Musings on Beatrix Potter

The pie made of mouseI’ve had an article from the Times Online about Beatrix Potter in my list of things to read for a while now and I finally got around to reading it today. It talked about Linda Lear’s biography of Beatrix Potter, but more than that it talked about Potter herself and the animals in her stories. The writer of the article, Nicola Shulman, focused on the dual nature of Potter’s animal characters. They are very true to life and realistic because Potter was such a naturalist, a scientist really, but they are also very anthropomorphized. Each character is indeed a rabbit or a cat or a pig, but he or she is also a Victorian lady or gentleman or child as well and the society they live in is something of an amalgam of those two worlds. And somehow Potter always made this come off without any visible conflict. The animal natures of her characters never really seemed to come into conflict with their human-like personalities. It was rather brilliant, really. And through all of this, they still live in a world with humans. It was brilliant. Shulman likens her writing that of Jane Austen and I think that the comparison is very fair.

One thing that struck me was that Shulman talked a good deal about the scary Potter stories, of which there are quite a few. She pointed out that we are often more familiar with the fluffy stories, but that in many of her books someone almost dies and the themes are often very dark (although I would counter with the fact that Potter’s most famous work is The Tale of Peter Rabbit which is very scary and dark in many ways). Then she said that some of the stories might really be too scary for children. I really hate when people say things like that. Kids have been reading Potter for a long time and haven’t had a problem, so where does that statement come from?

That got me thinking about the Potter stories that I liked best when I was a child. They were the dark ones, for the most part. And the ones no one has heard of (but I was like that). My favorite was The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan which isn’t terribly dark, but no one has heard of it. Besides that, I liked The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, where the duck unwittingly helps a fox collect herbs so he can cook her for dinner until she is saved by some farm dogs. I don’t remember what others I liked, but I remember that in many of them the creatures barely escaped with their lives (I think there was one with Tom Kitten, but I don’t know if it was The Tale of Tom Kitten or another one where he was a character). And I thought there was one with some mice in a dollhouse. The Tale of Two Bad Mice perhaps? I remember a pig too, but I can’t remember it’s name or what happened to it.

Anyhow, clearly nothing terribly bad happened to me from reading these stories. My brother read them as well and he’s just fine. And yet most of these are not sold in the bookstore where I work. They are likely in the collection we sell (I think it has all of Potter’s stories), but we only sell her famous stories and her happy stories separately. I actually find it very annoying, since I would love to sell The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan to someone! I still have my copy from childhood and love it!

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