It’s funny how we make certain associations and they become
tradition. Certain days and certain
stories just seem to come together even though they may have originally had
little do with each other.
For example, I always associated Easter with the works of
Beatrix Potter. Why? Well, part of it probably has to do with how
popular her rabbit stories are. And
rabbits are a major symbol of Easter.
Another, more on-the-nose reason might be because of this:
In my family, these chocolate Peter Rabbits were our
chocolate Easter bunnies. Each of them
came with a little paper booklet that reprinted The Tale of Peter Rabbit, albeit without the lovely watercolor
illustrations usually associated with the story.
Of course, I also associate Potter’s work with McDonald’s
because of this:
Strangest Happy Meal of my childhood. Pretty much the only time I ever remember
them giving out books, though a little research shows they’d done it a couple
of other times too.
But anyway, to prepare this special post for Easter I
decided to read the entire collected tales of Beatrix Potter. That’s right, all twenty-three of them. Every single animal story she had in her
First, a little bit about the author. As was the case with many upper class
Victorian girls who were educated at home, Beatrix Potter had something of a
lonely childhood. However, she had two
interests that brought her joy: nature and art.
Her parents encouraged her by bringing her to art galleries and providing
her with tutors. She and her brother
would also keep any number of pets in their schoolroom. These pets would often become the subjects of
her artistic endeavors. As she got
older, she would continue to keep pets.
When she started writing picture stories for the children of friends and
relatives, these pets would often find themselves turned into the characters in
her stories. These stories then led to
her career as an author. But writing
children’s books was only a small part of what she did. She was also a farmer, naturalist and
conservationist. Her watercolor paintings
of mushrooms made her respected in the field of mycology. She owned the farm of Hill Top in England’s
Lake District and was a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep. She also worked with the newly formed
National Trust to conserve areas of natural beauty within the Lake
District. Despite living in a time
period in which women had few opportunities, Beatrix Potter managed to
accomplish an awful lot.
But it’s probably her stories that gained her the most
fame. And like I said, I just read all
What did I think of them?
Well, they’re not bad. I may have
experienced some unexpected side effects from trying to read the whole thing in
under a week and a half (I swear I started to hallucinate in watercolors). But overall, they’re a pleasant collection of
For the most part, Potter’s books are largely standalone
picture books centered on one character or group of characters. Most of them with the naming structure of
“The Tale of [insert name here]”.
One of the more notable things that slips by people is the
sense of fatalism they have. Peter
Rabbit’s father is referenced as having been baked into a pie by Mrs.
McGregor. Squirrel Nutkin’s tale gets
bitten off by the owl Old Brown. Pigling
Bland get taken in by a farmer who plans to make hams and bacon out of
him. Jemima Puddleduck nearly gets eaten
by a fox only for her eggs to get eaten by a couple of hungry dogs. It’s not really surprising for anyone who
knows children’s literature from the late 19th and early 20th
century. And Potter was a savvy enough
naturalist to know how brutal the lives of animals would have been. But I think a lot of people overlook it when
they see the pretty drawings of cute animals in clothes.
And speaking of putting the animals in clothes, there’s a
weird sort of internal logic to these stories.
The animals are simultaneously human and not human throughout. At first it seems like human beings are
unaware at how like people animals are.
In The Tale of Peter Rabbit,
Mr. McGregor just finds Peter’s jacket and shoes and hangs them on a
scarecrow. In The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, McGregor’s surprised to find that
Benjamin left tiny clog-prints all over his garden. By contrast, The Tale of Pigling Bland features pigs who humans openly talk to,
but also openly eat. There’s even a plot
point about how pigs travelling alone have to have special licenses that they
can show to the police if they ask. Who
knew England was practicing such strict pig control? Possibly the most unusual example though, is The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. The book centers on a young girl named Lucie
who has misplaced her pinafore and pocket handkerchiefs. She goes searching for them only to find the
home of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. The thing
about Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is that she’s a hedgehog as well as a washerwoman. Lucie doesn’t seem to register this at first,
though. It’s almost as if she has walked
into Wonderland, seeing as she and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle are close to the same size
when in her home. It’s not until after
the two of them had delivered clean laundry to some of the characters from
Potter’s other books (I’ll get to that in a minute) and had received a bundle
containing her pinny and pocket handkins (Potter’s words for them), does she
turn around to see Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle heading home and then notices that her cap
and shawl and petticoat are gone and that she’d turned suddenly very small and
brown and was in fact nothing but a hedgehog.
