To celebrate the release of Beatrix and her Bunnies by Rebecca Colby and Caroline Bonne Müller, we spoke to Liz MacFarlane, Collections and House Manager at Hill Top – Beatrix Potter’s Lake District home. Liz was a consultant on the book, which explores the author’s life and works for young readers. We asked Liz about Beatrix and her mischievous animal friends, including the real Peter Rabbit.
How did The Tale of Peter Rabbit first come about?
Beatrix first penned The Tale of Peter Rabbit in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the young son of her friend and former governess. It was September 1893 and Beatrix was holidaying in Scotland. It was a productive holiday – Noel’s brother, Eric, received a letter the next day featuring a certain Mr. Jeremy Fisher.
The Moore children treasured the letters Beatrix sent them. When their mother suggested Beatrix turn them into a book, she borrowed the letters to copy out and turn into a manuscript – we still have some of these copies in our collection – along with a series of black-and-white illustrations, which are recognisable from the drawings in Noel’s original letter.
What was the initial response to her stories? Were they well received?
Although Beatrix approached several publishers, no one was interested in her book about a naughty rabbit. Determined to see her work in print, she paid for 250 copies of a private edition to be produced in 1901, then another 200.
Publishers F. Warne & Co. became interested in her book. In October 1902, they published the first commercial edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, this time with coloured illustrations. By the end of that year over 28,000 copies had been printed – and they haven’t stopped since.
Can you tell us about Beatrix’s many pets? Was Peter Rabbit her favourite, do you think?
Beatrix had an amazing affinity with animals – it’s often claimed that she could tame almost any creature. As a child, she owned a bewildering array of pets – and some were kept secret from her parents! Along with dogs and rabbits, Beatrix and her brother, Bertram, kept lizards, frogs, a hedgehog, mice, bats, salamanders, guinea pigs, a white rat, a Barbary falcon and even a family of snails.
It's hard to say which was her favourite pet. In her youth, she was especially fond of the family’s spaniel, Spot, but also of Mrs. Tiggy, her hedgehog, and Hunca Munca, a tame mouse. In later life, there were guinea pigs and Pekinese dogs, which she found excellent companions.
What about the other characters in her stories, such as Benjamin Bunny? Were they based on real animals, too?
Benjamin Bouncer – or ‘Bounce’– was a real pet rabbit and quite a character. He would walk about on his hind legs, come running for hot buttered toast if he heard the tea bell ring, and beg for peppermints from Beatrix’s father and friends.
The Tale of Pigling Bland is also based on the pigs Beatrix and her farm manager, John Canon, reared at Hill Top. When Beatrix went to collect a litter of piglets she was buying from another farmer, she saw a tiny piglet in the corner of the pen. The farmer would not sell this small, weaker pig as he knew Canon would not want it. But Beatrix insisted on taking it along with the others.
When Canon refused to accept the tiny piglet, Beatrix obstinately swore to take care of it herself. The piglet slept in a basket by her bed and followed her about the farm, becoming the inspiration for the delightful character of Pigwig who runs away with Pigling Bland.
" Although Beatrix maintained the tale was not autobiographical, the parallels between Pigling and Pigwig’s daring escape and her own life are significant. Written at the time of her marriage to local solicitor William Heelis, it is tempting to see the two pigs, arm in arm, looking out across the green valleys of Westmorland as an image of her own happy ending."
Was there a real Mr. McGregor? If so, can you tell us a bit about the story behind that character? Why does he appear so mean?
Beatrix said that Mr. McGregor was not particularly based on anyone, though there was a rather lazy gardener at their Scottish holiday home – apparently he used to lie on his front to weed the path.
In the illustrations, Mr. McGregor resembles Charlie McIntosh, the postman at Dunkeld, where the Potter family often stayed in the summer. Charlie was a keen naturalist and helped Beatrix when she later went on to study fungi.
Why does he appear so mean? You just need to ask Pete, our Gardener at Hill Top, about that. He says Mr. McGregor gets bad press, but anyone who has seen the damage rabbits can do would feel much the same. Pete has spent countless hours trying to keep the rabbits out of Hill Top’s vegetable garden, without much success – and I’ve spent many early mornings watching them help themselves to his lettuces.
Can you tell us about the original collections the National Trust look after at Hill Top and The Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead?
Beatrix left an amazing legacy to the nation. Today we look after the furniture and objects in the house, as well as a large collection of artwork, photographs, letters, journals and manuscripts. It’s interesting that Beatrix chose to place certain items within Hill Top, to keep it looking as it did in her stories.
You can still see the rat holes that Anna Maria and Samuel Whiskers used in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers and the doll’s house furniture stolen by Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb in The Tale of Two Bad Mice – but probably the strangest item is the pelt of Benjamin Bunny.
And do you have a favourite item in the collections?
There are so many treasures in the collection, it’s hard to pick just one. As a child, my favourite story was The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher. Despite working with the collection for over 20 years, the original illustrations still take my breath away, especially the waterlilies. Even the smallest details, such as the snail in Mr. Jeremy’s larder, show off Beatrix’s ability to capture the unexpected beauty in the natural world.