Another Tale of Peter Rabbit: celebrating the 150th birthday of Beatrix Potter with some lesser known stories of a remarkable artist and writer
On 28th July 2016 we celebrate 150 years since the birth of the gifted children’s illustrator and writer, Helen Beatrix Potter in 1866. She was known to the world as Beatrix, and ‘B’ to her family, to distinguish her from her mother, with whom she shared the same first name. From a young age Beatrix exhibited the exceptional observational skills and artistic talents that were to later find expression in the series of delightful hand-sized children’s books which are treasured by adults and children alike.
A young woman of many and diverse talents
Beatrix was an extraordinary individual, attaining stature in a wide range of endeavours, including as sheep breeder, naturalist and conservationist. From her mid-teens to age 30 she kept hidden diaries written in code, and her journal of 3 March 1883 records her resolve to: ‘do something’ with her life beyond the confined expectations of the English upper classes.[i] With a rare talent for recall, Beatrix challenged herself as a teenager to remember long extracts from the Bible, and to recite entire Shakespearian plays, memorising six of the latter in her 28th year.[ii] She was also an acute observer of the natural world, with a special interest in fungi and lichen, and her paper ‘On the germination of the spores of the agaricineae’ was read by proxy to the Linnean Society of London in 1897.[iii]
Beatrix’s artistic talents were evident from a young age, and her ability to portray animals was refined during many holidays spent in the countryside. She and her younger brother often brought back animals to London that they had made pets of, some of which did not survive their transplantation to the city: ‘those who died or were found already dead were usually sketched and occasionally skinned, boiled down, and reconstructed in skeletal form’.[iv]
The reverse was also true, and a selection from the menagerie of small animals which shared their upstairs nursery, travelled with the young Potters in specially crafted baskets. As well as rabbits, these included mice, snails, rats, birds, lizards named Judy and Toby, a dormouse Xarifa (who was reputedly stroked by the artist John Millais, a family friend), bats, terrapins, frogs and a snake.[v]
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Whilst Beatrix’s favourite of her own books was The Tailor of Gloucester, she is best remembered for creating the mischievously endearing character, Peter Rabbit, though there were several twists and turns before publication of his ‘tale’ was realised. After at least six rejections, including one from the eventual publishers, Frederick Warne & Co, Beatrix progressed arrangements to have the book privately printed. This edition was first issued on 16th December 1901 in a run of 250 copies distributed mostly to family and friends. A second printing followed shortly after in February 1902, such was the demand, priced at one shilling and two pence.
About this time, Beatrix’s friend Canon Rawnsley re-approached Frederick Warne, suggesting that the story be published in 42 paragraphs of his own verse, accompanied by Beatrix’s illustrations:
‘There were four little bunnies
-no bunnies were sweeter
Mopsy and Cotton-tail,
Flopsy and Peter…’[vi]
Frederick Warne & Co editions and ‘pirated’ American imitations
Fortunately Warne rejected this offer, and at last offered to publish Beatrix’s original manuscript in modified form, including omission of the original picture of Mrs McGregor holding a pie containing Peter’s father because the company did not like her face. Although a woman in her mid-30s, Beatrix expressed concern at the prospect of her father, a trained barrister, accompanying her to witness the signing of the publishing agreement: ‘if my father happens to insist on going with me to see the agreement, would you please not mind him very much, if he is very fidgety about things…’[vii]
Other adjustments debated included whether Peter should face one way or the other on the cover, the finer points of the rendering of Mr McGregor‘s nose and ears (Beatrix lamented that she had ‘never learnt to draw figures’), and whether the white on the wheelbarrow should be ‘wiped off’.[viii] On 8 May 1902, not long before the Warne edition went to print she reflected
‘I wish that the drawings had been better; I dare say they may look better when reduced; but I am becoming so tired of them, I begin to think that they are positively bad’. [ix]
Perhaps the saddest revelation was that her pet, the original ‘Peter Piper’ rabbit and model, had died on 26th January 1901 (four days after Queen Victoria), at the age of nine, just before the drawings for the Warne edition commenced. Beatrix wrote ‘now when they are finished I have got another rabbit, and the drawings look wrong’.[x] Peter was actually her second rabbit, the first being Mr Benjamin Bouncer who enjoyed eating peppermints.
