Beatrix Potter was always frank about the violence and amorality of the natural world. In the year that Jemima Puddle-Duck turns 100, have we missed the point about her stories?
Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddle-Duck is 100 years old this year and to mark the occasion publisher Frederick Warne has released a special collector’s edition of The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck with a shiny gold cover. Potter herself was a practical and forthright woman whose abilities as a farmer and land manager helped invent the English Lake District as it exists today. She favoured conservation, but was also committed to the idea of the countryside as a living and working place.
Now though the most visible aspect of the Potter legacy is soft-focus nostalgia, with an emphasis on a ‘Beatrix Potter experience’ of cuddly talking animals and home decoration. Potter’s stories and the characters she created have become big business and her pretty illustrations have made marketing the brand easy. What’s not to like, after all, about a picture of Peter Rabbit on a tea towel, Jeremy Fisher casting his rod on a scented notelet, or the venerable duck herself recreated as a china figurine? I love the Lake District and I spend as much time there as I can, but this aspect of it drives me crazy.
It is probably inevitable that the Potter industry should be more interested in the nostalgic sheen of her drawings than the stories themselves, because as anyone who has actually read them will know, violence and death are everywhere in the books. They also appear in much more realistic ways than in regular fairytales. So for instance Mr McGregor really does want to put Peter Rabbit in a pie, and it will be a real pie with a real rabbit in it. When Tommy Brock the badger makes off with the Flopsy Bunnies, and plans to eat them, it isn’t a metaphor for something else.
As if the immediate threat of being snuffed out were not enough, Potter’s readers also learn distinctly adult existential lessons about mortality and fertility. The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck is a case in point. Jemima is charmed by a ‘foxy-whiskered gentleman’ to attend a dinner party at which she is to be the main course. So far, so much good advice for naive Edwardian girls. But another life lesson comes at the end of the story, when Jemima’s rescuers, the foxhound puppies, eat her eggs before Kep the collie can stop them.
Potter’s own childlessness may well be tied up in Jemima Puddle-Duck’s efforts to raise a family. Having ‘rescued’ her from what they believed was a bad match, Potter’s parents condemned their daughter to a childless future. Looking back at her life as she wrote the book in middle age, perhaps Potter saw herself, like Jemima, as a ‘simpleton’ who had made bad choices. Jemima Puddle-Duck goes on to lay more eggs of course, but only four of them hatch because ‘she had always been a bad sitter’.
It is a shame that the softer side of Beatrix Potter’s stories has come to dominate the landscape around her reputation. For me one of the most attractive things about her books is their balance of vulnerable fluffy bunny rabbits and hungry foxes. Realism is part of their charm and many of the stories are explicit about the animals’ human qualities being a fantasy. Mrs. Tiggywinkle is nothing more than a hedgehog at the end of her tale and in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter loses his clothes and becomes just another frightened animal on the run.
Whether or not the Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck is a rueful reflection by Potter on her own life, it is certainly a tough and disturbing story that is only partially softened by the gentle prettiness of the illustrations. Of course it is important that children should realise that not everyone has their best interests at heart. But it is the casual violence of the eaten eggs, and Kep’s stoic indifference as Jemima is ‘escorted home in tears’, that makes this story so wonderful and so chilling. Children can take it, even if the Potter industry would rather not think about it.