when she died. The older Beatrix Potter loved rural life, and by the time she died she owned 14 farms and 4000 acres of land on which she grazed Herdwick sheep. Apparently Hill Top cottage is frequently over-run with Japanese tourists who are avid fans of the books because they are widely used to teach English in Japan.
Aside from Peter Rabbit, how familiar are we today with Potter’s characters and stories? Here is a quick summary of some of her best selling titles:
– The Tale of Peter Rabbit – 1902
Peter Rabbit’s adventures in Mr McGregor’s garden were originally rejected by several publishers, until Potter transformed the black and whit illustrations into colour. It has now been translated into 36 languages and is regarded by many as a classic work of children’s literature. Peter spends his day sneaking about in the garden, eating too many vegetables, losing his clothes, and hiding in a watering can – ” It would have been a beautiful thing to hide in, if it had not had so much water in it” – before returning home where his mumma puts him to bed with some chamomile tea.
– The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin – 1903
Nutkin is a little red squirrel (ooh, rare), the only one of his group to disrespect the Old Brown Owl whose island they collect nuts from. Eventually, Old Brown Owl has had enough and bites off Nutkin’s tail as punishment. Some commentators have linked the story to the political context of rebellious workers at the time of writing.
– The Tale of Benjamin Bunny – 1904
Benjamin is Peter Rabbit’s cousin and the two continue their mischief in Mr McGregor’s garden. Starting out as self-confident little characters, the boys soon need to be rescued by Benjamin Bunny’s father who bails them out of trouble.
– The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle – 1905
Based on a hedgehog that Potter once kept as a pet (alongside lizards, mice and rabbits from the garden), Mrs Tiggy Winkle is a washer-woman living in a tiny cottage in the lake district. Thinking the book would be popular with young girls, Potter tells of how Lucy comes for tea, and the two then deliver freshly laundered clothes to the neighborhood.
– The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck – 1908
A naive and not a very bright little duck, befriended by a sneaky fox and eventually having to be saved by the farm dog, Kep. Not one for feminist success stories or girl power… (Potter showed little interest in the campaigns for women’s suffrage, despite being a strong and independent woman herself.)