“Never does anyone outside your perfidiously complimentary nation write to tell me that I write good prose.”
But Miss Bertha Mahony (who had founded a Bookshop for Boys and Girls in Boston in 1916) had written to that effect, and Beatrix Potter--author, after all, as well as artist-illustrator of her “little books” for children--was pleased enough by the compliment to put down on paper for Miss Mahony some thoughts about her way of writing.
She enjoyed writing, she said, so she took pains over it. She disliked writing to order but preferred to please herself. “My usual way of writing,” she went on, “is to scribble, and cut out, and write it again and again. The shorter and plainer the better. And read the Bible (unrevised version and Old Testament) if I feel my style wants chastening.”
It’s a craftsman’s analysis, typically blunt and unpretentious. Potter was unpretentious. In fact if there is a common theme to just about everything she wrote, it might be the deflation of pretension.
The same was true with her pictures. She cried “Bosh!” when someone tried to fit her art into the English tradition of landscape painting that included Samuel Palmer and John Constable. She wasn’t just being modest (as some of her devotees think): She was quite right. She greatly admired Constable, and knew that her meticulous and delightful illustrations didn’t come (or try to come) remotely into the same category. She knew exactly what art had influenced her, though, and said so: the pre-Raphaelites and the fruit-and-flower pieces of William Henry Hunt.
But what she liked about American reactions to her writing, and her books as a whole, was not merely the praise, but the fact that Americans took children’s literature seriously. It mattered to them that it should be good. It wasn’t just trivial toy-making. Potter seemed to feel her fellow Englishmen refused to be as serious about it.
Perhaps she wasn’t being entirely fair. Her books were remarkably popular in her native land, and not, surely, even initially, only with children. Like many children’s classics, they can have an almost greater attraction to grown-ups than to the smaller people for whom they are purportedly written.
Physically constructed to be held by small children, her books nevertheless often seem to have been written with the assumption that they would be read to the child by an adult. Potter’s language; her memorable phrases; the development of her narratives; her prose, with its cadences and rhythm, love of alliteration, onomatopoeia, and choice of the apt word, were undoubtedly part of her appeal to adults.
Although she had immediate rapport with children, she actually wrote as an adult. Her manner of writing so often carries undertones of rather subtle irony: Her tone of voice continually breaks through. And, particularly, her vocabulary is spiced with such deliberately adult words as soporific, affronted, resourceful, disdainful, and in that wonderful sentence of Jemima Puddle-Duck’s-- superfluous.
“Jemima,” we read, “complained of the superfluous hen"--the hen, that is, who had been employed to hatch her eggs because she was such “a bad sitter.” Jemima, in her poke bonnet and shawl (ducks look daft in clothes), you can be absolutely certain, would not have herself used the word superfluous, any more than a child would; after all, as Potter observes with characteristic directness and justice, her heroine was a “simpleton.”
In 1933, a highly regarded novelist--an Englishman--did write an essay for the London Mercury in which he gave considered attention to Potter as a writer. This was Graham Greene. His essay has just been republished in “The Hutchinson Book of Essays.” Greene strikes a balance in this assessment of Potter the writer between humor and indubitable admiration.
If he compares her with E. M. Forster, with Henry James, and even finally with Shakespeare (in terms of her development from comedy via near-tragedy to her final “Tempest,” “Little Pig Robinson”) he does so with his tongue only slightly in his cheek, and is making as much fun of these writers as he is of her. In fact, as his autobiography notes, he has himself on several occasions echoed Potter in his own writings, and he suggests that H. G. Wells at least once did likewise. (The only problem with Greene’s essay is that he overlooked the fact that “Little Pig Robinson” was not her final work at all; published as the last of her little books in 1930, it was actually one of the first stories she wrote.)
Greene also concluded, from the way in which her books became more pessimistic, that “some time between 1907 and 1909, Miss Potter must have passed through an emotional ordeal which changed the character of her genius. . . .” Something “happened that shook (her) faith in appearance.”
Once again Potter cried “Bosh!” and the rather “acid” letter Greene received from her apparently indicated no appreciation of Greene’s appreciation, which is a great pity because it was genuine and basically serious. She denied his “emotional disturbance” theory, and “she deprecated sharply ‘the Freudian school’ of criticism,” Greene notes. Nevertheless, the fact is that she had gone through a difficult period--though it was earlier than Greene’s dates--when her fiance had suddenly died. Maybe this affected the tone of her work, maybe not.
What Greene, however, overlooks is that Beatrix Potter really had never had “faith in appearance.” Her stories had said precisely that from the start, over and over again. The symbol she had used was dress.
In an essay first published last year, “The Subversive Element in Beatrix Potter,” Humphrey Carpenter goes into Potter’s writing with great depth. He continually, among many other illuminating points, refers in passing to Potter’s use of clothes as “symbols of social pretension.” He might possibly have emphasized this as a more central theme, a real issue in her writing.
Perhaps he didn’t because in this aspect of her many-layered tales, it is no longer possible to separate the writing from the pictures. After all, the ingenious interdependence between image and word is one of her tales’ chief delights--it is almost a dialogue in itself.
Without the space here to detail it, I would recommend a study of the Potter Tales from the clothes’ point of view--from Peter Rabbit losing his under Mr. McGregor’s gate, via Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle washing just about everybody’s, to Tom Kitten’s bursting buttons, to Thomasina Tittlemouse’s Christmas present for rescuing the Flopsy Bunnies (enough rabbit wool for a cloak, hood, muff, and mittens).
Potter’s favorite story, “The Tailor of Gloucester,” which many commentators have isolated from the others as being quite different, falls centrally into place when considered as another, indeed primary, story about the symbolic character of clothes. What her animal characters wear or don’t wear (and when) is crucial: It’s what makes them, one might say, human--since that is precisely the chief fantasy, (humor, absurdity, and meaning) of her stories.
There is no doubt from Potter’s journal that she was fascinated by clothes and what they indicate about people in them. She was particular in her tales about appropriateness of dress, or the right time in a story for animals to return to a state of nature. She criticized Kenneth Grahame, author of “Wind in the Willows,” for allowing Toad to have hair. Galoshes (which her Jeremy Fisher wears, and a Mackintosh, which saves his life) are permissible; but frogs and toads don’t have hair and that’s that.
One or two of her stories are not concerned with clothes at all--Squirrel Nutkin for instance--but most are, and they are mainly the “comedies.” By the time of her late “near-tragedy,” “The Tale of Mr. Tod,” her pictures still show her characters--two of them extremely “disagreeable"--in clothes, but the story itself doesn’t mention them at all. Her “people-animals” have virtually become animal-animals. The threatening, savage side of nature--which was always there under the pretense and make-believe in the earlier tales--is now fully out in the open.
This change paralleled her life. She had gradually freed herself from the suffocating pretensions of her upper-middle-class parents, and gained independence. What did she do instead of writing fairy stories about dressed-up animals? She farmed--with real animals. She found that working with real animals took away her fantasies about storybook animals.
Pictures of Potter as a farmer in the Lake District in the last happy 30 years of her life show a distinct lack of concern for niceties of attire. Such societal pretensions had become “superfluous.” Symbolically, like the independent Peter, she had squeezed under the symbolic gate in her determination to escape captivity. Unless, of course, such a notion is altogether too . . . Freudian.