don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.’
So begins the letter sent from Scotland by thirty-five-year-old Beatrix Potter in 1901 to a frequently ailing five-year-old boy, Noel Moore, the oldest of the eight children of her once-governess and companion, Annie Carter Moore. With the substitution of ‘Once upon a time there were’ for the first sixteen words above, this must surely be the most well-known and most loved opening of all children’s books. The rest of the letter, until Beatrix expresses her wish to visit young Noel on her return to London, is word-for-word the text of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Like so many of the letters Beatrix Potter sent to children, Noel’s was filled with sketches, these ones instantly identifiable with the finished black-and-white pictures she drew that same year for her own privately published edition of the book, the ones she later redrew and painted in colour as illustrations for the first Warne edition in 1902.
Beatrix Potter’s life story has been told many times, and for each version a further myth is added. One current on-line version states that Beatrix kept small animals ‘taking them from the wild and contributing to their deaths by disregarding their needs’. Another says that she didn’t like children – but then that was a story told by one of the children who used to ‘scrump’ the apples from her orchard!
The facts are that Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28 July 1866, the first child of Rupert and Helen Potter, then living in a newly built terraced house in London, No. 2 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, having moved there from fashionable Harley Street. In 1854 Rupert Potter had come to London to study law at Lincoln’s Inn. Although his Unitarian family owned a flourishing calico printing works in Glossop, near Manchester, and Rupert had been expected to join the family business, he had set his heart on becoming a barrister and was called to the Bar in 1857. Six years later he married Helen Leech, who was also from the North, from a ship-building, Unitarian family, and now the couple were making a considerable effort to lose their Northern accents and to be accepted into the social life of London. To avoid confusion with her mother, their first child was known as Beatrix, or sometimes just as ‘B’. She was looked after by servants and later taught by governesses, only seeing her parents to say goodnight or on special occasions.
Beatrix was a lonely child, having to rely on her own creative talents for entertainment, but she was kept well supplied with books and encouraged in her art by her parents, who both painted and drew a little themselves. When Beatrix was nearly six her brother, Walter Bertram, was born and was also called by his second name, this time to avoid confusion with his uncle.
As Bertram grew up he became a close companion to his sister and also developed a talent for painting and drawing. Together they kept a series of pets in the schoolroom or in hutches in the garden - a rabbit, a hedgehog, a mouse, a white rat, and some bats – all
14 Books for Keeps No.189 July 2011
First page of picture letter from Beatrix Potter to Noel Moore sent 4th September 1893. Copyright © Frederick Warne & Co, 1946
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Copyright © Frederick Warne & Co 1902, 2002
Beatrix Potter assessed by Judy Taylor
smuggled home from local pet shops. During the long family summer holidays in Scotland both children painted and drew all aspects of the flora and fauna they encountered on their countryside expeditions.
When Bertram was eleven he was sent away to boarding school but Beatrix remained in London with yet another governess. However, she was now regularly visiting the South Kensington Museum and there she discovered not only the paintings of great artists such as Constable, Gainsborough and Hogarth but
the preserved skeletons of animals and samples of insects, all of which she copied and drew. She was acquiring the detailed knowledge that would later mark her as a distinguished and knowledgeable naturalist, even having a paper ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’ accepted in 1897 by The Linnean Society – although she could not
read it, as ladies were not allowed to attend the Society’s meetings.
Between the ages of fifteen and thirty-one Beatrix kept a journal (written in a code that was not deciphered until 1958) and it is The Journal that has provided us with much of our knowledge about her life in those early years. In 1882, when the family holidays moved from Scotland to the Lake District, Beatrix fell in love with that part of the world where she would live thirty years later and with which she is identified today.
It was Beatrix’s last governess, Annie Moore, who had suggested that the stories she had told in her pictures letters to the children ‘might make good books’ and in 1901 Beatrix published privately her own edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. When she finally found a commercial publisher for it in 1902 (after at least six attempts), it was Frederick Warne who requested that she redo her illustrations in colour. The following year Warne published The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester, both of which Beatrix had first told in letters to the Moore children. And so the publication of her stories continued, two – and sometimes three – little books a year, until there was a grand total of twenty-three.
As early as 1903 Beatrix had made a Peter Rabbit doll and registered it herself at the Patent Office. It would be the first of a whole host of ensuing ‘spin-offs’,
painting books to board games, from hot-water-bottles to china tea-sets.
In July 1905 Beatrix received an offer of marriage from her publisher, Norman Warne, and against her parents’ wishes – for he was ‘in trade’ – she accepted his proposal, but sadly the wedding was not to be, for Norman died of leukaemia only four weeks later, at the age of only thirty-seven.
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