The Tale of Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) created a cast of well-loved children's characters. But she also began the trend for selling cuddly animal toys based on her creations. That trend is hugely common today. When a new, cute animal character appears in a film or a book, merchandising pops up all over the place, which fans rush to buy.
Potter started all this in England in the early 1920s with her character, Peter Rabbit. Today, Peter and his friends still appear on T-shirts in Temple Street, fine crockery in New York and as figurines and stuffed toys in gift and children's shops from Sham Shui Po to Sydney. Peter is very much a classic star, and in 2012, he celebrates his 110th birthday.
A lonely little girl
Born into a rich and privileged family in London in 1866, Potter was home-schooled by a string of governesses and private tutors. She was a shy and lonely little girl with a reserved personality. As she was growing up, she seldom met people outside her home.
However, Potter loved to draw, and she was very interested in nature, which she studied from pictures in books. Sometimes she kept small animals such as mice or rabbits in her bedroom. She made sketches of her little pets and gave them all names.
A teenage talent
Potter's father saw no need to give his daughter a real education, but he did recognise her talent for sketching, and employed a woman to give her drawing lessons. When the family went on trips to the countryside, she brought dead animals back home so she could study their skeletons and body structure.
On rare trips outside the family home, Potter went to the Natural History Museum in London, spending hours drawing plants and stuffed animals. Sometimes she sketched her pet animals dressed in clothes and doing things people did. Her young cousins and other children the Potters knew loved these drawings and encouraged her to do more.
Potter was not unhappy with her childhood, later saying: "Thank goodness I was never sent to school. It would have rubbed off some of the originality."
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
When she was 27, Potter wrote the first draft of The Tale of Peter Rabbit as an illustrated letter to the son of a family friend. The little boy loved it. A small London publisher picked up the story in 1902, and the first commercial edition of Peter Rabbit went on sale in London bookshops. Peter is one of the few books in the world that has never been out of print since it was first published.
During the next 28 years, Potter wrote and illustrated another 22children's best-sellers. A woman ahead of her time, she patented a soft toy version of her most famous character, making Peter Rabbit the first character to be turned into a licensed toy.
"Once upon a time, there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter ..."
Although Potter wrote her books for children, her readership has always included teenagers and adults, who recognise the sophistication, wit and humour in her writing. She wrote with a great sense of comedy, poking fun at humans through the antics of her animal characters.
Potter was a keen observer of social behaviour and the absurd things humans get up to are gently parodied in her stories. She never patronised children, and often brought danger into her tales. Her animal characters were never too sweet or sentimental, and death was always lurking just around the corner in their adventures. The beautiful watercolour illustrations of the English countryside and Potter's animal characters were an essential part of her stories, not just an add-on. Potter is now widely celebrated for her artwork, as well as her storytelling skills.
If you don't know the books of Beatrix Potter, now is the time to release your inner child and enjoy ...
1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit
2. The Tale of Tom Kitten
3. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
4. The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck
5. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny
Also worth watching is the movie Miss Potter (filmed in 2006 and available on DVD) starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, which brings her story to life.