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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the July 10, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Peter Rabbit, Still Naughty at 100
Think of classic children’s books, and invariably "Peter
Rabbit" must appear in the top 10. The names "Flopsy,"
"Mopsy," and "Cotton-tail" have entered the pantheon
of fictional characters, but the true "character" in that
family is, of course, Peter. (Really now, wouldn’t a kid with a name
so very different from those of his siblings have to behave differently
too? He wasn’t called "Fluffy-puff," after all.)
Besides, considering his siblings’ garb of bright red capes (shades
of Little Red Riding Hood), Peter, in his sky blue jacket, seems to
be the only boy in the family. And so, with traditional-girl docility,
Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, goody four-shoes all, obeyed their
mother. They took no chances in following in the footsteps of their
dear departed dad: caught in his garden by Mr. McGregor and baked
in a pie.
Peter, however, as perhaps the prototype for the "wascally wabbit"
that later helped make Warner Brothers fortune, did the stereotypical
adventurous-boy thing and headed straight for the garden — with
all the scares and scrapes, pratfalls and near misses that resulted.
For older or forgetful readers, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit"
was the creation of Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), a London-born writer
and illustrator, and the first of her many books for children published
early in the 20th century.
The long and popular string of Potter’s animal stories began in 1902,
when the tale of the naughty rabbit was first published. (Note to
wordsmiths: "naughty" is the operative word here. Savor its
quaintness in these days of seriously errant sons, and daughters too.)
It won’t be exactly an historical re-enactment, but to mark Peter
Rabbit’s 100th birthday, the Master Gardeners of Mercer County will
throw a party Saturday, July 13, from 10 a.m. to noon. Fittingly scheduled
for their display gardens in Pennington, the celebration is open to
"children of all ages," and the word is that Mr. McGregor
will make an appearance during the festivities.
Games, music, and art are all on the gardeners’ party agenda, and
rabbit pie is emphatically not on the menu. Peter’s blue jacket, lost
during his adventures, will also be in evidence, probably hanging
near the picket fence that surrounds the garden. Peter’s mother administered
camomile tea to her son after his overindulgence in the bounty of
Mr. McGregor’s garden, and that herb and others, including the parsley
he was looking for when he first encountered the fearsome gardener,
will be on display.
Born in England during Queen Victoria’s long reign, Beatrix Potter
was the first of two children of well-to-do parents who, in the tradition
of the times, paid little attention to their offspring (her brother
Bertram was six years younger), leaving them to servants and nannies.
The children grew up with many pets and an abiding interest in nature
and animals, which they studied with scientific intensity.
At age six, Bertram went off to boarding school, while
Beatrix was left at home to be educated by governesses. She also had
drawing instruction, because for young ladies of the time, sketching
and letter writing were desirable accomplishments. However, Beatrix
had almost always drawn — her earliest surviving sketchbook was
from 1876, when she was nine years old. By the time she was 14, she
had devised her own code for keeping a diary of her observations,
and she developed her writing style there.
Potter’s drawing is thought to have helped assuage her loneliness
during the many years when she lived at home with her parents. In
the early 1890s, she began sending "picture letters" to children
she knew. The first one went to Noel Moore, the son of her former
governess, and it told the story of Peter Rabbit.
This became an historic letter when a few years later, after some
of her drawings had been published as greeting cards, Potter decided
to try a book. She borrowed the Peter Rabbit letter back from Noel,
spruced it up, and tried to sell it, but to no avail. Finally she
decided to publish it herself.
"The Tale of Peter Rabbit" was a huge success, and after hundreds
of copies had been sold, Potter offered the book for a second time
to Frederick Warne and Co. — reportedly the publisher from whom
she had initially received the most polite rejection letter. This
time, the answer was yes, and the working relationship continued for
years, making the publisher’s name almost as familiar to bedtime readers
as the author.
