Celebrating 150 years of Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter’s pastoral protagonists have captured the imagination of children since 1902, when her first story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was published. It chronicles the adventure of a tenacious rabbit who incites a voracious villain and finds himself participant in an epic escape. Peter, brother to Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail did what children do best – not listen! In spite of momma rabbit’s eager warnings, Peter lurches into farmer McGregor’s garden, lured by the likely leaves of a luscious lettuce and other voluptuous vegetables, and maniacal McG comes after him with the subtlety of a chainsaw-wielding-psycho lumbering after a teen horror star. Not even the fact that only a couple years prior papa rabbit was caught by the ferocious farmer and made into a pie by demon-farmer-wife Mrs McGregor is enough to deter the rambunctious rabbit. But boys will be boys, right? – Even ones who have sisters with names invoking images of bonny bunnies bouncing blithely on marshmallow clouds. Do not be deceived.
Innocence is a mask that envelopes Potter’s prose, deluding readers with poncy expression (“Peter was most dreadfully frightened”) and frivolous fantasy – often entirely nonsensical, like Squirrel Nutkin’s lunatic rhymes:
Old Mr.B! Riddle-me-ree!
Hitty Pitty within the wall,
Hitty Pitty without the wall;
If you touch Hitty Pitty,
Hitty Pitty will bite you!
Seriously? Except while you’re busy contemplating the inanity of Hitty what-the-hell Pitty, Squirrel Nutkin is captured by Old Brown (the owl), who has been the recipient of Nutkin’s cheek for an entire 50 pages (illustrations included) of book, and has the squirrel in a no-joke-of a throat hold. Potter surmises, “This looks like the end of the story; but it isn’t”. Old Brown hauls the little squirrel up by the tail and carries him inside, intending to skin him Ed Gein style but Nutkin pulls so hard that he breaks his tail in two; but manages to escape.
Potter’s tales adopt the cautionary tone of the fables, fairytales and fantasy that she loved as a child. Her apparently frivolous fiction attempts to make palatable the consequential horrors arising from poor decision making, as evidences in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. At its most literal, the story suggests that cheeky children are likely to die or encounter loss of limb. It’s horror hyperbole at its most perturbing; one simply cannot deny the morbidity of the metaphor.
The blackened fingers of the macabre reach deep into Potter’s fiction. The Flopsy Bunnies were to be decapitated and skinned before being turned into a delicious batch of rabbit tobacco by the infamous Mr McGregor. Jemima Puddle-duck (the dummest duck in the history of ever – a “simpleton” in the words of Potter) is cajoled into attending a dinner party with a smart-looking, well-spoken ‘gentleman’, who so happens to be a fox. Dear Jemima fails to realise that she is to be the main course at said dinner and even agrees to bring a basket of sage, thyme, mint, two onions and parsley (at the fox’s request) – the perfect herbs for stuffing roast duck. Jemima is rescued by a good-natured Collie but her eggs are gobbled up by a litter of hungry farm puppies. The story is a total ‘stranger danger’ alert for little listeners, reminiscent of Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood – the moral at the end of which reads:
Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.
The familiarity is uncanny.
Then there’s The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, alternately named The Roly-Poly Pudding, in which a curious kitten called Tom (The Tale of Tom Kitten) undergoes some serious torture and torment at the paws of two sadistic, snuff-sniffing elderly rats. It’s a classic example of black comic genius. Tom makes a wrong turn in an old house and ends up in a rat lair, and before he can make head or tail of the situation, his coat is pulled off and he is rolled up in a bundle, and tied with string in very hard knots. The kid(cat)napper rats (named Samuel and Anna Maria) then decide to turn terrified Tom into a roly-poly pudding. ‘Borrowing’ ingredients and implements from the house (butter, dough, a saucer and a rolling pin), the rats smear Tom with butter and roll him into the dough while their victim bites, spits, mews and wriggles in justified protest. Undeterred, old-man rat Samuel Whiskers says to his wife, “Will not the string be very indigestible, Anna Maria?…His tail is sticking out! You did not fetch enough dough Anna Maria…I do not think it will be a good pudding. It smells sooty”. The punctilious tone of Potter’s words, which was typical of the relational conventions prescribed the ‘polite society’ that governed the early twentieth century, lends itself to much hilarity. And the story ending – an unlikely ode to feminism: Moppet and Mittens, Tom’s strapping sisters, grow up into two ass-kicking rat catchers – hanging up the tails of their victims on the barn door as testament to their achievement and as a warning.Uh…yup, pretty gross.
Samuel and Anna Maria are poignant horror rapscallions but they don’t come close to the gravitas of arch villain Mr McGregor, who invokes a humdinger of a chase (worthy of Jason, Freddy, Ghostface…any of horror’s stalwart villains) that takes us back The Tale of Peter Rabbit. So…McGregor spots Peter rabbit chowing down lustily on some veg and the enraged farmer gives chase. Peter loses both his shoes and gets stuck in a gooseberry net but has no time to wallow in his rapidly rolling tears because McG sneaks up with a sieve, which he intends to “pop upon the top of Peter” – Stephen King Dome style. But Peter escapes, hiding in a watering can that so happens to be filled with water (fail). The rabbit attempts to quieten his shivers whilst McG turns over flower pot after flower pot until poor Peter eventually emits an unavoidable sneeze. But you know horror villains – supersonic hearing and all…so McG thunders on over, readying himself to “put his foot upon Peter” but misses as the rabbit leaps out of the window. Horror villains also never die and as soon as Peter sits down to rest – damp, out of breath, trembling, frightened and with not the least idea which way to go – McG resurfaces (of course he does), coming after the rabbit with a rake. Peter is quick – never stopping to look behind him until he gets home to the big fir-tree. But McG has the final word; hanging up the rabbit’s little jacket and the shoes as a scarecrow to frighten the blackbirds (or rabbits).
(Scarecrows, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Night of the Scarecrow, Psycho Scarecrow, Scarecrow Killer…right?)
Thanks to a dose of mom and chamomile tea, Peter doesn’t come off too badly although he does miss out on milk and blackberries for supper – the consequence of disobedience. Divert from the path and trouble awaits – it could be a chainsaw, an acid-dripping Xenomorph or a rabbit-eating farmer. Make no mistake, Potter means business:
“He went back towards the tool-shed, but suddenly, quite close to him, he heard the noise of a hoe – scr-r-ritch, scratch, scratch, scritch. Peter scuttered underneath the bushes.”
This sentence could easily come right out of The Babadook. Except it’s Beatrix Potter! Provincial princess. Animal loving conservationist – Beatrix Potter! – Who takes that which is ‘innocent’ or seemingly innocuous and imbues it with terror-invoking strangeness, placing her readers at the mercy of her formidable words. Yet the perhaps-strange thing is; kids don’t seem particularly upset by all the villainy and violence that goes down in Potter’s tales. And isn’t this the very thing that makes her stories so accomplished; so loved? Potter’s creatures intrigue, teach and entertain young readers, who as adults, will revisit the stories with their own children…appreciating the unexpected dark humour, marvelling at the innate horror and wondering why their little ones aren’t having nightmares when they sure as heck should be!