When in 1966 Philip Hofer published facsimiles of nine of Beatrix Potter’s letters to children, he could say that “To be sure, more letters of this same sort, with pictures, exist, but they are jealously guarded by their owners.” Now Judy Taylor has by zeal, persistence, and cajolery rounded up over two hundred letters with pictures, written from 1892 to 1943. Previously involved in many books about Beatrix Potter, she decided that tracking down the recipients of the letters would be “an intriguing journey of research and reminiscence.”
Of the forty-two “children” whose letters are in this collection I have spoken or corresponded with ten, three of whom were over ninety and four well into their eighties. I have been in touch with the close relatives of twenty-two more—and been refused interviews by only two…. Ancient photograph albums have been plundered, diaries consulted and memories jogged. Eleven of the children I have been unable to trace, though it has been possible to discover a little about them or to speculate on who they might have been.
The result is a book full of interest to anyone who has loved the Beatrix Potter books or been intrigued by the character of their creator, and it is a delight to look at: a gallimaufry of printed text, facsimiles, drawings, and photographs—including one of Miss Potter walking out with her favorite rabbit on a leash.
The letters, arranged by recipient with an introductory note on each child, are of three kinds. There are the early picture-letters written to the children of friends with no thought of publication but which contain the germ of many of the published stories; the tiny letters she sent to friends after her work was published, in which her animal characters correspond with each other; and the correspondence with children who had written to her about the books.
In 1892, when the letters start, Beatrix Potter was twenty-five and leading a life with her parents in London that would have been hopelessly stuffy and restricted but for the resources of her own wide-ranging mind. She was actively interested in pictures and photography, in plants, fossils, and fungi; and above all in animals, which she had drawn from childhood. In her room at the top of her dull Kensington home she kept pet mice, a rabbit, bats, and a hedgehog. Educated at home by governesses, she had met few other children and never seems to have played childish games. As a young lady she was shy and ill at ease in polite company, though on long family holidays in Scotland and the Lake District she found it easy to make contact with country people, especially if—like the postman in Perthshire who collected fungi—they had an interest in common.
Though, not surprisingly, she didn’t know much about children, there were two families, the Gaddums and the Moores, in whom she took a lively interest. Walter and Molly Gaddum were the children of Beatrix’s cousin Edith; they lived in Manchester and met the Potters on holidays in the Lakes. The Moores—eventually there were eight of them—were the children of Beatrix’s much-loved last governess. Judy Taylor has dug up many intriguing facts about the family. The household into which dear little Peter Rabbit would make his way was the scene of blazing rows between Tory wife and Socialist husband: Edwin Moore later became a Communist and taught his parrot to sing “The Red Flag,” and the youngest Moore, named after her godmother Beatrix, took after her father politically.
When Beatrix Potter visited the Moores in Wandsworth she was rather daunted by the hubbub of a household with very young children, and was never able to spend much time with them. She made up for it when she was out of London, sending the children picture letters which hardly referred to their own lives and took for granted that what interested her would interest them too. In her contacts with children animals were the go-betweens. Letters addressed to under-tens (Noël Moore, the oldest of the family, was five when the correspondence started) are full of animals and their oddities: a goat with its beard in a nosebag drawing a little carriage; a fox that chose to sleep in a pigsty beside the pig; the new giraffe at the zoo—and a picture of it making a railway journey in an open truck with its keeper ready to haul down its head with a rope as the train approaches a tunnel; a savage dormouse and a hawk so tame that it was quite silly; rabbits and jackdaws in alliance against the puffins that invaded the rabbits’ burrows; giant fleas in the British Museum Reading Room; and a terrier who chased a ball into a raging sea then was thrown back by a huge wave onto the promenade—“It walked off looking quite offended.” She writes plainly and directly, with no condescension, no baby-talk, nothing to make a child squirm—that is why the letters are still so readable—and she signs off briskly: “Your aff. friend Beatrix Potter” and sometimes “Yrs aff H.B.P.”
When people are mentioned in these letters it is usually in connection with animals: like the Miss Hayward who lives in a house that had been bequeathed to a dog (picture of Miss H. pouring out tea for two dogs and a cat sitting at table), or the lady whose cat has swum across the lake to her island home on Derwentwater. Sometimes people become animals, like the Winchelsea landlady who is depicted as a mouse carrying a tea tray.
Miss Potter’s own animals provide plenty of news. Her pet rabbit Peter has to have his claws cut (with the garden scissors, they are so hard) * and in summer he is so hot in his thick fur—“I think he would be more comfortable if he had a little coat which he would take off!” In putting a little coat on a rabbit Beatrix Potter was taking a step away from fact, and in her letter to Noël Moore of September 4, 1893, from Dunkeld in Perthshire—surely one of the most famous letters in the history of children’s books—she strides boldly into fiction.
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.
