Furry ears, a blue jacket and camomile tea? No, not Peter Mandelson but …
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
1902 by Frederick Warne
Anthropomorphic tale for young children
Famous first page:
‘Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were FIopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter …’
Recall the story?
Despite a strong warning from his mother not to go into Mr McGregor’s garden (Father has been put into a pie by Mrs McGregor), naughty Peter Rabbit cannot resist the temptation. After eating his fill of lettuces, French beans and radishes, Peter has a very narrow escape when he is chased all over the garden by the infuriated Mr McGregor.
Peter Rabbit is not feeling terribly well when he arrives home, exhausted, without his new blue jacket and his shoes. So Mrs Rabbit puts him to bed with a dose of camomile tea, while his sisters (‘who were good little bunnies’) tuck into fresh bread, milk and blackberries for supper.
Peter Rabbit’s claim to fame:
Undoubtedly the best known rabbit in the world. Millions upon millions of copies of his book have been sold world-wide, and in more than 25 different languages. The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Potter’s 22 other Tales (including Benjamin Bunny, in which Peter Rabbit returns to the garden, encouraged by his even bolder and more daring cousin, Benjamin) have entertained generations of children for almost a century, and look set to continue into the next.
The history of Peter Rabbit:
First written in 1893 as an illustrated letter to her former governess’s young son, the story was based on Beatrix’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper, which she studied and drew in meticulous detail. A few years later Beatrix tried to find a publisher for her story, but after several refusals she had her book printed privately and gave it to family and friends, selling the rest at a halfpenny a copy. It was an instant success and the 250 copies she produced were quickly sold. Frederick Warne, one of the publishers who had shown an earlier interest in Peter Rabbit but had declined because Beatrix would not agree to colour illustrations (she felt it would make the book too expensive for children), approached her again. After agreeing to the use of colour, Beatrix decided to let Warne take over the publishing. They printed 8,000 copies and sold out immediately. They have been reprinting the title ever since.
Beatrix was pleased with the way Frederick Warne handled Peter Rabbit and she offered them more of her stories. The Tale of Peter Rabbit became the first of 23 little books, known collectively as the Peter Rabbit books. Beatrix was always very involved in the design and production processes, keeping a sharp eye on the position of the text in relation to the illustrations. The format was important to her too; that the books should be small, for small hands. The distinctive format for the original titles, with their white binding and jackets, still remains the same today. In the early 1990s, after Penguin Books bought Frederick Warne, the first Puffin paperback editions appeared, alongside the originals, reproducing the classic illustrations, text and layout in larger formats.
Why is Peter Rabbit still so popular?
Several factors combine to make Peter Rabbit the world’s favourite Rabbit. His appeal lies in his simplicity – a real-life, natural-looking rabbit, personified only by his soft blue jacket and shoes. He is not over-humanized, and remains very much a ‘real’ rabbit, retaining his rabbity ways and characteristics – lively, quick and bright-eyed. His engaging personality – defiant, rebellious and full of spirit – are qualities small children love and identify with. He has enormous appeal for all ages.
Other classic qualities:
Beatrix Potter had the imagination and the artistic and literary skills to create a microcosmic world within the countryside into which the reader is allowed to venture. This world is one of small, endearing countryside animals, portrayed in human terms but maintaining the natural habits of their species; it becomes a metaphor for the child reader’s own exploration of the physical world. Its dangers are not evaded – Peter’s father, after all, ended up in a pie.
The language in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Potter’s other stories is simple and direct, but not at all pedestrian. The words used are precisely chosen for meaning, and for sound, and within each story there is pace, tension, drama – an element of danger – and underlying humour. The stories lend themselves well to being read aloud. The details of domestic and social life are conveyed with a distinctive irony via a range of social types and personalities in the guise of animals.
The illustrations, drawn from real life, are delicate watercolours of the English countryside. They are full of detail and relate closely to the text at all times. The Peter Rabbit books have a timeless quality and an enduring appeal, earning them the well-deserved status of classic books for children.
Who was Beatrix Potter?
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 in London to wealthy, middle-class parents. Her father, a barrister, and her mother were both accomplished artists, and even as a young child Beatrix displayed signs of having inherited her parents’ talents. Her childhood was a rather solitary, typically Victorian one, with only a governess for company. She occupied her time, outside lessons, sketching and studying wildlife. Every summer the family took their holiday in Scotland which gave Beatrix and her younger brother the freedom to explore and sketch the countryside. Over the years, Beatrix became fascinated with natural history, and produced a fascinating study of lichen and fungi. Whilst in London she began researching and recording a discovery she had made on the germination of spores, drawing her findings in scientifically accurate detail, but the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew were unconvinced by her theory.
Beatrix decided to concentrate on her other illustrative work and had her first commercial success when she sold some rabbit drawings as Christmas cards. In 1902 her first story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was published by Frederick Warne, which heralded the start of a series of ‘little books’ for young children. By 1905 Frederick Warne had published six of her books, and with the money she earned from their sales she bought a farm in the Lake District, an area she had visited with her family at the age of 16. In the same year, her editor, Norman Warne, proposed marriage which she accepted despite her parents’ strong disapproval (he was considered beneath her status). Sadly Norman died just four weeks after. Beatrix continued to live and work at Hill Top Farm, often featuring the surrounding landscape in her books, and she bought more land nearby. At the age of 47 she married her solicitor, William Heelis.
Beatrix was a conservationist and she worked closely with the National Trust, helping them to acquire and preserve farmlands. She died in 1943, leaving her acres of land to the Trust. Since her death, many exhibitions of her watercolours have taken place in the major cities of the world, acknowledging Beatrix Potter, not only as the storytelling creator of the Peter Rabbit books, but as an accomplished artist in her own right. There have been several books published about her interesting and varied life, including Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman by Judy Taylor, published by Frederick Warne.
The commercial success of the century?
Undoubtedly, Beatrix Potter was way ahead of her time. She showed commerciaI initiative very early on in her writing career by producing and patenting a Peter Rabbit doll. Other items followed which led to the enormously successful international licensing industry of today. From gift wrap to wallpaper, plastic cups to fine bone china, Peter Rabbit’s instantly recognisable form can be found adorning more and more items, reaching more and more people. There is a plethora of high quality activity and novelty books, baby books, miniature books, anthologies, audio books, giftsets, collections, CD-Roms, published by Penguin Books and Frederick Warne, and a video, The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends (animation).
And, taking him into the 21st century, Peter Rabbit even has his own website: www.peterrabit.com
Is P.R. P.C.?
It is not Peter’s fault that his author gave him the starring role, full of adventure and daring, rather than to one of his goody-goody sisters. Although Peter has all the fun, he does have to pay the price with a dose of camomile!
The many versions of The Tale of Peter Rabbit are published by Frederick Warne and Puffin.
Helen Levene works in publishing.