Once upon a time there were four little rabbits,
And their names were -
Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter.
The opening of one of the most famous children's books ever written. The original story was written in 1893, in a letter to a young boy, Noel Moore. The boy's mother had once been the governess of the author of the letter, who was to become one of the most renowned children's authors in history - Beatrix Potter.
This is her story, and the story of the animals that came to life through her books.
Beatrix Potter was born in Kensington, London in 1866. She grew up in a wealthy Victorian family and had a conventional childhood for a girl of her class and era.
She was not sent away to school, but was educated at home by a succession of governesses so had little opportunity to mix with other children of her own age. Her only brother, Bertram, who was six years younger than Beatrix, was sent off to boarding school, leaving Beatrix alone with her pet animals. She had frogs and newts, and even a pet bat. Among her pets were two rabbits. Her first rabbit was Benjamin, whom she described as 'an impudent, cheeky little thing', while her second was Peter, whom she took everywhere with her, even on trains, on a little lead.
She would watch these animals for hours on end, sketching them. Gradually the sketches became better and better, developing her talents from an early age.
Every summer, Beatrix's father would rent a country house; firstly Dalguise House in Perthshire, Scotland, then later on in the English Lake District. In the summer of 1882, the Potter family met the local vicar, Canon Rawnsley, who was deeply worried about the effects of industry and tourism on the Lake District and would, in 1895, found the National Trust, to help protect the countryside. Beatrix had immediately fallen in love with the rugged mountains and dark lakes, and through Rawnsley, learnt of the importance of trying to conserve the region, something that was to stay with her for the rest of her life.
Beatrix was already 36 years old by the time her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was finally published in 1902, after having been refused by various publishers. It was instantly popular with the public, and from that moment onwards, Beatrix was just full of ideas, publishing on average two books a year for the next ten years. Although she was earning a considerable amount of money, she stayed at home in London, looking after her ageing father.
By 1905, Beatrix had already had several books published by Frederick Warne and Co. She fell for her editor, Norman Warne, who proposed marriage. Beatrix's father was opposed to this marriage, on the grounds that he considered Norman to be 'trade', and therefore below his daughter. Tragically, this marriage was not meant to be, for just a few weeks after the engagement was announced, Norman died from anaemia.
Hill Top Farm
Just after the death of her fiancé, Norman Warne, Beatrix purchased Hill Top Farm in the village of Sawrey, in the Lake District. She would visit the farm as often as she could, but it wasn't until 1913 that she would finally move to the Lake District permanently. Some of her best loved works show the farm house and the village. Her love for animals was constant over the years. The house was constantly alive with dogs, cats and even a pet hedgehog, naturally enough named 'Mrs Tiggywinkle'.
Hill Top Farm is now owned by the National Trust, and is open to the public on a limited basis, (with a maximum number of visitors per day), and remains in the same condition as it was when Beatrix was living there.
In 1913 at the age of 47, Beatrix was finally married, to a local solicitor, named William Heelis. They lived for some time at Hill Top, before moving to Castle Cottage in Sawrey, leaving a Farm Manager in charge at Hill Top.
After her marriage, Beatrix wrote less and less, and concentrated more and more on farming - keeping sheep, pigs, ducks and hens - and on her other passion in life: the conservation of the Lake District countryside she had come to love. When she died in 1947 at the age of 81, her last wish was that the English Lake District be kept safe for future generations. Over the years she had purchased a number of farms, for this very reason, and in her will she left 17 farms including some 4000 acres of land to the National Trust, to ensure that her favourite corner of the country remained as unspoilt as when she had known it.
Beatrix Potter and children
Just by looking at the way she dedicated her books, it is clear that she had a deep love for children. However, she was a well educated Victorian lady, from a well-off family, and this had some effect on the way she related to children in general. One story, from a local boy in the Sawrey area, showed a different side. The youngsters from the area used to wait for 'Auld Mother Heelis' - as she was known locally - to pass over a rickety old bridge, on her way to visit one of her farms. When she got onto the bridge, in the words of one of the boys:
We used t' jump ower t' wall, run ower t' middle o bridge and when she'd get on, we'd grap t' top rail and shake t' bridge.
