Letters to Children from Beatrix Potter
Collected and introduced by Judy Taylor
Frederick Warne/Penguin, 240 pp., $20.00
Letters to Children
by Beatrix Potter, foreword by Philip Hofer
Walker and Company, 48 pp., $5.95 (paper)
When in 1966 Philip Hofer published facsimiles of nine of Beatrix Potter’s letters to children, he could say that “To be sure, more letters of this same sort, with pictures, exist, but they are jealously guarded by their owners.” Now Judy Taylor has by zeal, persistence, and cajolery rounded up over two hundred letters with pictures, written from 1892 to 1943. Previously involved in many books about Beatrix Potter, she decided that tracking down the recipients of the letters would be “an intriguing journey of research and reminiscence.”
Of the forty-two “children” whose letters are in this collection I have spoken or corresponded with ten, three of whom were over ninety and four well into their eighties. I have been in touch with the close relatives of twenty-two more—and been refused interviews by only two…. Ancient photograph albums have been plundered, diaries consulted and memories jogged. Eleven of the children I have been unable to trace, though it has been possible to discover a little about them or to speculate on who they might have been.
The result is a book full of interest to anyone who has loved the Beatrix Potter books or been intrigued by the character of their creator, and it is a delight to look at: a gallimaufry of printed text, facsimiles, drawings, and photographs—including one of Miss Potter walking out with her favorite rabbit on a leash.
The letters, arranged by recipient with an introductory note on each child, are of three kinds. There are the early picture-letters written to the children of friends with no thought of publication but which contain the germ of many of the published stories; the tiny letters she sent to friends after her work was published, in which her animal characters correspond with each other; and the correspondence with children who had written to her about the books.
In 1892, when the letters start, Beatrix Potter was twenty-five and leading a life with her parents in London that would have been hopelessly stuffy and restricted but for the resources of her own wide-ranging mind. She was actively interested in pictures and photography, in plants, fossils, and fungi; and above all in animals, which she had drawn from childhood. In her room at the top of her dull Kensington home she kept pet mice, a rabbit, bats, and a hedgehog. Educated at home by governesses, she had met few other children and never seems to have played childish games. As a young lady she was shy and ill at ease in polite company, though on long family holidays in Scotland and the Lake District she found it easy to make contact with country people, especially if—like the postman in Perthshire who collected fungi—they had an interest in common.
Though, not surprisingly, she didn’t know much about children, there were two families, the Gaddums and the Moores, in whom she took a lively interest. Walter and Molly Gaddum were the children of Beatrix’s cousin …