There is no other series that transports me instantaneously to my childhood like that of Beatrix Potter.
My main BP memory is of being tucked up in bed at my grandparents’ house, in flannelette sheets and with a feathered pillow and eiderdown. My Papa is reading me and my sister one of the small format Beatrix Potter books…
Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were––
They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree.
Papa had a unique storytelling style, and he used lots of dramatic tonal variation in his renditions of these stories. Sometimes he would make up new narrative and dialogue. (I remember that I would get quite annoyed when he did this – I just wanted him to read the story ‘properly’!) But what is obvious to me now is that he got an enormous amount of joy from reading these books to us.
A little shelf of the Peter Rabbit books were kept on a dresser in the room that we always stayed in at my grandparents’ house. As much as I remember being read the stories, I also remember reading the books myself, selecting different volumes from that little shelf.
Mum later told me that BEFORE these books were at my grandparents’ house, they lived at my mum’s grandmother’s house. By my calculations this makes them at least 50-odd years old. First read by my mum and her sisters, then by me, my sisters and cousins, this is one well-loved set of books.
After my Nana died, just 6 days after Rowan was born, my Mum passed on to Rowan the set of books, still enclosed in the same set of shelves.
So Rowan is now the lucky guardian. At some stage, we will have to see if we can get some preservation work done on the books – undoing the well-intentioned scars of sticky tape. Hopefully we can ensure they last long enough to be passed on to his grandchildren too.
Beatrix Potter first self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, based on a story she’d written in a letter to the five-year-old son of her governess. In that story she invented an exquisite and believable world of animal characters and the stories of their interactions with human characters. She broke many conventions of her time, and – I think – she inspired many other great pieces of children’s literature. The first book was later picked up by publisher Frederick Warne & Co, and by the end of 1902, 28,000 copies were in print. It’s hard to believe, but a soft toy of Peter Rabbit was produced just a year later, in 1903, which makes Peter the oldest known licensed character!
The joy of Peter Rabbit lives on – there are countless editions of the series now, in every available format. For me, it represents the most timeless children’s series of them all. It seems like perfect reading for the lead-up to Easter, and I will be sharing the tales of Peter Rabbit, the Flopsy Bunnies and Benjamin Bunny with Rowan over the next couple of weeks – and I might not be able to resist an imitation of one of Papa’s dramatic renditions.