With the news that a "lost" Beatrix Potter story is coming out later this year, it seems a good time to hop back into her first story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Here’s more about the naughty bunny who got caught sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s garden.
1. BEATRIX POTTER OWNED A RABBIT NAMED PETER.
Yes, there was a real Peter Rabbit. He was a Belgian buck rabbit named Peter Piper. He was actually the second rabbit that Potter kept as a pet—the first was Benjamin Bouncer, who was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny. They were part of a menagerie of animals that Potter and her brother adopted as children, which also included birds, lizards, mice, snakes, snails, guinea pigs, bats, dogs, cats, and even hedgehogs.
Potter was especially fond of Peter Piper, and would take him on walks on a leash. She later described in a letter how he liked to lie in front of the fire “like a cat. He was clever at learning tricks, he used to jump through a hoop, and ring a bell, and play the tambourine.” In one of her personal editions of Peter Rabbit, Potter wrote an inscription dedicated to “poor old Peter Rabbit, who died on the 26th of January 1901. … An affectionate companion and a quiet friend.”
2. THE STORY FIRST APPEARED IN A LETTER TO A FRIEND'S SON.
Potter originally wrote about Peter Rabbit in 1893 to entertain 5-year-old Noel Moore, who was ill. He was the son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter’s friend and former governess. The letter begins: “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.” What follows is much of the original story of Peter Rabbit, complete with first drafts of illustrations that later made it into the book.
3. SHE HONED HER DRAWING SKILLS WHILE STUDYING NATURE.
Potter’s beautiful illustrations came from her interest in the natural world. As a child, she would draw and sketch animals around her with a sharp, observing eye. She could be quite ruthless about it, in fact. When a pet died, she would skin and boil its body so she could use the skeleton for anatomical sketches. She studied the plant world as well, producing over 300 paintings of mushrooms by 1901. (Her study of mushrooms led Potter to submit a paper on spore reproduction to the Linnean Society of London. But it had to be read by botanist George Massee because women weren't allowed at the meetings.) All this practice and close observation led to her elegant style, where animals look real even though they’re wearing top hats and petticoats.
4. PETER RABBIT WAS ORIGINALLY SELF-PUBLISHED.
After Potter sent the Moore children (including Noel's siblings Norah and Eric) two more illustrated letters, one about a squirrel named Nutkin and another about a frog named Jeremy Fisher, the children's mother, Annie, suggested she turn them into children’s books. So Potter reworked Peter Rabbit, doubling its length and adding 25 new illustrations. Six publishers rejected the story, in part because they didn’t agree with Potter’s vision for the work. She wanted the book to be small for children’s hands, and the publishers wanted it to be bigger, and therefore more expensive. Potter refused, explaining that she would rather make two or three books costing 1 shilling each than one big book because “little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings on one book, and would never buy it.” In December 1901, she self-published Peter Rabbit. The 200 copies sold out in a few months and she ordered a reprint.
5. TO HELP PETER RABBIT GET PUBLISHED, A FRIEND REWROTE IT AS A POEM.
While Potter was self-publishing, Canon Rawnsley, a family friend, rewrote the story in rhyming couplets in an attempt to get publishers interested again. His version began: “There were four little bunnies/ no bunnies were sweeter/ Mopsy and Cotton-tail,/ Flopsy and Peter.'' Rawnsley submitted his text with Potter’s illustrations to the publishers Frederick Warne & Co. They agreed to publish the book, but with one stipulation—they wanted to use Potter’s simpler language.
The Tale Of Peter Rabbit came out in October 1902. Within a year, it was in its sixth printing. When Potter heard that it had been printed 56,500 times, she replied: “The public must be fond of rabbits! What an appalling quantity of Peter.”
6. THE BOOK LED POTTER TO LOVE, AND THEN TO TRAGEDY.
When Peter Rabbit came out, Potter was 36 years old. She worked closely with her editor, Norman Warne, on it and several other books. The two became very close and in July 1905, Warne proposed marriage, even though Potter’s parents objected to his social position. They didn’t want their upper-class daughter to marry a man who worked in a “trade.” Still, Potter accepted his proposal. One month later, Warne fell sick and died of a blood disorder that was probably undiagnosed leukemia. Afterward, Potter remained unmarried for many years. Finally, in 1913, she married William Heelis, a lawyer. Her family objected to him, too.
7. PETER RABBIT WAS THE FIRST CHARACTER TO BE FULLY MERCHANDISED.
And it was Beatrix Potter’s idea. In 1903, seeing the popularity of Peter Rabbit, she began to sew a doll version for Warne’s niece, writing, “'I am cutting out calico patterns of Peter, I have not got it right yet, but the expression is going to be lovely; especially the whiskers—(pulled out of a brush!)” She patented the doll, making Peter Rabbit the oldest licensed character. It was followed by Peter Rabbit games, figurines, wallpaper, blankets, and tea sets. The merchandising helped make Peter Rabbit into a popular icon and turned The World of Beatrix Potter™ into one of the biggest literature-based licensing organizations of its day.
8. WALT DISNEY WANTED TO MAKE A PETER RABBIT MOVIE.
Around the time of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney approached Potter about making an animated version of Peter Rabbit. Potter refused. Some accounts say this was because she wanted to remain in control of the rights to her work. Others suggest that she didn’t think her drawings were good enough for large-scale animation, which she thought would reveal all their imperfections.
9. PETER RABBIT APPEARS IN OTHER BOOKS TOO—INCLUDING THE NEW ONE.
Peter was one of Potter’s reoccurring characters. He appears in The Tale(s) of: Benjamin Bunny; The Flopsy Bunnies; Mr. Tod; Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle; and Ginger and Pickles. On top of that, Peter is said to be in the newly rediscovered book, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots. According to the publisher, Peter is now older, “full-of-himself” and has “transformed into a rather portly buck rabbit."