The result showed a completely different side to Beatrix Potter:
She'd either kick yer arse or use 'er walking stick on yer'
said the young boy, many years later, still laughing.
Another glimpse into her character is given by the children's author, Diana Wynne Jones:
We were up near Sawrey, which was a long way for children to walk; but, if the mothers were to go anywhere, they had to walk and the children had to walk with them. No one had a car. Isobel and another four-year-old girl were so tired that, when they found a nice gate, they hooked their feet on it and had a restful swing. An old woman with a sack over her shoulders stormed out of the house and hit both of them for swinging on her gate. This was Beatrix Potter.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit - 1902
The story of the naughty Peter Rabbit and his adventure in Mr McGregor's garden, was the first of Beatrix Potter's books to be published, in 1902, by Frederick Warne. The book was an expansion of the original letter to Noel Moore, with black and white drawings and was refused by several publishers. Finally, Beatrix had the book printed herself, and gave it to her family and friends. Frederick Warne saw the book and agreed to publish it if Beatrix would replace the black and white images with colour sketches. This was to be the birth of a legend.
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin - 1903
In 1901, while holidaying near Derwentwater in the Lake District, Beatrix wrote a letter to Norah Moore, sister of Noel, describing the Squirrels she saw daily. This letter eventually developed into the story of the cheeky squirrel, who dared to tease 'Old Brown' the owl, living on an island in the lake.
The Tailor of Gloucester - 1903
The Tailor of Gloucester was apparently Beatrix's favourite book. It is based on a true life story of a tailor in the City of Gloucester whom, leaving a waistcoat unfinished one Friday evening, was amazed to find it completed when he returned on Monday morning. In reality, the waistcoat was finished by an assistant, trying to give his master a helping hand. But in her book, Beatrix replaced the assistant with talking mice, and to add to the enchantment of the story, had it pass on Christmas Eve. Originally dedicated to another of the Moore children, it was inscribed; 'To Freda, because you are fond of fairy tales, and have been ill.'
22 of Beatrix's original drawings from this book may be seen in the Tate Gallery, London.
The Tale of Benjamin Bunny - 1904
Benjamin is a self-confident little rabbit, the cousin of Peter. Together the couple get into all sorts of scrapes in Mr McGregor's garden, finally being rescued by Old Mr Benjamin Bunny, young Benjamin's father.
The Tale of Two Bad Mice - 1904
The original dedication in this book shows the changes that were happening to the life of its author; 'To W.M.L.W. The little girl with the dolls house'. WMLW was Winifred Warne, favourite niece of Norman Warne, Beatrix's editor. Beatrix and Norman were, at this time, becoming close friends, and developing a romantic attachment. The doll's house in question was, in the story, the home of two dolls, Lucinda and Jane, who were troubled by the 'Two Bad Mice', Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca.
The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle - 1905
Many of Beatrix Potter's books were based on the numerous pets she had kept during her life. Although she did, at one time, have a pet hedgehog named Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the character in the book is based on an old washerwoman in the village of Sawrey, Mrs Kitty MacDonald. The young girl in the story, Lucy, was Lucy Carr, the daughter of the vicar of Newlands which is a valley between Derwentwater and Buttermere. Many of the pictures in the book are beautiful images of the Newlands Valley.
The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan - 1905
This was one of the first books to show the farmhouse in Sawrey - Hilltop Farm - later to become Beatrix's home for many years. Starring Ribby the cat and Duchess, her friend, a small black dog.
The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher - 1905
The character of Jeremy Fisher, the frog, was first seen in a letter to Noel Moore in 1894. The book however, was published some 11 years later. It is the story of Mr Fisher's narrow escape from a hungry trout, which, fortunately, doesn't like the taste of Mackintoshes.
