The World of Peter Rabbit
(Sorry, Peter, that’s what they call it.)
I am sorry to say that Peter was not very well during the evening
– talk about a bad-fur day – and all on account of those publicity people dragging him off to celebrate his hundredth year as a full-published bunny; and, coincidentally of course, jack up their marketing campaign for Mr Douglas Martin’s typographic revivification of all Miss Potter’s ‘little books’.
He had been set upon
by intrusive journalists who wanted a face-to-face interview between him and the great-grandson of the villainous McGregor, and by publicity girls who insisted that he hold up a board labelled (TM) to ensure the preservation of their lucrative trade-mark rights.
Worst of all,
he had been asked to autograph copies of a huge book by (was it?) a Mr Darling Kindersley. Pouf! No darling he. It proved to be some of the vulgarest exploitation that a poor bunny had so far been subjected to – and believe me, there’d been plenty of that. (Did you know that all those hundred years ago one Mr Warne, or another, had forgotten to copyright him in the United States, and from then on it had been Open Season for blue-coated bunnies over there. Beyond number are the travesties of his tale, from the first ever attempt by a Mr Altemus – a fearsome ugly affair – to retellings in anthologies, to adaptations in school readers, to novelty and pop-up books, and to reillustrated versions by all the worst artists of the day. Darling Mr Kindersley’s Ultimate Peter Rabbit (compiled by an editorial team of nine people) was certainly the ultimate in ad hoc book-making, but this time it was British.) ‘Hang the camomile tea,’ said Peter and went to bed with a lot of something more soothing to a put-upon rabbit.
I wasn’t present myself
to witness these indignities but heard about them later when I took a pipe of rabbit-tobacco with Squirrel Nutkin down at Mrs Tittlemouse’s place (outside, naturally, since it was a designated smoke-free domicile). Nutkin had long ago given up riddles in favour of literary journalism, and I believe he’s currently an advisor to Tessa Jowell. He’d also reached an accommodation with Old Brown – who had been Professor of Media Studies at the University of Keswick – and he joined our conversazione along, of course, with Mrs T’s lodger, Mr Jackson, that cynosure of Johnsonian criticism.
We all agreed
that Dougie Martin’s re-engineering of ‘the little books’ was the most elegant and coherent that had yet been achieved – and indeed that Peter should not grumble since his tale had received superior attention and was now to be had, as never before, with four illustrations which had been dropped from the book in 1903 and two never previously published there.
But Mr Jackson had reservations
about the entire policy of reducing Miss Potter’s stories to a single standard format, even though it was something that had occurred in her lifetime and presumably with her sanction. ‘I am sufficiently aged,’ he said, ‘to know that it was not ever thus. Why, sir, Miss Moppet and A Fierce Bad Rabbit were first designed to be issued as panoramic displays, but the booksellers would not have them, and we are now subject to large imposts if we want copies in that early state. Look too at those village tales The Pie and the Patty-pan and Ginger and Pickles. These were first promulgated in larger format with different bindings, as too was The Roly-Poly Pudding (“her masterpiece” according to Mr Graham Greene). Is there not, sir, a degree of Procrusteanism in compressing these works into pre-designed uniformity? And as for Little Pig Robinson, why he has never been presented to the British public with all the illustrations that Miss Potter made for his first ever appearance in Philadelphia’ (also in large format).
‘Yes,’ said Nutkin,
‘and is that not paradigmatic [you can see he was a literary journalist] – is that not paradigmatic of the way in which her oeuvre has come to be seen as monothematic rather than as the wondrously diverse performance that it is? I recall how dismayed young Peter was when he discovered he was to be the unwitting symbol of her work. “What’s all this with The World of Peter Rabbit,” he used to say, “or with Peter Rabbit and Friends. My world lies between the sand-bank and old McGregor’s garden and you may read of it in the tales of Benjamin Bunny and those Flopsies. It extends (very elastically) to Bull Banks and Oatmeal Crag for our terrifying but glorious adventure contra Mr Tod, and we are occasionally found down at Ginger and Pickles’s, but what on earth do I have to do with the tailor of Gloucester, or Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca in the dolls’ house, or that rabble of hedgehogs, frogs, ducks, wood-mice, squirrels, rats (ugh!) and dogsancats (you well know how I get on with them)? These are not ‘my world’ and few of ’em are likely to be ‘my friends’. But there – we are all at the mercy of The Market.”’
‘That is so,’
said old Brown sagely. ‘People of my profession of course cannot do without The Market. How could Media Studies exist without the flotsam and jetsam of ceramic figurines, nursery tea-sets, bath-books and jigsaws, ballet dancing, movies, and television series on which we exercise our hermeneutic skills. But (tell it not elsewhere) these things are of little consequence when set beside the craftsmanship of Miss Potter, who made every story its own story and would have no truck with formulaic repetitions.’
We debated the genius
of these tiny gem-like and, above all, individual tales and, like many other disputants, differed over our favourites. But how can one choose between the varied delights and satisfactions of such incomparables as Two Bad Mice, or Jemima Puddle-Duck, or Mr Tod, or Pigling Bland, or Samuel Whiskers …? Returning home in the moonlight, I remembered that Miss Potter had once named her favourite as the original, uncut Tailor of Gloucester; for me though there was a little-regarded masterpiece at the other end of the narrative scale – the panorama that (thanks to the booksellers) never appeared, but which eventually came out as a book with its delicious manuscript drawings in 1971: The Sly Old Cat. But you won’t find it in ‘The World of Peter Rabbit’.
Frederick Warne have published ‘The World of Peter Rabbit’ as a complete (and completely redesigned) edition of the 23 ‘original tales’, £115 as a boxed set, or £4.99 for individual volumes. The Ultimate Peter Rabbit: a visual guide to the world of Beatrix Potter is published by Dorling Kindersley at £14.99.
The illustrations are taken from The Tale of Peter Rabbit published by Frederick Warne (0 7232 4770 6, £4.99).
Brian Alderson is President of the Beatrix Potter Society. Membership details from Jenny Akester, 9 Broadfields, Harpenden, Herts. AL5 2HJ.