None of these changes affected the success of the Warne print runs: the first 8000 copies were sold before publication, and another 20,000 sold before the end of 1902. Two years later 86,000 copies were in circulation. Minor adjustments were made with each new edition, some driven by technical demands such as wear to the printing blocks, necessitating re-cutting of the picture plates.
But challenges confronted the book post-publication, including the failure of Warne to have claimed copyright protection in the United States for the first American edition. This oversight spawned a succession of ‘pirated’ imitations, variously retaining, modifying or completely rewriting Beatrix’s words and copying, far less successfully, her illustrations. These versions included The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Henry Altemus & Co, 1904) and Louise A. Field’s Peter Rabbit and his Pa (Saalfield Publishing, 1908).
What happened to Peter and his sisters?
The fate of Peter beyond the Beatrix Potter books remains unrecorded in her letters or papers, though he seems to have evaded the pie dish, making minor returns in the tales of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the Flopsy Bunnies, Ginger and Pickles, and Mr Tod, and on the last page of Pigling Bland. Of his sisters, Mopsy does not reappear in later books, but Flopsy married Benjamin Bunny, producing several children, and Cottontail was courted by a black rabbit who left carrots outside her burrow, and raised a family of four or five children on a hill.
Given that The Tale of Peter Rabbit had its genesis whilst Beatrix holidayed in Perthshire in 1893, it is perhaps fitting to end with the first sentences from the Scottish translation, The Tale O Peter Kinnen, first published in 2004:
‘Aince upon a time there wis fower wee Kinnen, an their nems wis – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-bun an Peter. They bid wi their Mither in a san-baunk, aneath the ruit o a muckle fir-tree…’[xi]
I am grateful to my colleague, Susan Millard, Special Collections Librarian, for her assistance with this post.
Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator
[i] MacDonald, Ruth. Beatrix Potter. Boston : Twayne Publishers, c1986, p. 7
[ii] MacDonald, pp. 8-9
[iii] MacDonald, p. 13
[iv] MacDonald, p. 2
[v] Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: artist, storyteller and countrywoman. Harmondsworth: Frederick Warne, 1986, p.47
[vi] Linder, Leslie. A history of the writings of Beatrix Potter, including unpublished work. London : Frederick Warne, c1971, pp. 93-94
[vii] Taylor, Judy. That naughty rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit. Harmondsworth: Frederick Warne, 1987, p.21.
[viii] Linder, Leslie, p. 106
[ix] Hallinan, Camilla. The ultimate Peter Rabbit: a visual guide to the world of Beatrix Potter. London : Dorling Kindersley, 2002, p. 31
[x] Grinstein, Alexander. The remarkable Beatrix Potter. Madison, Connecticut: International Universities Press, c1995, p. 52
[xi] McGeachie, Lynne. Beatrix Potter’s Scotland: her Perthshire inspiration. Edinburgh : Louath Press, 2010, p. 132
Grinstein, Alexander. The remarkable Beatrix Potter. Madison, Connecticut: International Universities Press, c1995.
Hallinan, Camilla. The ultimate Peter Rabbit: a visual guide to the world of Beatrix Potter. London : Dorling Kindersley, 2002.
The history of The tale of Peter Rabbit. London : Frederick Warne & Co, c1976.
Linder, Leslie. A history of the writings of Beatrix Potter, including unpublished work. London : Frederick Warne, c1971.
MacDonald, Ruth. Beatrix Potter. Boston : Twayne Publishers, c1986.
McGeachie, Lynne. Beatrix Potter’s Scotland: her Perthshire inspiration. Edinburgh : Louath Press, 2010.
McGeachie, Lynne. The Tale O Peter Kinnen. Edinburgh Luath Press, 2004
Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: artist, storyteller and countrywoman. Harmondsworth: Frederick Warne, 1986.
Taylor, Judy. That naughty rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit. Harmondsworth: Frederick Warne, 1987.
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