The movie industry has finally decided to tackle Beatrix Potter’s whimsical tale of Peter Rabbit. Except… in true Hollywood fashion it’s been “updated” and evidently has the purists up in arms (not to mention the boycott over a controversial allergy scene.) Literati, a try-before-you-buy book club for children, looks back at the Potter original and asks: why has it remained so popular, more than a century after its publication?
While Potter’s story followed the disobedient young rabbit being chased mercilessly around Mr McGregor’s garden in the Lake District (only to escape to the comfort of his home where his mother put him to bed with a mug of camomile tea) the big screen version finds Peter (voiced by British actor and TV presenter James Corden) feuding with McGregor’s son, Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), and vying for the affections of the kind-hearted animal lover (Rose Byrne) next door.
The Guardian newspaper said there was “something genuinely harrowing about the sight of Peter Rabbit – gentle, Edwardian Peter Rabbit – thoughtlessly injuring some birds … or literally twerking. No joke, all of these things happen in the trailer.”
So we thought it was a good opportunity to take you back 116 years to 1902, the year of its publication, and look at why the “bunny book” as Potter called it, has endured.
Judith Page, Professor of English at the University of Florida and an expert on Beatrix Potter, said the author and illustrator originally wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit as a letter to the child of her former governess who was sick because she wanted to cheer him up. “It was after the fact that she thought she should borrow the letter back and do a story based on it.”.
While Peter is a “naughty little bunny” and is punished, Page said he’s only mildly punished (his mother gives him chamomile tea and puts him to bed!) and there’s actually a reason for that. “It’s more a ‘punishment-treat’ because Beatrix Potter was pushing back against strict Victorian conventions and the way she was raised.”
Page said Potter was brought up by her well-to-do parents to be a “proper” lady but she rejected that from the beginning. Her mother and father were social climbers, her father worked as an attorney, but he was from working-class stock in Lancashire and Potter was very proud of – and identified with – that.”
Later in life, her mother’s servants didn’t realize who Potter was because she chose to walk around in big hats and workers’ boots and spend time outdoors, Page said. “Linda Lear, who wrote a biography of Potter, describes her early interest in various species of fungi and how she became an expert at drawing them; preceding her work on Peter Rabbit she was interested in science and she collected animal specimens.”
It was her interest in the natural world that translated into her books, like Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck, The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, The Tale of Jeremy Fisher. “They show those very beautiful images of the rural world and I think they appeal to children because she creates a kind of miniature world, like little dollhouse images, that they can enter into.”
Page said for 21st century children there’s also a sweet incongruity in the language; it’s often very formal (like when some friendly sparrows hear Peter’s tears after he becomes tangled in a gooseberry net, and “implored him to exert himself.”) “There’s something funny about these animals talking in this way,” Page said, “and a kind of joy in that.”
One of the fascinating things about Peter Rabbit is how Potter tackles the concept of what’s threatening, Page said. “Usually human children are told ‘don’t wander too far from home’ but what’s most threatening for Peter is the cultivated garden he’s gone in to plunder.”
Mr. McGregor (the stock character of the Scotch gardener; “many of the finest gardeners in Britain came from Scotland at the end of the 19th Century”) serves as the villain in the story, constantly being deceived by the smart little rabbits, but Page said whether or not he is the “baddie” is a matter of perspective. “We experience the narrative through Peter’s point of view, so of course the human is the enemy. Part of the brilliance of the story is that Potter gets us to take the bunny’s point of view, when in fact we know at some level that Mr. McGregor is just doing his job. Any gardener knows that you have to keep bunnies away from your vegetable patch!”
Potter worked on what she called “the little books” for a relatively short period of time and they gave her enough financial independence that she could assert herself over her domineering mother.
In Potter’s later writing she wrote about nature “and it was almost like the sublimity of the countryside had taken over.
“Afterward she turned to conservation and farming and bought more land in the Lake District than anyone else at the time,” Page explained, “which she bequeathed to the National Trust when she died. So she’s responsible for the preservation of a good bit of the beauty of the Lakes.”