07 December 2012

The dark side of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter, despite the efforts of Graham Greene and many others, is still tarred with a certain National Trust tweeness, even though her tales of murder and separation are among the darkest if funniest books ever written. Those books would be nothing without their illustrations, and in her masterpiece, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, she should have firmly established herself in a direct line of gothic illustrators stretching from Fuseli and Blake to Mervyn Peake. This picture, of Tom Kitten being turned into a roly-poly pudding, is among the funniest yet also most terrifying illustrations of the 20th century.[Martin Rowson]
Text and image from a gallery of writers' favourite classic book illustrations posted at The Guardian.  I was unaware of this supposed "dark side," but found two relevant commentaries, the first in a Guardian column in 2006:
The Tale of Tom Kitten does not teach adventurous disobedience; rather it tells us that disobedience is punished with violence. Or this, at least, is what I thought when I flung the book across the room in disgust (only, intrigued, to pick it up again soon after).

Tom Kitten and his siblings are smacked and sent to bed for their notional disgrace. Worse yet, when they continue romping in the bedroom, they disturb what Potter calls the "dignity and repose of the tea party". Can the reader who finishes the book rest easy that subversive Tom has triumphed? No: the fact is Tabitha Twitchit thrashes her children for losing their clothes. Imagine what grisly fate will befall them when she stomps upstairs from her ruined tea party! To her credit, Potter leaves the sadism of this neurotic to the imagination.
So far, my daughter and I have found Beatrix Potter to be a proselytiser for sadistic punishment, a sartorial fascist, a property-upholding reactionary, an obsessive-compulsive nutcase (or rather nut-kin) and, conceivably, a bystander in the face of an intolerable natural dystopia that, with her sick (though gifted) writer's mind, she culpably imagined. As an adult reader, I must say, I'm beginning to like her.
And this at Wig and Pen:
Use discretion when reading Beatrix Potter to your children. In almost every Potter tale, her main characters—everyone from Peter Rabbit to Jemima Puddle Duck—flirt with mortal danger...

The Silence of the Lambs has nothing on Potter’s description of the house and yard [in The Tale of Mr. Tod]:

The house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pigsty. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked. [In the yard] there were many unpleasant things lying about that had much better have been buried: rabbit bones and skulls, and chickens’ legs and other horrors. It was a shocking place and very dark.
Peeking through a window, Benjamin and Peter discovered that Tommy Brock had retired for the night after stashing the brood—still alive and kicking--in an oven for safekeeping and for his next meal.
I have no personal insights to offer, not having read any of the canon.  Knowledgeable readers should feel free to offer comments.


  1. There used to be a tv show with people dressed up I believe, and I used to be really creeped out by it when I was little. So much so that I had a nightmare one night because of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. I dreamt that the owl in the story came down the hallways to my open door, came into my room and ripped my foot off like he did Squirrel Nutkin's tail. So yeah, not a fan of Beatrix Potter.
    -Avid reader of TYWKIWDBI.

  2. Just like the Brothers Grimm, Beatrix Potter (who drew those animals so well because she had dissected some and boiled others down to their bones when she was a girl) gives children tales of life and death, which are fascinating for them. My kids enjoyed the books mightily, but were nervous when the tales were animated for TV.

  3. The 1971 British Royal Ballet production of the Tales of Beatrix Potter, available on DVD, is a must for Beatrix Potter fans, and I'm a fan. Guns in "The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit," violence in "The Tale of Two Bad Mice!" What could be better for children?


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