(Published in the Business Standard, January 08, 2007)
Nothing about Miss Potter, the film version of Beatrix Potter’s life, is likely to dispel the “fluffy bunny” image that surrounds one of the world’s most successful children’s authors. As played by Renee Zellwegger, the creator of Peter Rabbit, Miss Tiggywinkle, Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddleduck comes across as sweet and woolly, much the way most of us remember her creations.
Up to a point, Beatrix Potter lived a very Victorian life. Her parents were remote figures during her childhood and oppressive, overbearing guardians for most of her adult life, fiercely opposing her romance with her publisher, and resisting her few quiet attempts at independence. Those of us who read the Peter Rabbit series remember the drawings best, as adults—charming watercolours of a rabbit in a blue jacket, a hedgehog seamstress clad in demure skirts, a duck puddling around with a red scarf askew on her head.
Beatrix Potter loved nature, aspired to be an illustrator of fungi, and once the Peter Rabbit books and merchandise brought in enough money to make her independent, retreated to the country to raise sheep. The love of her life died of leukemia a few short months after her parents had reluctantly consented to their engagement; it took many decades before Potter formed another, more lasting, relationship.
There was another side to Beatrix Potter, though, which displayed itself early on, shortly after the first Peter Rabbit book had been published. “My stories will be as immortal as those of Hans Christian Anderson,” Potter told a relative. It was a surprisingly self-assured claim coming from a writer who had written the Tale of Peter Rabbit to cheer up a sick child, illustrating her letter with whimsical drawings. Once the books were launched, though, it was Potter’s idea to create Peter Rabbit dolls, calendars and wallpaper—and this was back in 1902. (Walt Disney was a one-year-old toddler then, and his successful merchandising franchise was many decades away—Beatrix Potter was something of a pioneer in book marketing terms!)
She was professional about her books, continuing to churn out one success after another. Potter never had children of her own, but got on very well with children all the same, and in a letter to one of her young friends, she writes “I was very ill last spring – I thought it was the last of Peter Rabbit and since then I have been drawing – dozens of pigs. I have been so tired of them, but the printers said all the little friends would be disappointed if I did not screw out my normal Christmas book. I’m afraid it is not very good this time but I have done my best, now am well again I will hope to do better next year.”
Potter was considerably sharper with her publishers. In 1920, she grumbled, “You don’t suppose I shall be able to continue these d—-d little books when I am dead and buried!! I am utterly tired of doing them, and my eyes are wearing out.
What makes the Beatrix Potter books—and the souvenir industry built around them—endure? Another great children’s writer, Philippa Pearce, had a partial answer: “Really, there is very much unpleasantness in childhood that we adults forget — and much that some simply dare not remember. For, let’s face it, a good deal of childhood is strong stuff for adults and totally unsuitable for children.”
Beatrix Potter’s furry rabbits and talking mice blended sweet fantasy with a great deal of unpleasantness. Peter Rabbit may wear a blue velvet coat and live in a cosily domestic rabbit hole, but his mother warns him casually not to end up like his father, who “was put in a pie by Mr McGregor”. Pickles and Ginger, the cat and the terrier who run a village shop, must remind each other when the mice and rats come to buy things that “it would never do to eat our own customers”.
Potter had the country woman’s attitude to nature, which was not at all a sentimental one. Writing to another child, Winifred, she mourned the end of “Smutty”, a “wonderful clever black cat” who went for a walk and never returned: “I am afraid she met a bad man with a gun, early in the morning…”
Perhaps it was just this combination of cuteness brushing up against hard reality that still makes the Beatrix Potter books work. She understood, as the best children’s writers do, that a child’s world may welcome fantasy, magic and whimsy, but that childhood itself is a terrifying place. Potter used folk songs and echoes from fairy tales in her stories quite liberally, but there was one line she eschewed: “And they all lived happily ever after.” The apparently tranquil natural world she loved so much had little time for happy endings.