Beatrix’s Potter’s stories for children are still some of my favourites. One of the reasons her books are so appealing is the sense that each of her animal characters belongs to a completely developed world. Her animal heroes weave in and out of each other’s narratives: we see Peter lose his coat and shoes in Mr McGregor’s garden in the very first book, and then read about Peter and cousin Benjamin’s adventures rescuing his clothes in “The Tale of Benjamin Bunny”. Later, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the hedgehog laundress, washes Peter’s coat handkerchief, which “did so smell of onions” (94) — because Peter and Benjamin used it to carry the onions they stole from the McGregors’ garden back to their homes. Benjamin and Peter’s sister Flopsy end up married, and their children, the Flopsy Bunnies are twice kidnapped — first in “The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies”, when Mr McGregor pulls the drowsy bunnies from his lettuce patch and plans to put them into a pie (just as their grandfather once was), and next by the badger Tommy Brock in “The Tale of Mr. Tod”, who also means to serve them up for his lunch. Thomasina Tittlemouse helps the bunnies escape in the “Flopsy Bunnies” before appearing as the main character in “The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse”. Peter and his sisters appear again in “The Tale of Ginger and Pickles” (the story that falls between the “Flopsy Bunnies” and “Mrs. Tittlemouse”). Indeed, a number of the animals from Potter’s stories turn up to buy goods from Ginger and Pickles’s shop, including Jemima Puddleduck, Samuel Whiskers, Jeremy Fisher, Sally Henny Penny, the two bad mice, Thomasina Tittlemouse, and Tabitha Twitchet (cousin of Ribby in “The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan” and the mother of the infamous Tom Kitten). It’s great fun to follow the daily adventures of all these characters, who develop and grow more idiosyncratic as they appear and reappear, and of whom it’s easy to grow fond.
Another reason I love Potter’s stories so much is the way that she captures in both illustrations and writing the animal-ness of her heroes. Potter is famous for having had numerous pets all her life, as well as living closely with them on her farm in Sawrey (she was also a keen mycologist!). Her familiarity with the animals with whom she shared her life shows beautifully in the stories as she captures the audacious and obnoxious chattering of squirrels like Nutkin (with his teasing poems); the timid-yet-determined busyness of mice like Thomasina Tittlemouse; the hapless clumsiness of ducks like Jemima, and (my favourite) the hilarious disorder of kittens like Tom and his sisters.
In “The Tale of Tom Kitten” (page 150 in my volume, but probably around page 7 in the small individual books) Potter painted a perfect emblem of “kitten”. In it, Tabitha Twitchet brushes her daughter Mittens’s fur while Tom, in true kitten form, bats mischievously at her through the arms, legs, and back of the chair while Moppet looks on in timid fascination. Even though mama Tabitha is dressed in proper twentieth-century English dress, apron, and petticoats — and tries to make her children wear clean frocks — the characters are cats through and through.
I also love the little jokes Potter slips in occasionally: for example, the appearance of Sir Isaac Newton and Ptolemy Tortoise in the amphibian/reptilian world of Jeremy Fisher.
Potter seems to have lived a fascinating life, and I’d like to read more about her. I’m pleased her books have remained as lively as they ever were.
Before I leave Potter for good, a brief excerpt from one of her novels, The Fairy Caravan:
Tuppenny was a short-haired guinea-pig of dilapidated appearance. he suffered from toothache and chilblains; and he had never had much hair, not even of the shortest. It was thin and patchy. Whether this was the result of chilblains or ill-treatment is uncertain. he was an object, whatever the cause. Obviously he was a suitable subject for experiment. … So Henry P. and nine other guinea pigs bought a bottle [of hair tonic] and ran in a twittering crowd towards Tuppenny’s house. On the way they overtook Tuppenny going home. They explained to him that out of sympathy they had subscribed for a bottle of moonshine to cure his toothache and chilblains, and that they would rub it on for him as Mrs. Tuppenny was out.
Tuppenny was too depressed to argue; he allowed himself to be led away. Henry P. and the nine other guine pigs poured the whole bottleful over Tuppenny, and put him to bed. (13-15)
Thinking about the opening chapter The Fairy Caravan, I had thought I might write a short musing on the misfortunes of guinea pigs in children’s literature. But then I could only think of two such instances of cavy-related adversity: the first is Potter’s Tuppenny and the second the little guinea pigs on whom Digory’s Uncle Andrew conducts his magic tests in The Magician’s Nephew (“Some of them only died. Some exploded like little bombs.” 21). The fates of all but one of Uncle Andrew’s guinea pigs are rather dire, but Tuppenny’s hirsute misfortunes resolve quite happily when Tuppenny runs away from his hometown of Marmalade and ends up living quite happily — with a full head of well-groomed hair at long last — with the travelling troupe of animals who make up the fairy caravan. The only other literary guinea pig I could think of was Bond’s charmingly audacious Olga da Polga, whose life is full of adventures, but devoid of real misfortune. The moral of this story is that guinea pigs should probably steer clear of suspect literary magicians. And maybe other guinea pigs — cowardly common short-haired guinea pigs and the contemptuous upper-class “Abyssinian Cavies” alike. And the town of Marmalade in the “Land of Green Ginger” (9); the guinea pigs there have some class antagonisms to work out.
I liked The Fairy Caravan quite a lot, though not quite as much as her individual stories. I also suspect much of my delight at the novel is probably heavily influenced by the many common guinea pigs I’ve met in my lifetime. Potter knew just as much about guinea pigs as she did about kittens. An endearing lot.
9 December 2013 ~ Hamilton
(Afternote: one of my guinea pigs was a little albino cavy I adopted from a lab and named Job — a joke that exactly one other person got. Poor Job.)
Lewis, C.S. The Magician’s Nephew. New York: Scholastic, 1955.
Potter, Beatrix. The Complete Tales. Ed. Frederick Warne & Co.[?]. London: Penguin, 2006.
—–. The Fairy Caravan. London and New York: Frederick Warne & Co., 1972.