Once upon a time there were four little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.
Thus begins one of the best known works of literature in the entire Western Canon.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 in Kensington, London. A solitary child, she enjoyed drawing and painting the natural world, starting with her first pet rabbits, Benjamin Bouncer and Peter Piper, and she also loved the Scottish countryside where she and her brother, together with their parents, spent her childhood summers.
But when Beatrix was sixteen, the family made a detour in their summer travels, and ended up at Lake Windermere, in England’s beautiful Lake District. Beatrix fell in love with the place, and knew that one day, it would be her home.
Back in London for the fall, Beatrix turned her talents towards her interest in mycology (the study of fungus/mushrooms), one that she had developed under the encouragement of renowned Scottish naturalist Charles McIntosh. Her contributions to mycological research, and her detailed drawings of dozens of fungi, are still recognized for their perfection today, although she never presented or published any of her papers or drawings during her lifetime. Because of the unfortunate circumstance of her birth (the second “X” chromosome), she could neither become a member of the Royal Botanical Society, nor have her papers presented or published by the Linnaean Society. (One hundred years after rebuffing her, the Linnaean Society did issue her a posthumous appreciation and apology).
Even while devoting most of her time to her scientific interests, Beatrix was also indulging her creativity and love of whimsy by illustrating her favorite childhood stories, and writing ‘picture letters’ (stories with illustrations) to the children of family friends. After modest success with the publication of some of her greeting-card illustrations, Beatrix decided to try to publish her little tales.
Her early efforts bore no fruit, but eventually, Frederick Warne & Co. noticed the success of her self-published run (250 copies) of a little book called The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and reconsidered their earlier rejection of the story. It was first formally published in October 1902, and it sold like hotcakes. At the same time, a romance blossomed between Beatrix and her publisher, Norman Warne. The match was opposed by Beatrix’s socially-rigid and controlling parents (she was in her thirties at the time), but the two became engaged. Shortly thereafter, Norman died of leukemia, and Beatrix was devastated.
Rather than retiring to the fainting couch with a fit of the vapors, as many women would have done, Beatrix did something very unusual for a lady of the time; she used some of the income from her books and an inheritance from a family member to buy a small farm in her beloved Lake District, and she moved herself, lock stock and barrel, to the north of England. Away from her parents, and towards her own life.
Once there, she threw herself wholeheartedly into two things—her literary endeavors, and farming. The stories, and her agricultural undertaking, prospered, and with the help of William Heelis, a local solicitor, and several Lake District farmers who, I’m sure, were amused by the London city lady’s interest in their endeavors, she became a champion farmer of pigs, cows, chickens, and eventually, prize-winning Herdwick sheep.
Many years later, she and William Heelis married, and she lived out her life on her beloved farm, buying up neighboring properties as her time and finances allowed. When she died in 1943, she was one of England’s most respected landowners and sheep breeders, and she left the National Trust 4,000 acres of pristine countryside with the stipulation that it never be developed, and that it be farmed in perpetuity. God Bless her. I’m not lost in admiration of all that many people, but I really admire this one.
It’s probably impossible to quantify what these little books have meant to the children in my family over the generations, but here goes:
My early life, as some of you know, was quite topsy-turvy. There were, however, a couple of eyes in the storm. One of them was my maternal grandparents, with whom we visited often when Dad was on leave from Nigeria. The other was my dad’s old family home: the enormous house occupied in my childhood by his sisters, my three maiden aunties.
It really was a fabulous house, and we’ve lived to regret the family’s not buying the freehold for a few thousand pounds in the 1970s when we had the chance to. The last time it sold, in 2015, it went for £1.65 million. Here’s the sales brochure (it’s been extensively redone since I knew it, when it was still, substantially, its Victorian original.) It was a paradise for small children–rooms full of toys, plenty of places to hide from the grown-ups and from each other, and beautiful grounds to play in.
Half-way up, the main staircase turned back on itself and there was a small landing (painted yellow). And on that landing was a little bookshelf with early editions of almost every Beatrix Potter tale. In the late 1950s, just as my aunts and uncles had done thirty and forty years before, I spent countless hours sitting in the little alcove, absorbing the tales of Peter, Benjamin, Jeremy, Jemima, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and Ginger and Pickles. They meant home to me, a safe, normal home where strange men with guns, and poisonous snakes, weren’t trying to kill me, and where I didn’t have to move and form new friendships every five minutes. Peter and Benjamin were constant and true. They didn’t budge. I loved them. And I still do.
Fast forward to about 1970. Technology has caught up with Peter, and as well as reading the books, my brother is listening to The Tale of Peter Rabbit on a 45RPM vinyl recording from a few years previous. The story is voiced by Vivien Leigh, and has been
adulterated augmented by several jolly songs. Nevertheless, the narration reflects the original text, and, of course, we are enchanted again.
By the time my granddaughter is born in 2008, there’s been another leap forward, and while she is still a tiny baby, my sister sends, from England, the complete Tales and Nursery Rhymes of Beatrix Potter, on 23 CDs, in a nice little zippered bag.
Whereas my aunts and uncles, my brother and myself, merely loved the tales, my granddaughter absolutely immerses herself in them. We read the books to her, over and over again (they’re great vocabulary builders for young children; Beatrix never wrote down to her audience), and then she starts to read them herself. She will not get in the car without her bag full of “stories,” and she insists on listening to them play while her mother drives (yes, even to the rather awful renditions of Beatrix’s “Nursery Rhymes,” which her mother dubs the “Andrew Lloyd-Weber version” of the songs). Pretty soon she has almost everything memorized.
And she starts to develop, and tell, her own tales, and to populate her own world, one in which her best friend, the imaginary Mopsy, figures large. One day, perhaps she’ll write and publish her stories; you’ll be captivated if she does, I promise you.
Just as I was, one day when we were sitting around the kitchen table on the farm. My granddaughter was about four. She was telling her own made-up story about Mopsy (a miraculous shape-shifting, size-shifting, temperature-adapting rabbit) and her family and friends, and about an expedition undertaken to pick blackberries.
All the narration was in my granddaughter’s own natural voice. All the dialog among the animals which were part of the story was spoken in a seamless, impeccable, absolutely spot-on, English accent.
Because, having listened to the CDs, over and over again all her young life, she knew that’s how they spoke.
I am usually pretty lost when people start discussing the books of their youth, because I’m unfamiliar with most of them, having lived my early life in a bit of a culture warp. As far as authors go, my “big three” are Beatrix Potter, Gerald Durrell, and James Herriot. They (punctuated in my adolescence by the occasional tasteful bodice-ripper) got me through a lot. And still can.
But the first, and perhaps the greatest of these, is Beatrix. And so, just like the Linnaean Society, I’d like to offer a posthumous, and very belated, “thank you,” to this particular Lady of the Lake (District), on her
one-hundred-forty-first birthday one-hundred-fifty-first birthday (edit: math never was my strong suit), for entertaining me, educating me and informing the course of my life, as well as for providing comfort and enjoyment to so many I love.
Thank you, Beatrix Potter.