As author and illustrator, Potter threw herself into the details of
commercial publication. She believed that children’s books should
be small to better fit little hands — thus began the tradition,
still evident on library shelves everywhere, of slim, 4-inch by nearly
6-inch little books. She also thought there should be a picture each
time the page was turned, and of course she was the one to make this
With Warne’s publication of Peter Rabbit in 1902, Beatrix Potter,
then 36 years old, became a woman with her own income. An early move
was her purchase of Hill Top farm, in Sawrey, which she explained
away to her controlling parents as just an investment — yet one
she visited as often as possible. She continued to write and illustrate
her animal stories, which ultimately totaled 23 "little books."
Potter usually sketched in pencil or pen and ink. For finished pieces,
she worked mostly in watercolor, adding pen and ink as necessary.
Her images for Peter Rabbit, for instance, include charming details
and humor: the picture of Peter holding one carrot and munching on
another while wearing his blue jacket and what look like patent leather
pumps is a delight. Especially when the accompanying text reads: "First
he ate some lettuces and some French beans; and then he ate some radishes
. . ."
In their early study of animals, both alive and dead, Beatrix and
Bertram Potter had come to appreciate both the beauty and the ruthlessness
of nature. Potter’s stories reflect a similar understanding of what
Tennyson described as "Nature, red in tooth and claw" —
Peter knows to avoid a big white cat as well as Mr. McGregor, who
eats rabbit pies. Her other stories show the same respect for what
really happens in the animal world.
And although the soft-looking illustrations and a story about a rabbit
in a blue jacket, or a mama rabbit serving camomile tea might seem
fey in the extreme, a redeeming trait of Potter’s books is her characters’
spirit and spunkiness. Would we really be interested in a rabbit who
obeyed his mother’s orders? And Peter’s sisters can have their supper
of bread and milk and blackberries — that’s trifling compensation
for missing Peter’s great adventure.
In 1913, at age 47, Potter married William Heelis, a solicitor. From
then on, with gradually failing eyesight and less inclination to write
or draw, she raised sheep and concentrated on farmland preservation
in England’s Lake District, where the couple lived. She willed her
farm and about 4,000 acres to the National Trust, to assure they would
remain unspoiled forever. Three years after her death in 1943 at age
77, her house at Hill Top was first opened to the public and now attracts
75,000 visitors annually.
A few years ago, Publishers’ Weekly ranked "The Tale of Peter
Rabbit" as America’s second-best-selling children’s classic of
the century, topped only by Janette Sebring Lowrey’s "Pokey Little
Puppy." The Peter Rabbit legacy extends to art reproductions,
dolls, cookie tins, china sets, board games, puzzles, animated films,
even a Frederick Ashton ballet — and its own official, multilingual
website: www.PeterRabbit.com Potter herself was an enthusiastic designer
of "side shows" — the merchandise that can accompany a
After the master gardeners’ birthday party, those still in a Peter
Rabbit mood can hop on up to New York City, where, through Labor Day,
the Children’s Museum of Manhattan is featuring "Peter Rabbit’s
Garden," a big centenery exhibition that originated at London’s
Victoria and Albert Museum. The show includes a 360 degree panorama
of Potter’s Hill Top garden in the Lake Distrinct, characters from
Potter’s 23 tales come to life through a giant storybook and audiovisual
theater, a nature observatory, and a first edition of "The Tale
of Peter Rabbit." Related projects and interactive activities
area detailed on the museum’s website: www.cmom.org.
And, come July 28, die-hard devotees can bake a carrot cake and celebrate
Beatrix Potter’s birthday — her 136th.
— Pat Summers
Demonstration Site , 431A Federal City Road, Hopewell, 609-989-6830.
Mr. McGregor’s Garden open for children of all ages in celebration
of Peter Rabbit’s 100th birthday. Free. Saturday, July 13, 10 a.m.
212 West 83rd Street, in the Tisch Building, New York, 212-721-1223.
Open Tuesdays through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission $6 for children
and adults; $3 for seniors. All families of uniformed services are
admitted free. Show continues to September 3.
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