On writing

Lucy Mangan on Beatrix Potter

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth. There are lots of events and celebrations planned by Puffin in her honour

Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum

I inherited many prejudices from my mother. Hippies, non-magnolia walls, long hair on men and crying foremost among them. But none was instilled earlier or has remained so deeply ingrained as the one against talking animals in stories. A firm anti-anthropomorphism stance was part of a fight against whimsy that had been passed down through the generations.

My family is northern, and Catholic. We prefer things guilt-ridden and grim.
And the earliest casualty of this was Beatrix Potter. Rabbits in clothes? Chatty mice? Washerwomen hedgehogs? Gerroutofit!

The irony is, of course, that of all the books I could have lit on with my idiotic prejudice, Potter’s tales are the very least deserving.

Consider her first hero, Peter Rabbit, whose tale grew out of the correspondence Potter kept up with her old governess Annie and, eventually, Annie’s eight children. In one letter to the eldest son, Noel, Potter ran out of things to say and so began a story instead. It was about ‘four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter…’. It was published by Frederick Warne & Co. in 1902, became an immediate bestseller and set her firmly on the path of lapin-led success.

But the thing about Peter is that although he can speak and does wear a little blue jacket he is still in every respect absolutely a rabbit. Scatty, nary a thought for the morrow, and escaping through pure chance rather than wiles or applied intelligence. That’s a rabbit. Rabbits ain’t foxes. They’re idiots.

And of course he looks exactly like a rabbit. And Mrs Tiggywinkle looks just like a hedgehog. And all the mice look just like mice. And all the hedgerows, grasses, ponds and plants they live amongst are perfectly represented too. Because before she was a writer or an illustrator or a writer of letters to children, Potter was a naturalist. She became such an expert on funghi that she had a paper (‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’ – probably the first in Britain to speculate, correctly, that lichens are symbiotic lifeforms) accepted by the Linnean Society. Beautiful, detailed and unerringly accurate drawings of the organisms are held by the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside and are still consulted by mycologists. She and her brother Bertram’s nursery was a domestic menagerie. They kept mice, rabbits, newts, frogs, lizards, bats, salamanders and sundry other creatures – partly as pets, but also as creatures to study. Potter noted their habits, their movements, their appearances – and when they died, she dissected them, boiled them and had a good look at their joints and bones too. Her beautiful pen-ink-and-wash illustrations of the tales’ heroes and heroines are anatomically accurate down to the last detail. She, possibly more than any other writer you will encounter knows her characters from the inside out.

I wish I’d known this 30 years ago. An author who boils her pets is a foolproof prophylactic against whimsy.
The stories themselves have, more often than not, a hard edge. No spoilers, but Squirrel Nutkin, Jeremy Fisher and Jemima Puddleduck would probably all have something to say about Potter’s popular image as a sweet Edwardian lady penning sweet little stories to amuse and distract herself from the demands of her difficult mother and ease the frustrations of a repressive age. She drew on folk tales for stories, the Bible for her cadences and a lifetime’s accumulation of natural history knowledge for her drawings. She wrote and rewrote her texts until they were pared down to the narrative bone. Which is not to say she depended on simple language – every Potter tale famously (and deliberately) included at least one ‘difficult’ word that would engage a child’s curiosity and stretch a young reader’s mind. The effect of eating too much lettuce, for example, is ‘soporific’ for the Flopsy Bunnies.

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth. There are lots of events and celebrations planned by Puffin in her honour. I’ve suggested a mass pet-boiling but I haven’t heard back from them yet. But The Tale of Fido’s Rearticulated Skeleton is one, I think, whose time has come.

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