Life After Squirrel Nutkin

Beatrix Potter’s Letters

selected by Judy Taylor
Viking Penguin, 478 pp., $29.95

The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881–1897

transcribed from her code writings by Leslie Linder, foreword by Judy Taylor
Viking Penguin, 468 pp., $29.95

Very winsome are Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Squirrel Nutkin, and other Beatrix Potter creations as they appear on the mugs and porridge plates on sale in National Trust shops. Delightfully quaint were the mice from the Tailor of Gloucester in eighteenth-century costume that last Christmas made the window display at Hamley’s toyshop on Regent Street.

Neither “winsome” nor “quaint” are words to describe the Beatrix Potter who drafted the following letter to a newspaper in 1911 under the heading “Grandmotherly Legislation”:

Under the amended law for the protection of animals it has become illegal for a “child” under 16 years of age to be present at the slaughter and cutting up of carcases. It is unwise to allow little children of 4 or 5 years old to be present at a pig-killing. There have once or twice been serious accidents, where they have tried to imitate the scene in play. But—do our rulers seriously maintain that a farm lad of 15 1/2 years must not assist at the cutting up? One of the interesting reminiscences of my early years is the memory of helping to scrape the smiling countenance of my own grandmother’s deceased pig, with scalding water and the sharp-edged bottom of a brass candle-stick. Pan lids were also in request.

She told the tale of Pigling Bland’s romance with Pig-wig; from her own piglings she sent her friends joints of pork at Christmas. Her liking for animals went far beyond cuddly rabbits and kittens: there are kindly references in her letters to creatures not generally considered lovable: snails, spiders, and rats, whose boldness and ingenuity she admired even as she planned her defenses (“We are putting zinc on the bottoms of the doors—that and cement skirtings will puzzle them”). She considered that her books had succeeded “by being absolutely matter of fact.”

Yet it was not matter-of-factness alone that sent these little books round the world—among the many languages into which they have been translated are Finnish, Icelandic, Bulgarian, Greek, Japanese, and Welsh, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit has been rated the best-selling children’s book of all time in the United States. Beatrix Potter’s down-to-earth realism is laced with fantasy and poetry. Her animals are true to life (she spent hours of her lonely youth drawing her pets) but she delights in the fancy of dressing them appropriately—clogs for the peasant bunnies, print dress for the washerwoman hedgehog, smart green tailcoat for the deceitful fox—and inventing plots to suit their animal nature. And over all she throws a romantic glow that comes from her love of the Lakeland countryside, where nearly all the tales are set.

Now, with the reissue of her Journal (the first edition was reviewed in these pages in 1966) and the publication of the Letters, we are in a better position to understand the author of these far-traveled little books. Judy Taylor introduces the Journal with a tribute to the late Leslie …

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