Most of those who read Beatrix Potter as children are left with warm memories of mischievous talking animals at bedtime. But revisiting the tales as an older reader is well worth it. Potter was a fascinating woman: she had a miserable childhood with strict Victorian parents, and her only escape was the menagerie of animals she kept in her nursery. Unable to pursue her true passion — natural science — she wrote and illustrated her popular children’s books. The animals are reflections of late Victorian society, while also revealing the cruel brutality of nature. Beneath the sweet drawings and delicate prose lies a surprisingly deep question: are humans really any different from animals?
Beatrix Potter was an incredible scientist in her own right. When her pets died, she had no sentimentality — she boiled their skeletons and studied their anatomy. Later in life, she donated thousands of acres of land to the Natural Trust, and is credited with preserving some of the most beautiful areas of the Lake District.
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Potter does not shy away from the cruelty of the animal kingdom — duck eggs are stolen by wily foxes, and rabbits are baked into pies. But her creatures also wear jackets and pinafores, hold down jobs and talk to each other. Are animals really so different from people?
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From the Two Bad Mice to naughty Peter Rabbit, Potter’s characters often find themselves in a spot of trouble. Should they be punished for their mistakes? And is it right to find mischief such an endearing trait?
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Laundrywomen, shopkeepers, landlords — Potter’s animals work for a living, and seem to represent the rising middle class which was overtaking the gentry as Potter penned her tales. The characters who work hard are rewarded, while lazy creatures get their comeuppance. How have our attitudes to work developed in the century since?
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