Beatrix Potter and her pet mouse, Xarifa, in 1885. (Reproduced with the kind permission of The Lloyd E. Cotsen Collection of Beatrix Potter, Cotsen Children’s Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University)
Deep in the wooden bowels of the storage units of the Children’s Rare Book Collection at Homerton College Library is what may (slightly remotely, but possibly!) be the same copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit that Beatrix Potter and Norman Warne first picked up, hot off the press, in October 1902. The first in a series of books that occupies a momentous place in both children’s literature and the literary world as a whole, here we look at the story of its author and how the publishing of this book led her to love – and ultimately loss.
With his white fluffy tail and blue jacket, Peter Rabbit, the mischievous anthropomorphic bunny that gets chased away from Mr McGregor’s vegetable patch, was the brain-child of brilliant Englishwoman Helen Beatrix Potter. Born into a wealthy household in Kensington in 1866, famous writers and artists would frequent the Potter home, and Beatrix grew up enjoying regular visits to museums and lengthy holidays in Scotland. But she was also unhappy and lonely. ‘Entry after entry in her journal breathes a depth of gloom’, biographer Sarah Gristwood commented.
She spent much of her childhood and adolescence in isolation from her peers, spending time with her menagerie of animals (which included a hedgehog, mice and a frog), and her governesses, one of whom, Annie Moore, became a close friend.
Encouraged by her artistic family, she grew up sketching animals and still life with her brother, Bertram, and took exams at art school. Beatrix matured into a gifted naturalist and artist, and was ahead of her time in some of her work; even today mycologists consult her drawings of fungi, which were once presented to the Linnean Society. She studied relentlessly: she was, as biographer Linda Lear points out, ‘intellectually restless and keenly observant of both nature and society’.
In her mid-twenties she began to earn a modest income from illustrating, and in 1893 her famous picture letter to Annie’s Moore’s five-year-old son Noel (‘…I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits…’) would later form the basis of her first book, which she had privately printed in 1901 after being rejected by several publishers. One of the firms that rejected her was Frederick Warne and Co., and it was Norman Warne who wrote to Potter in December 1901 asking her to work with him on the ‘bunny book’. He wanted bright colour illustrations (and 32 drawings instead of 42) and a shorter text. Potter agreed, and Peter’s commercial publishing journey began in earnest.
Beatrix was passionate about her tale and its production. She wanted a book which stressed the equal importance of text and illustration: uncluttered and simple yet vibrant and powerful.
Mr. McGregor tries ‘to put his foot upon Peter’.
Her knowledge of printing processes and her critical eye – from commenting on galley proofs to her famous preference for ‘restful’ endpapers – endeared Norman. Their early correspondence was rather technical, though. A letter from Norman and Beatrix’s reply, from January 1902, for example, consist together of nearly 30 lines and essentially talk only of the specifics of printing blocks and colourings. Their letters reveal, though, a wonderfully – almost beautifully – constructive dialogue. In one, Beatrix suggests to Norman whether Peter should be facing towards the binding in the cover illustration. As we can see from the front cover, it remained as before.
Potter would agonise over the form and design of illustrations and binding, making light, for example, in a June 1902 letter to Norman, of some ‘white paint on the leaves behind the wheelbarrow’, suggesting Norman could ‘wipe it off’ if he didn’t like it.
‘[S]ince Beatrix Potter was willing to prepare coloured illustrations throughout, they decided to accept The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ – Linder.
After many months of work, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902.
In their correspondence we can see not only frank business exchanges and agonisingly detailed technical discussions, but glimpses of Potter’s personal trials, a window into the life of a Victorian daughter-at-home in a cultured yet Unitarian household.
In a letter dated May 22nd 1902, for example, Potter speaks very candidly about her father and makes a reference to being 36 years old and still having him trying to run her life.
And even in 1904 she confesses to Norman that she ‘hardly ever [goes] out’ and that her mother’s ‘exacting’ way was wearing her out.
As well as a sound business relationship a friendship was clearly growing, too, and Linder comments that their letters were ‘becoming more personal’ around July 1902. They moved, perhaps tellingly for this era, from addressing one another in letters as ‘madam’ and ‘sir’ at the start of negotiations for Peter Rabbit, to ‘Mr Warne’ and ‘Miss Potter’ by the time a book deal was concluded in 1902. They conducted, according to Norman’s niece, Winifred, ‘the strangest courtship’, which consisted of almost constant letters and never at any time being alone together. It was, though, during their collaboration on Two Bad Mice that their fondness for one another became ‘increasingly intimate and loving’.
Norman proposed to Beatrix by letter in 1905, which she accepted. This caused a storm in the Potter household. They did not want her to marry ‘into trade’, as the Potters themselves were a family who’d made their fortune in trade and were eager to move away from their commercial roots. His death in 1905 – from a short illness, while he was in London and she was in Wales – hit her hard and she was ‘grief-stricken and solitary’. Shortly after this, she bought Hill Top Farm, in the Lake District, an area where she’d dreamed of setting up a marital home with Norman.
Letters to Millie, Norman’s sister, in the years following his death, indicate a painful longing for Norman which would never go away. Though she wore her wedding ring from William Heelis, whom she married in 1913, she also wore her engagement ring from Norman, and was buried with it.
She wrote to Millie: ‘I try to think of the golden sheaves, and harvest […] he did not live long but fulfilled a useful happy life.’
Beatrix Potter died in 1943, and to date her works have sold over 100 million copies worldwide.
Homerton’s first edition. The binding came in both brown and grey – ‘rabbit’-like shades.
Homerton’s copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit is certainly from one of the first three printings of the first trade edition, published between October and December 1902. There are several ways we can tell this from looking at our copy. Firstly, any copies with ‘Ltd’ after the name of the publisher date from a later period, as Warne was not incorporated until 1919. Secondly, the letters ‘o’ on the front cover should have dots in the centres. Our copy does. We can see, on page 51, the famous change in the text: the line ‘wept big tears’ was changed after the third printing to ‘shed big tears’. A photograph of this page in our copy is shown below.
Page 51 of our copy.
A product of the brilliant work of Beatrix Potter, publisher Warne and printer Edmund Evans, this scarce, valuable first edition of this major work represents a milestone in the history of children’s literature and book illustration.
If you would like to view this item or any other item in the rare book collection, please ask a member of library staff.
Gristwood, Sarah. The story of Beatrix Potter. London: National Trust, 2016.
Kutzer, M. Daphne. Beatrix Potter: Writing in code. London: Routledge, 2003.
Lear, Linda J. Beatrix Potter: A life in nature. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
Linder, Leslie. A history of the writings of Beatrix Potter. London: Frederick Warne, 1971.
The world’s largest collection of material by and about Beatrix Potter is the Beatrix Potter Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum:
Homerton has over 60 books in total either by or about Beatrix Potter, most of them borrowable. In the Children’s Rare Book Collection, in addition to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Homerton also has a first edition of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. We have several other early copies of some of her 23 Tales.
James Brigden, April 2018.