Last week I took a trip to The Morgan Library to see an exhibit on Beatrix Potter and her picture letters. I have always been a fan of Beatrix Potter. I was a young child who wrote many stories about animals and their various adventures, and in third grade I did a presentation on Beatrix Potter and her life. I also own the movie Miss Potter with Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, and took a Children’s Literature class in college where we discussed Potter’s works. So in a way it was required reading for me to visit this exhibit.
Many of Potter’s story ideas came from picture letters that she wrote to children that she knew. She predominantly wrote to her nanny’s son Noel, who was frequently sick. This in particular is how The Tale of Peter Rabbit was created. In the letters she had a knack for writing to Noel in a serious way about topics that a young child would understand – such as the adventures of a bunny, or the ships that she saw when she was on a trip. These letters were strewn with drawings of various detail to add whimsy to her tales.
The exhibit also features many illustrations of Potter’s – some of which were included in her final books, and some which weren’t. There was a drawing that Potter gave her fiance and publisher Norman Warne. The illustration shows a Cinderella like scene with bunnies pulling a carriage on a city street. The picture itself is not very big, but the amount of detail and atmosphere that Potter was able to put into her small drawings is impressive. Beatrix Potter grew up drawing and making up stories about the animals that she saw during summers at the lake district. Both Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit were real rabbits that Potter took a liking to at a young age. These rabbits were frequently used for drawing practice.
Beatrix Potter was amongst the forefront of children’s authors. The early 20th century was not as focused on children as today’s society is. There were no Children’s or YA book genres, no New York Times Children’s Best Seller List, and many of the stories written for children were moralistic and didactic in nature. Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, written in 1865, is thought to be the first book that breaks away from this tradition, and even mocks it with its nonsensical logic. Edward Lear, author of the poem The Owl and the Pussycat is somewhat of a contemporary with Potter as well, but the genre of children’s literature was still limited at this time. Potter’s stories follow along the same path as Carrol’s in that they are not didactic. As my Children’s Literature professor pointed out, if Potter was trying to teach a lesson about being good to children, she would have made Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail the interesting and desirable characters because they are good little bunnies and do not venture into Mr. McGregor’s garden. Although Peter does get sent to bed without dinner after his adventure, he is the more exciting character in the story. Also, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail all look the same and the reader can not distinguish one little bunny from the rest, while Peter’s blue coat sets him apart from the rest.
Potter’s books were all published with small bindings that are perfect for children to hold and read themselves. This too was rare in publishing at this time, and goes back to the adult focused world of the early 20th century. These books were clearly for children in every way.
The exhibit at The Morgan Library has since closed (it ended on the 27th), but I am so glad that I was able to go and enter once again the world of Beatrix Potter and her animals.