Beatrix Potter’s Affable Animals
Her Creative World
The rabbit Peter, the hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, the frog Mr. Jeremy Fisher, the cat Simpkin, the duck Jemima Puddle-duck, the mice Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, the red squirrel Nutkin, the tortoise Ptolemy, the guinea pig Tuppenny: Children and adults alike have been enchanted by these and other animal characters that Beatrix Potter created for her children’s picture books.
Beatrix’s Love of Guinea Pigs
A lesser-known fact about Beatrix is that she was also a fan of cavies (i.e., the name of the rodent species of which guinea pigs are members).
At about the age of 24 in her booklet of illustrated verse entitled Our Dear Relations, she featured a family of them eating dinner, in typical Beatrix Potter fashion complete with a guinea pig Mom sitting at the head of the table ladling out the youngsters’ food.
Three years later in 1893 and at a point when she still didn’t own any guinea pigs herself, Beatrix borrowed a friend’s long-haired guinea pigs as models for a card, cavies who were of the same long-haired ‘Abyssinian’ guinea pig breed like the one in the photograph here.
That same year she also drew a quartet of guinea pigs carrying garden tools, en route to fixing up their own garden.
Her affection for the animals continued when in 1903 she wrote her tale of Tuppenny.
Tuppenny and Gulliver’s Travels
When an American publisher from Philadelphia visited her in 1929, he persuaded her to produce another book which he would publish especially for her American public, that is a novel for older children which Beatrix would call The Fairy Caravan and in which she would star the guinea pig Tuppeny from her earlier tale.
Tuppenny is a short-haired guinea pig breed called an ‘agouti,’ and in this novel the author would show her political persuasions.
Just like satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) set his book Gulliver’s Travels in a fantasy world but used the story to make fun of the snobbery of English society, Beatrix did the same with her town of Marmalade in which the Abyssinian cavies who have long hair and side whiskers look down on the common short-haired guinea pigs.
‘The Amiable Guinea-pig’
An Abyssinian guinea pig served as the model of another illustration that appeared in Beatrix’s Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes which she wrote in 1917.
Entitled ‘The Amiable Guinea-pig’, you can see an illustration of it a the V&A on line Collection section of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
The Author’s Early Years
Beatrix knew the world of privilege intimately. Born in 1866 and christened Helen Beatrix Potter, she grew up in a wealthy, strict Victorian English family with her father Rupert Potter, her mother Helen Leech, and her brother Bertram.
Where did Beatrix get the idea of making animals the stars of her stories?
The answer lies in the life that she led, her parents’ own artistic backgrounds and influences on her, and her strong love for her pets – many of whom became models for characters of her books.
The Influences of Her Upper-Class Victorian Family
In keeping with the norm for upper-class English families of the time, Beatrix was schooled at home and attended to by a legion of servants and a nanny.
Both of her parents liked to paint, and her father was an accomplished amateur photographer at a time when photography was a relatively new art. Along with photographing landscapes and the family, Rupert photographed sitters for Sir John Everett Millais, a leading British painter of the time.
The Potters encouraged their children to develop their artistic abilities, and Beatrix’s younger brother Bertram became an accomplished landscape painter as an adult.
With Beatrix, her parents arranged for a drawing teacher to come to the house.
Although Beatrix was six years older than her brother, they were very close. Except for cousins who would visit at times, they rarely met other children. Then at the age of six, Bertram was sent away to boarding school while Beatrix continued to be educated at home by her governesses.
The schoolroom which had been Beatrix’s and Betram’s world then became the sole province of Beatrix’s universe.
As she had done with her brother, it that schoolroom Beatrix kept a large number of pets: rabbits, mice, a bat, a frog, lizards, a terrapin, and a snake. Two rabbits were her particular favorites, one of whom was named Peter Piper who, as Peter Rabbit, would be the hero of her first book.
Alone as she studied, Beatrix started a secret journal in code some time thereafter when she was 14 years old. She used the journal to record details of her world that especially interested her, and through this she started developing her style as a storyteller.
Fortunately for Beatrix, her parents who enjoyed going on vacation rented a place in the countryside every summer. They took along the entire household, including the children’s pets.
Beatrix was very influenced by these journeys to the countryside, and in later years they would come to serve as the settings for many of her stories.
How “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” Was Conceived
Beatrix Potter’s great talent in art combined with her keen eye for observation about animals and her whimsical, gentle touch for storyline has made her a favorite author throughout the world.
That story came about through Beatrix’s associations with her last governess named Annie Carter who was only three years her senior.
After forming a close bond through studies, when Annie left Beatrix’s home to marry, the two remained good friends. As the years went by, Annie had five children with her husband Edwin Moore.
Then in 1893 when Beatrix and her rabbit Peter Piper were on holiday in Scotland and she wanted to cheer up Annie’s eldest son Noel who had been suffering from a long illness, she couldn’t think of what to write him.
So she decided to tell him, as she put it, “a story about four little rabbits whose names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.”
The children loved Beatrix’s stories, like another one that she sent to Noel’s four-year-old younger brother Eric in which she wrote, “My dear Eric, Once upon a time there was a frog called Mr. Jeremy Fisher, and he lived in a little house on the bank of a river…”.
As the years went by and Beatrix was successful in selling her animal drawings for greeting cards and illustrating popular rhymes, fairy tales, and stories, she decided to try her hand at making her own illustrated book.
To that end, in 1900 she borrowed her letter back from Noel about the four rabbits and copied it to create a black and white book. She added some new parts, drew 41 new illustrations, named the book “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” and had 250 copies printed in time for Christmas 1901.
Beatrix Potter’s Popularity Today
“The Tale of Peter Rabbit” can now be read in 30 different languages in addition to its original English-language version.
Were she alive today, Beatrix would probably be very taken aback to learn that the sales of her book are now placed at approximately 45 million copies.
Along with all of her other well-loved books, stories, and nursery rhymes, that book has become one of the best-selling books ever and has made Beatrix Potter one of the most widely-read children’s authors of all times.