‘Tough’ Beatrix Potter celebrates 150th birthday

Once upon a time: On the right is Penguin’s new ‘designer’ cover for the children’s classic.

Beatrix Potter’s whimsical picture books have sold 100m copies in 35 languages. For many, they are the epitome of childhood innocence. But does Peter Rabbit have a hidden dark side?

‘What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and common-sense ....’ wrote Beatrix Potter in her journal in 1897.

The author’s childhood certainly had something spirit-like about it. Born 150 years ago today, her strict Victorian parents kept her out of sight in a lonely nursery. She was miserable. But she was entranced by her summers in the Lake District, and every year she would bring home a menagerie of mice, newts, and birds.

As an adult, her numerous pets were the inspirations for her charming series of illustrated children’s books, which burst with memorable tales about naughty rabbits and wise hedgehogs.

Now, Britain is celebrating her birthday with a whole flock of tributes and events: new ‘cool’ covers have been designed for her most popular stories. Commemorative 50p coins are selling for £850 on eBay. A new musical is showing in the Lake District. For children and adults alike, the anniversary is a chance to indulge in warm memories of cosy bedtime stories.

But the author Kathryn Hughes has another perspective. We have remembered Beatrix Potter all wrong, she argues. Her drawings may be quaint — but her stories are a ‘clear-sighted primer for navigating the amoral world of mature capitalism.’

Think about it, Hughes says. The stories were written as society considered whether Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory ‘applied as much to two-legged creatures as it did to those with tails.’

Jemima Puddle-duck’s eggs are stolen from her. Tom Kitten is rolled up into a pudding. And on the very first page of Peter Rabbit, his mother warns: ‘your father had an accident; he was put in a pie.’ In this world, you either eat or get eaten.

What better metaphors for the economic inequalities we face today, where the poorest are punished while the richest get richer? We do not love Potter because she is innocent, Hughes says. We love her because she ‘has the moral toughness to show us exactly what it feels like to be powerless and afraid.’

Hopping mad?

What nonsense, say some. All the best children’s books include a hint of danger to keep the story interesting. But Potter is popular because she does not shy away from the cruelty of nature, not of capitalism. Regardless of whether we agree with Hughes’s sceptical view of society, that is not what these stories are about.

But by putting the animals in coats and pinafores, Potter is drawing parallels with that society, argues Hughes. She is not just showing their ‘human-like’ characteristics. She is also suggesting that beneath our fancy clothes, humans are no better than animals: cruel, ruthless and willing to do anything to survive.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with Kathryn Hughes’s dystopian take on the Beatrix Potter stories?
  2. Is today’s society comparable to the ruthlessness of the animal kingdom?

Activities

  1. Have a go at redesigning your own Beatrix Potter cover, inspired by the new edition above.
  2. In the style of Beatrix Potter, write a children’s story about her early years.

Some People Say...

“A strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations.”

Beatrix Potter

What do you think?

Q & A

Can’t we just let children’s books be children’s books?
Of course the Beatrix Potter stories are, above all, beloved for their place in childhood memory. But no work of literature is created in a vacuum; it always reflects the world somehow, whether it intends to or not. You may not agree with Kathryn Hughes’s theory, but it’s an interesting way to start thinking about what the stories do tell us.
What would Beatrix Potter think about her anniversary celebrations?
She was privately dismissive of the importance of her own work, referring them as ‘little books’ without much artistic worth. But she would probably be pleased that they were still selling so well. After all, she was an excellent businesswoman; a patented Peter Rabbit doll in 1903 made him the world’s first licensed character.

Word Watch

Beatrix Potter
The author was born in 1866, and published her first book, The Tales of Peter Rabbit, in 1902. She published 24 children’s books before moving to the Lake District to become a sheep farmer, where she died in 1946.
Commemorative
The Royal Mint produced a series of coins commemorating several key British anniversaries which take place this year, including 400 years since Shakespeare’s death and 350 years since the Great Fire of London.
Kathryn Hughes
The historian and journalist has written biographies of other well-known Victorian women, including Mrs Beeton and George Eliot.
Survival of the fittest
Part of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, also known as ‘natural selection’: it is the idea that animals adapt by passing on positive traits to the next generation, because only the strongest survive long enough to reproduce.
Economic inequalities
Left-wing political activists often criticise ‘late capitalism’ for benefiting the rich (the top 1% are on track to earn more than everyone else combined, according to Oxfam) while ordinary people face welfare cuts and stagnant wages.

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