The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit - 1906
The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit was first published in the form of a single strip of card which opened up to tell the story of a naughty, nameless rabbit, who finally gets his just reward.
The Story of Miss Moppet - 1906
Originally published in the same format as The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit, The Story of Miss Moppet was re-published in the standard format in 1916 because the book shops didn't really like the panoramic format, being too easily damaged. It tells the story of Miss Moppet, Tom Kitten's sister, and her less than successful efforts at catching a mouse.
The Tale of Tom Kitten - 1907
Tom Kitten was a caricature of every naughty little boy. He gets messy, loses his clothes, and generally gets into lots of mischief with his sisters Moppet and Mittens, much to the annoyance of his mother, Mrs Tabitha Twitchet. The drawings show Hill Top farm, the Lake District farm owned by Beatrix Potter, although at the time this story was written, she wasn't actually living there.
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck - 1908
The tale of a rather naive, and not too bright duck, who makes a rather strange friend, and eventually has to be rescued by Kep. Kep was the farm collie dog, based on one of Beatrix Potter's own dogs.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (or The Roly-Poly Pudding) - 1908
First published in 1908 under the title of The Roly-Poly Pudding, it wasn't until 1926 that it was re-published under its current name. Its main character is a disagreeable, lazy rat, Mr Samuel Whiskers, who, with his wife, Anna Maria, manages to catch Tom Kitten and very nearly gets to turn him into the 'Roly-Poly Pudding' in question.
The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies - 1909
Although physically, this book was published relatively early in the series, in the world of Beatrix Potter, it is much later. Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny are grown up and Benjamin has married Peter's sister, Flopsy. The story is based around the daring rescue of Benjamin and Flopsy's children, the Flopsy Bunnies of the title, from the grasp of Mr McGregor and the pie dish of Mrs McGregor.
The Tale of Ginger and Pickles - 1909
This was one of the most popular tales with the inhabitants of the village of Sawrey, showing many views of the village. The book was set in the village shop, and was dedicated to John Taylor, husband of the shopkeeper in Sawrey, who apparently spent a lot of his time in bed, as the dedication reads: 'With very kind regards to old Mr John Taylor, who methinks might pass as a dormouse! (Three years in bed, and never a grumble!).'
The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse - 1910
This book concerns Mrs Tittlemouse, a terribly particular and tidy little dormouse and several uninvited guests, including Mr Jackson, an ill-mannered toad. The book has some wonderful drawings of insects and small creatures, and really shows Beatrix's talent for drawing animals; the picture of Mrs Butterfly is just perfect.
The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes - 1911
By this time in Beatrix Potter's career, she was becoming famous world-wide, and this particular book was written with an American audience in mind. There are grey squirrels (originally introduced into the UK from the USA), chipmunks and a black bear. By this time in her life, Beatrix was very preoccupied with farming, and this was the only book she produced during the whole year.
The Tale of Mr Tod - 1912
On writing this book, Beatrix Potter claimed to be tired of 'Goody goody books about nice people'. So, the stars of this book are Mr Tod, a suave and sophisticated, yet thoroughly nasty fox, and Tommy Brock, a rather disagreeable badger. It tells the story of the kidnapping of the Flopsy Bunnies, but fortunately, ends happily.
The Tale of Pigling Bland - 1913
1913 was a very busy year for Beatrix. Preparations for her marriage to William Heelis, and moving into her new home, meant that she only just managed to finish this book. Most of the drawings are pen and ink, with just a few in the watercolours that have become synonymous with her work.
Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes - 1917
Most of these nursery rhymes had been written many years before, as early as 1893. The book was left unpublished as Beatrix concentrated on the Peter Rabbit tales, and it wasn't until 1917, after constantly being badgered by her publisher for a new book, that Beatrix dusted off these old drawings and finished them off.
