The enduring appeal of Peter Rabbit

Beatrix Potter's most famous creation, Peter Rabbit, remains as popular as ever, despite his genesis being well over a century ago. Jack Watkins investigates the enduring appeal of one of the naughtiest rabbits in children's literature.

‘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,’ wrote Beatrix Potter in 1893, in a letter to a little boy, the five-year-old son of her former governess, who was suffering from scarlet fever.

A decade later, these lines, only slightly adjusted, formed the opening to what has become one of the bestselling, most fondly remembered books in children’s literature.

Like many authors of stories aimed at infants, Potter (1866–1943) was not a writer by profession. Her chief enthusiasm was natural history. Childhood family holidays in Perthshire and, later, the Lake District had given her the freedom to experience the natural world at first hand, and at the Natural History Museum in London, not far from her home in Kensington, she had made meticulous studies of plants and animals, often with the use of a microscope. Allied to an imagination that delighted in traditional fairy stories, it was this background that gave Peter Rabbit and Potter’s subsequent animal tales their peculiar atmosphere of believable wonder.

Aimed at the very young, with minimal text, the book is clearly not fine literature in the way of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Yet, as in the latter, much thanks to Potter’s illustrations, the humanised rabbits seem to exist in a recognisably real place. As Potter once admitted, the ‘careful botanical studies of my youth’ informed the ‘reality’ of her fantasy drawings.

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Although subsequent stories such as The Tale of Benjamin Bunny would contain more strikingly detailed illustrations, Peter Rabbit has enchanting pictures of its impudent hero, in the vegetable patch chomping away at radishes or leaping off the wall and upsetting pots of geraniums. The image of Peter planning his escape from the garden as he watches his nemesis Mr McGregor hoeing his onions conveys a feeling of tension and adventure deeply appealing to the child in all of us.

Those of old Mrs Rabbit, however, in her red shawl and bonnet, walking through the wood to visit the baker’s shop or busy in the rabbits’ home, ‘in a sandbank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree’, are cosy and comforting. Potter’s love of all animals is reflected in the many other creatures that populate the pictures, including robins, sparrows and starlings, a mouse, goldfish and a statuesque white cat.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was first published by Frederick Warne in 1902, but only after it had been rejected by six publishers including, initially, Warne. Potter was determined that the book should be small enough to fit into a child’s hands and inexpensive (with black-and-white illustrations), whereas Warne wanted something bigger, with colour pictures. Only after Potter had the book privately published did Warne come back with an offer to take it on, as long as the text was trimmed back and accompanied by colour illustrations.

Beatrix Potter’s original, self-published first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. This copy came up at Dreweatts and Bloomsbury Auctions in 2016; it sold for £43,000. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

It was an immediate success, much to Potter’s surprise. ‘The public must be fond of rabbits! What an appalling quantity of Peter,’ she said. It has sold 40 million copies worldwide.

Once again basing her stories on illustrated letters she had written to infants, she quickly followed up with The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester in 1903, and produced a further 20 more in the series up to The Tale of Little Pig Robinson in 1930.

One of the author’s privately printed editions of Peter Rabbit carried an inscription in which Potter described his disposition as ‘uniformly amiable and his temper unfailingly sweet. An affectionate companion and a quiet friend’. Which is why, together with its knowing, 21st-century humour, a CGI-animated film of the book in 2018 seemed so jarring.

However, indignation should be tempered; Potter had an entrepreneurial side and she knew there were opportunities for spin-offs. She registered a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903 and there were licensed wallpapers, board games and painting books.

The original tales, under the Warne imprint, are still available today, and two million Potter books are sold across the world each year.

Wedgwood’s Peter Rabbit nursery plate.