Mice and Hedgehogs and Rabbits, oh my

 

It’s been 150 years since Beatrix Potter was born.

State Library Victoria’s Juliet O’Conor has published this tribute, with a tantalising glimpse inside some treasures in the Library’s collection. Last year, an exhibition called Inspiration by Design at SLV featured original illustrations by Potter from the V&A’s collection. (I’ve written about the Crane illustrations from that exhibition in a previous blog post.)

Here’s the extent of my Potter collection – the remaining titles from a boxed set I bought on my one and only trip to London in 1984. That’s them, squeezing the Golden Books.

A white bookshelf with mostly children's books, spine out
Potters at bottom left

Their number has been reduced (from the original 23 in the box) to the titles that were my and my children’s favourites. My pre-parenting favourites were The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle. Here’s that prickly laundress facing an ironing challenge.

A china figurine of a hedgehog in an apron holding an iron.
Mrs Tiggywinkle has her iron at the ready.

The idea that a hedgehog did the other animals’ laundry and mending directly references the huge domestic workforce that fuelled Victorian society.  The steamy claustrophobic kitchen where Mrs Tiggywinkle dips, rinses and presses, all the while gossiping about how her customers soiled their clothes, fascinates both Lucie and the reader. The attention to detail in Potter’s work has been commented on by critic Janet Adam Smith:  ‘The sage that Jemima Puddleduck nibbles to make her own stuffing, the crab-apples and green fir-cones with which Nutkin plays nine-pins, suggest the strawberries and columbines of Tudor and Stuart embroideries.’

My friend Anne’s family obviously loved her work too.

Children's books on a shelf, spines out
Potters with pottery pig

My children’s favourite books were Jeremy Fisher, Miss Moppet and the Fierce Bad Rabbit. I followed Dorothy Butler’s advice : ‘Don’t risk overlooking their capacity to captivate and the opportunity they offer to familarise the small child’s ear with precise, Victorian parlour language…As an antidote to the banalities of television utterance, Beatirx Potter’s easily available little books should not go unused.’ (p85, Babies Need Books) Sorry, DB – the kids were also the perfect age to enjoy the BBC’s charming adaptations of the stories in the mid 1990s.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing a friend’s copy of a beautiful rare edition.

 

Small cover of children's book with coloured picture of a rabbit.
Closed view of The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit special foldout edition.
Book covers with concertina pages spread out
Unfolded pages of The Fierce Bad Rabbit – concertina edition: read as it unfolds.

 

Back to Peter Rabbit to finish with. After publisher Frederick Warne’s initial rejection, Potter privately printed and distributed the book – comfort and inspiration for this aspiring picture book writer.When Warne reconsidered, they politely but firmly rejected the “improved” text suggested by Potter’s family friend Canon Rawnsley, which read in part: They sat down to tea / Too good-mannered to cram / and ate bread and milk / and sweet blackberry jam. 

Happy birthday, Beatrix.

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