“The World of Peter Rabbit”


A hundred years ago, a naughty little rabbit sneaked its way into a farmer’s garden — and into the imagination of generations of children across the world.

For those who don’t know him already: Meet Peter, the world’s most famous rabbit.

“My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were — Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.”

Peter made his first appearance in an illustrated letter written by a young woman called Beatrix Potter to cheer up a sick 5-year-old boy. Little did Potter imagine that her tale of a blue-coated rabbit and his narrow escape from farmer McGregor’s garden would become the first of a series of much-loved children’s stories, in print even a century later and now released in a special centenary edition.

“It is much more satisfactory to address a real live child,” Potter wrote in a letter to a friend. “I often think that that was the secret of the success of Peter Rabbit, it was written to a child — not made to order.”

The world of Peter Rabbit is the world of Potter — it brings to vibrant life the places, people and animals of her childhood. Potter grew up in London, but she had a special fondness for the countryside where she went on holidays with her parents — to Scotland and later, to the Lake District. Here, Potter’s imagination roamed free over all her favorite haunts — the lakes, the hills, the woods, the farm and the village — and they became the setting of her tales.

Peter Rabbit and his friends — Tom Kittens, who is always hiding from his mother; the impertinent Squirrel Nutkin, who gives lip to old Mr. Brown the owl; Mrs. Tiggy Winkle the hedgehog, who does the laundry for all the other animals; Mrs. Tittlemouse, who seems to be permanently cleaning up after uninvited guests; and so many memorable others — were inspired by the pets Beatrix kept in her childhood. Growing up in a large house with busy parents, Potter’s animals were her chief companions. She kept many — some in secret — in the nursery and back garden, from rabbits and mice to lizards and bats, even a terrapin and a snake.

Her other passion was painting. A drawing book from when she was 9 has two pages of rabbit sketches — but these extraordinary rabbits ice-skate, drive carriages and go horseback-riding. Potter’s first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, had a hearty appetite for buttered toast and peppermints.

Later he made his debut in “The Tale of Benjamin Bunny” as Peter Rabbit’s incorrigible cousin. In the same book, Peter Rabbit — modeled on Potter’s second pet rabbit, Peter Piper — plays the scamp one more time. Egged on by Benjamin, he climbs into McGregor’s garden, again, to retrieve the blue coat he lost on his last visit.

Potter taught herself to draw by studying the behavior and the anatomy of her pets. She’d stop at nothing to render lifelike portraits of them. One time, Potter and her brother even skinned a dead rabbit and boiled it in order to study its skeleton. Her delightful sketches of animals in clothes owe much to her early drills in drawing. Other 19th-century artists had attempted this before her, but none so convincingly.

For the 23 titles of the Peter Rabbit series, Potter’s pen-and-ink illustrations were redone in color. They depict her characters as if they were part of a typical English rural community. They tidy their cottages, gossip at the village shop, go to market and enjoy nothing more than a lively dinner party. They appear and reappear from one book to the next — giving the impression of a close-knit world where everyone knows each other.

In spite of their cultivated ways, they also display the usual animal instincts. So, Peter Rabbit is drawn to the lettuce heads in McGregor’s garden; Mr. Tod the fox is habitually wily; and Samuel Whiskers, the rat, steals butter from the cat, Tabitha Twichit, whenever he gets a chance.

However, beneath the social courtesies of their society runs a darker undercurrent. Theirs is a natural world made up of predators and prey; even though it isn’t deliberately cruel, it is often ruthless. Peter’s mother cautions him against stepping into McGregor’s garden where his father met his grisly end — captured and baked into rabbit pie. Jeremy Fisher, the frog, heads out for a bit of fishing, only to be almost eaten himself by an enormous trout. Jemima Puddleduck falls for the charming ways of Mr. Tod, who lovingly finds her a place to lay her eggs hoping, secretly, to eat them. Danger, although it never gets close, is always lurking right round the corner.

In 1902, the first year of publication, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” sold 20,000 copies. This took both the writer and publisher by surprise — the original print run was just 8,000 copies. Although her little books were a huge success, Potter never forgot that she was writing for children. She wanted her books to be small — 14 × 11 cm — “to fit children’s hands, not to impress grownups.” She insisted that they be cheap — “All my little friends happen to be shilling people.”

And the “shilling people” loved her. She received huge amounts of fan mail, and she always replied — sometimes in the form of picture letters with the latest news of Peter, at other times in notes written as if by one of her animal characters. In one, Potter replied to a little girl in New Zealand, thanking her for sending a little bag: “This is for Peter Rabbit to carry his pocket handkerchief in.”

Potter died in 1943 at age 77. Her capricious rabbit still lives, however — captivating new readers to this day. And somewhere in an English wood, rabbits still raid farmers’ fields, frogs go on lakeside excursions, squirrels scrounge for nuts — Potter certainly did not forget the natural beauty that had inspired her fiction. During her lifetime she bought more than 1,600 hectares of land in the Lake District. In her will she left it to the National Trust so that Peter Rabbit’s home could remain unspoiled forever.