The book ends with a note saying that people think Lucie fell asleep and
dreamed all of it, but also notes that if she dreamed it she shouldn’t have
come away from the dream with a bundle of clean laundry. Though Potter’s Tales aren’t actually fairy tales (despite what the header on this
blog might say), she seems to have harnessed some of that famously dream-like
fairy tale logic.
Other things jump out to me about these books. Like, did you know Beatrix Potter probably
wrote one of the earliest interconnected fantasy universes? A somewhat bucolic one, but one just the
same. Now, Potter's books can technically be considered a series. They're marketed as the "Peter Rabbit series". Even so, only four of them focus on the same
stable of characters: The Tale of Peter
Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny,
The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and The Tale of Mr. Tod. Even then, you’ll notice the last one is more
focused on the villain of the piece. But
still, what Potter manages to do is have her stories connect by having the
characters from one book appear as supporting characters in others. So, Jemima Puddleduck appears in The Tale of Tom Kitten, then Tom Kitten
appears as the protagonist of The Tale of
Samuel Whiskers and Tom’s sister Miss Moppet has her own book The Story of Miss Moppet. Also, while the Fox in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck goes unnamed, he does look an awful
lot like the fox who was the villain of the later book The Tale of Mr. Tod. Some
characters are more isolated than others while some stories like The Tale of Ginger and Pickles seem to
revel in all the cameos they can bring in.
Sometimes, characters who don’t have their own book appear in multiple
books themselves, like the chicken Sally Henny-Penny. Honestly, I get a kick out of this because I
grew up with American superhero comics and later discovered the interconnected
worlds of authors like L. Frank Baum and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But it’s an interesting thing when you look
at the current pop culture landscape and some of the interest and push back
from using interconnected universes in movies.
Needless to say, creating them is an art and one that Potter managed
just fine. She seems to have realized
(even if subconsciously) what a lot of big Hollywood types have not: that the
universe is the icing, not the cake. In
other words, each of the stories can be read individually and doesn’t completely
rely on knowing what happens in another story in order to work. It’s only when you pan out and realize that a
number of the characters are essentially “neighbors” that it comes into effect. It’s that combination of simplicity and
complexity that makes it work.
There’s other stuff to talk about, like the variety within
She wrote some books for
very small children like The Story of
and The Story of A Fierce
, both of which were published in an unfolding “accordion” style
She wrote two books of nursery
rhymes: Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes
Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes
She dipped her toe into adapting legends and
Aesop’s fables with The Tailor of
and The Tale of Johnny
She even wrote a chapter
book of sorts in The Tale of Little Pig
, which was itself inspired by the famous poem “The Owl and the Pussycat”
by Edward Lear.
There are also
the media adaptations ranging from The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends
(really quite good), the CBBC Peter Rabbit cartoon (not bad) and that recent
Peter Rabbit movie starring James Corden (haven’t seen it, but heard it was
But I fear I may be going overlong.
Overall though, I’m glad to have made this strange
association with Beatrix Potter and Easter, even if it’s through a tangent that
connects them both with rabbits. I might
not have read them if not for that. If
you’re so interested, I suggest giving them a read. Though, something to be aware of if you’re
reading these to your children: in addition to the more fatalistic aspects
there are also some outdated cultural bits there. For example, Benjamin Bunny settles down and
has a family with his cousin Flopsy.
While this is not uncommon with animals and wasn’t particularly uncommon
with humans in the 19th century, it is a cultural taboo now. So, deal with that accordingly.
Anyway, until next time and a Happy Easter to all who are