In 1912, by which time Beatrix Potter, the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was a hugely successful forty-six-year-old writer and illustrator, she sent her publisher Harold Warne a new story, her darkest yet, called The Tale of Mr. Tod. The story is about an argument between a fox and a badger, and features the abduction and near death of a sackful of baby rabbits. The story had a particularly good opening sentence: “I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people.” But the candor and acerbity of that were too much for Warne, and he fussed until Potter agreed to change the opening to something inarguably less punchy: “I have made many books about well-behaved people.” Before she succumbed to this bad editorial advice, Potter relieved herself of her feelings in a letter to Warne:
If it were not impertinent to lecture one’s publisher, you are a great deal too much afraid of the public for whom I have never cared one tuppeny-button. I am sure that it is this attitude of mind which has enabled me to keep up the series. Most people, after one success, are so cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work.
The world’s most popular children’s author had a low opinion of both books and children: “I never have cared tuppence either for popularity or for the modern child; they are pampered & spoilt with too many toys & books.”
Potter was telling the truth, both in the sentence about being tired and in the remark about her attitude toward children. As far as one can tell, Potter always told the truth. Her stories had begun as letters to young friends, and that gave them their vividness and intimacy, and also prevented her from having a disablingly strong sense of a collective public whose tastes needed to be appeased. This was one of the things that allowed her to keep the tone of her work tart and crisp.
Warne was right about the darkness of Mr. Tod—the story is so grim that years later it prompted Graham Greene, in a famous essay in the London Mercury, to speculate that Potter “must have passed through an emotional ordeal which changed the character of her genius.” But the darkness of Mr. Tod is a question of degree and not of kind. Potter’s work was always tinged with a bleak realism about death, right from the opening of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in which we learn that Peter’s father has had “an accident” and ended up in one of Mrs. McGregor’s pies. In the story Peter panics, gets lost, and nearly dies; as does Squirrel Nutkin in Potter’s second story, picked up by an owl who is, as the devastatingly flat narration tells us, “intending to skin him.” In The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, we again encounter Peter in Mr. McGregor’s garden, a clear victim of …