They lived with their mother in a sand bank under the root of a big fir tree.
Such was the first version of Peter Rabbit, which did not see print till 1901. Other books of the future are foreshadowed in the early letters. What Henry James would call the donnée of Little Pig Robinson can be detected in a letter from Falmouth in 1894, reporting a white pig with a curly tail on the deck of a ship about to sail to Newfoundland.
I daresay it enjoys the voyage, but when the sailors get hungry they eat it. If that pig had any sense it would slip down into the boat at the end of the ship & row away—
as of course it did in the story published thirty-five years later. The donnée for Squirrel Nutkin was the observation of the lady who lived on Derwentwater that squirrels came over to her island when the nuts were ripe. “I wonder how they can get across the water? Perhaps they make little rafts!”—as indeed they did, with twigs, and using their tails as sails (she had read this interesting fact in an American story) when Nutkin went into print.
When Mrs. Moore suggested that some of the picture-letters might be turned into books, Beatrix borrowed them back to copy, and to add to the original story. After many rejections, Peter Rabbit was published by Frederick Warne, and when its huge success made Warne beg for more, she had plenty of material ready to be worked up into tales. Yet she did not give up writing picture-letters: “It is much more satisfactory to address a real live child; I often think that was the secret success of Peter Rabbit, it was written to a child—not made to order.”
As the little books appeared, so did a second kind of letter. The young Gaddums and Moores and Warnes—for she was soon friendly with her publisher’s family—were sent tiny little missives, ingeniously folded to make a sort of envelope, with a stamp drawn in red crayon, purporting to be from one of her animal characters to another or to a child. There is a spirited series from Nutkin to old Mr. Brown, asking to have his tail back; impudent demands for a featherbed from the mouse Tom Thumb to Lucinda Doll; correspondence between Sir Isaac Newton and Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise about poor Jeremy Fisher’s matrimonial prospects; a complaint from Mrs. Tiggywinkle that she is burdened with a large wash because Tom Kitten has been in the coal cellar. Mr. McGregor is bitter about “those there rabbits,” and Mrs. McGregor warns Peter that she has bought a new pie-dish, very large. Maria the rat is angry because Miss Potter has told the village joiner “to put zinc on the bottom of the door & stuff up 2 ventilators before the corn is carried in. It is unkind I am disgusted.” Beatrix even made miniature mail-bags for the miniature letters, and tiny letter-boxes to post them in. This was her way of playing with children; that so many of these notelets have survived shows how much they were treasured.
The third kind of letter was addressed to children who wrote about her books: by 1917 letters were coming “from boys and girls all over the world—especially from Australia & N. Zealand—that I put them in a bundle & answer if I can.” After 1905 most of these answers some from Sawrey, a village near Windermere, where she had bought Hill Top Farm. And after 1913 the writer was no longer the gauche Miss Potter of Kensington, but the brisk Mrs. William Heelis, housewife and farmer; for against her parents’ wishes she had married the Lake District solicitor who had negotiated the purchase of her farm. There, with her husband and pigs and horses and Herdwick sheep she was happy, busy, and fulfilled—and often bored by her admirers. “I don’t write letters to all of them,” she told one child, and to another she wrote:
I wonder how many tiresome unknown children have bothered me with birthday books, and letters wanting answers etc and—would you believe it—not more than one in twenty ever writes again to say “thank you.”
She was responsive to children who liked to draw and write, and to those who shared her tastes—“there are not many people who like rats except you and me,” she told one girl.
There is new earthiness and realism in the letters from Sawrey, and much news of farm animals:
There are 3 horses, Diamond, Lady & Gipsy and I hope next spring Gipsy will have a nice foal. There are 14 cows, a lot of calves & young cattle, and 80 ewes & 40 young sheep & some pigs & 25 hens & 5 ducks, & there were 13 turkeys…. I have had so much anxiety about foxes.
Indeed these were the years of what Graham Greene called Miss Potter’s dark period when, in such works as Jemima Puddleduck and The Tale of Mr Tod, predatory foxes and disgusting badgers intrude evilly on her animal idylls.
She still keeps her sharp eye for oddities: the cat who walked two hundred miles home to Kendal from London; the lamb who preferred the company of a cart-horse to other sheep; the cow who tobogganed down a muddy hillside “as if she had been shot out of a gun—she flew down hill sitting on her tail.” And she still draws people as animals: the village joiner who puts anti-rat zinc at the foot of her doors is shown as a terrier carrying his bag of tools in his mouth.
Her correspondents are given the unromantic side of village life:
The young turkeys are killed and one of the pigs; so there is not so much to do in the way of mixing buckets of pig meal and toiling about in the mud. It has been so dirty in the fields it nearly pulls my big boots off.
There are also the moments of contentment: “The lambs are sold, the corn is threshed, and things are quiet for the winter.”