The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse - 1918
This book marks a return to the Lake District, with Johnny Town Mouse accidentally visiting the countryside. By this time in her life, Beatrix's sight was failing and she was worried about being able to complete the drawings. However, as can be seen, she shouldn't have been. They are as beautiful as ever. The story was dedicated 'To Aesop in the shadows', as it was based on one of his fables.
Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes - 1922
Similar in origins to her first book of nursery rhymes, this second book can trace its roots back to 1893. Dedicated to 'Little Peter in New Zealand', Peter was the orphaned son of a casualty of the First World War, nephew of a friend of Beatrix from New Zealand.
The Tale of Little Pig Robinson-1930
A change from the Lake District settings, this book was based in Devon in southern England, and was started in 1901 or 1902, during a holiday there. It wasn't to be finished until nearly thirty years later.
The books described below can not really be considered part of the 'Tales' series. They were written or illustrated throughout Beatrix Potter's life and show a different aspect of her life and artistic abilities.
Some of these works were never published during the lifetime of the author, but can now be found in The Complete Works of Beatrix Potter, published by F Warne and Co.
Three Little Mice
Even in the early 1890s, long before the publication of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter had sold several pictures for use on greetings cards and as illustrations to other peoples works. Some time in the early 1890's she set out her own booklet; its theme was taken from the children's nursery rhyme:
Three little mice sat down to spin,
Pussy passed by and she peeped in.
'What are you at my fine little men?'
'Making coats for gentlemen.'
'Shall I come in and cut your threads?'
'Oh no! Miss Pussy, you'd bite of our heads!'
Each of the six lines was accompanied by its own picture. It was never published during the author's lifetime. Some of the images were later used in The Tailor of Gloucester, and these drawings are critically acclaimed as being some of Beatrix Potter's finest art work
The Sly Old Cat
The Sly Old Cat was written in 1906 but was never published. The original manuscript was given to Nellie Warne, youngest daughter of her publisher.
The drawings were never truly finished and are mainly just pen and ink sketches. A few pictures show splashes of colour here and there, but the book was never completely finished
The Fox and the Stork
The Fox and the Stork is the story of a tea party between two characters who are not on the best of terms. The story was written in 1919 and is loosely based on one of Aesop's Fables. It was never published at the time, as Beatrix's publisher said of the tale 'It's not Miss Potter, it is Aesop'.
The Rabbits' Christmas Party
This is another set of six paintings, dating from the early 1890s. There is very little dialogue, just a few words and the pictures, showing a group of rabbits enjoying a traditional Christmas.
Beatrix Potter Today
Even now, Beatrix Potter is one of the best selling children's authors in the world. All the original tales have been translated into many different languages and they have also been issued as audio recordings in various formats; there is even a ballet, by Frederick Ashton, featuring a number of the tales and filmed on location in the English Lake District. In the 1990s a series of animated cartoons were made with the animation remaining true to the original drawings of the author. The animated tale used the voices of such renowned actors and actresses as Derek Jacobi (I Claudius), Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave) and Niamh Cusack as Beatrix Potter herself. The animation gives a whole new perspective to these classic tales.
Places to Visit
There are several locations open to the general public relating to Beatrix Potter, all in the Hawkshead area of the Lake District. This is a short list of a few of them:
Hill-Top Farm is open to the public, but for a limited number of vistors per day. It has been restored to exactly the condition as it was when Beatrix lived there.
The Beatrix Potter Gallery, in Hawkshead village itself, shows a number of original letters and drawings.
The Beatrix Potter Attraction displays a collection of models and displays of Beatrix's work, in Windermere Village.
The Beatrix Potter Garden, Dunkeld House in Perthshire, Scotland, now home to the Birnam Institute, has gardens recreating Beatrix's tales and exhibitions throughout the summer.
- Beatrix Potter, The Complete Tales by Frederick Warne and Co.
- Tales of a Lakeland Poacher by Sheila Richardson.
- Beatrix Potter's Lakeland, Carlton Productions for F Warne and Co.
- The National Trust