I found two sets of letters of particular interest, sent to admirers who became her friends: June Steel and Henry Parsons Coolidge, who have shared their memories with Judy Taylor. June’s mother, Ivy, had, while still a child, delivered hats from her mother’s millinery shop to the Potter home. Ivy had emigrated to Canada, married, and by 1923 was living in Brooklyn. She had acquired all the Potter books as they came out and occasionally wrote to Beatrix who in her answers enclosed letters for Ivy’s little girl. When she heard that the Steels were having a bad time in the Depression she invited Ivy and her daughter to Britain for a holiday in 1936, when June was twelve, paying all their expenses. The visit went very well, as Beatrix told an American friend:
I was very relieved to find I liked “Ivy” as much as when she was a young girl, and I was interested in her girl. I suppose you have no classes in America!
Miss Potter hobnobbing with a milliner’s daughter! How shocking it would have been to the Kensington of her childhood.
The only jarring note was June’s voice:
It was the first time I ever heard the native accent of Bronx. I am tempted to say I hope I may never hear that accent again. She was a dear child. When one got over the accent she compared favourably with the average English child of the same class; obedient, intelligent and natural manners without forwardness.
June won top marks when she fed caramel candies to an unruly colt, which the farm hands dared not approach, and it ate out of her hand. Beatrix’s letters to her after the visit go well beyond farm affairs: she describes a holiday on the Scottish Borders—“old roofless Abbeys, Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh near by, and memories of Mary Queen of Scots”—and in November 1938 she writes:
The fear of war is a worry—and the shame of being bullied by Hitler is worse, we do not know how it will end. We have no gas masks here. Aeroplanes do not like coming amongst the hills and valleys. But if war comes we will be overcrowded with refugees from the towns—And there are such rough people in Barrow! We will gladly help them, but its a funny prospect! I think you are lucky to live the other side of the ocean.
With Henry Parsons Coolidge also she established a fine easy relationship in her letters, as if there were no great age difference. The Coolidges, from New Hampshire, spent the summer of 1927 in a house on Derwentwater, and because the thirteen-year-old Henry loved the Potter books, his mother wrote to ask if they might visit Sawrey. “I shall be very glad to see your boy,” came the answer,
I am always pleased to see Americans, I don’t know what to think of you as a nation (with a big N!) but the individuals who have looked for Peter Rabbit have all been delightful.
This visit too went well. Henry thought Beatrix “had the familiar air of a shrewd, battered, independent Maine fisherman’s wife,” and happily accompanied her on a tour of Sawrey, spotting the Ginger and Pickles shop, Tom Kitten’s cottage, and other scenes and characters familiar from the books. He wrote an account of the visit which pleased her and after he was back in America she wrote him easy, gossipy letters, as to a friend who shared her interests from guinea pigs to old furniture. She tells him of her plans to buy the Monk Coniston estate for the National Trust, of the disastrous sheep sales, of her problems in writing: “I can not write if I am out of humour…. You see—you and I take our fiction very seriously.” She consults him about American usage—“Do you put Esq or Mr on the envelope?” and encourages him in his struggles with algebra: “I have got along fairly well in the world without ever having acquired the art of doing sums!” She translates Cumberland words for him: sneck for a door-latch, keshes for wild parsnips, midden-steads for the manure heap in the farmyard, and the numerals used in counting sheep, “Yan, tyan tethera, methera pimp…supposed to be one of the few remains of the old Celtic language.”
Henry and the other Americans invited to Sawrey were favored partly because they were not likely to keep on visiting, which might happen with children nearer home.
Did Beatrix Potter really like children is a question Judy Taylor raises in her introduction. To judge from this collection of letters it looks as if, to begin with, she was shy of little children, not knowing much about them, and relating to them through animals, about whom she knew a great deal. She was much more at ease with older children like June and Henry—when she was also much more at ease with herself. She liked having Boy Scouts and Girl Guides camping on her farm. But she allowed no liberties, and the young of Sawrey were viewed in no such rosy light as the four-footed inhabitants of the village. Thieving rats and naughty kittens could be regarded with amused tolerance, but when her apples were stolen by village children, her hayfields invaded, Mrs. Heelis could be a right Tartar. One Sawrey child remembered her as a crotchety old lady who interrupted her play and found fault with her appearance.
I doubt whether she ever knew any ball games or skipped, played hop-scotch or hide-and-seek when she was a child. She was not the sweet old grandmotherly type which a lot of people imagine her to be. I sometimes wonder whether she resented the fact that we were enjoying the kind of childhood she had longed for?
—the lost childhood of one who was to enrich so many other children’s lives.
May 28, 1992
Miss Potter, a keen gallery-visitor, may have got the idea from a picture in the Wallace Collection in London, The Lion in Love by Camille Roqueplan, in which a young woman in a décolletage that leaves one breast bare, is cutting the paw-nails of a very soppy lion with garden scissors. ↩