Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Today In Literary History - Beatrix Potter Publishes Peter Rabbit

On December 16, 1901, Beatrix Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Potter had been turned down by every publisher she submitted to as none of them thought anyone would want to read a story about a rabbit. In the end, Potter financed the first edition of her book – 250 copies, with her own black-and-white illustrations – herself and sold them at a half-penny each. Well, the publishers were wrong because within a few weeks, another two hundred copies were needed, and within a year, Potter had a deal with a major publisher for a first printing of 8,000 copies. Today, more than forty million copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a book beloved by so millions, have been sold around the world, and it’s been translated into almost every language. A first edition of the traditionally published 1902 edition will cost approximately $20,000, while a copy of Potter’s own self-published 1901 edition is expected to fetch at least $70,000 at an upcoming auction.

Beatrix Potter made the right decision when she decided to self-publish. She made quite a bit of money from her children’s books and from the industry that sprang up around Peter Rabbit. Potter, who wasn’t entranced by material luxuries, gave much of the money to charity, including the 4,000-acres of Lake District farmland and cottages she donated to Britain’s National Trust in her will. Potter began going to England’s beautiful Cumbrian Lake District when she was a teenager, on holiday with her family. At the age of forty-seven, she made a permanent move to the Lake District and married the local solicitor, who was helping her amass real estate in the region. At the time of her death, she had long given up writing in favor of conservation work, farming, and the raising of sheep, having become a true authority on the local breed, the Hardwick sheep.

Potter wrote many of her books at the enchanting Hill Top Farm, which is now the most popular stop in any Lake District tour. (It’s an even a bigger draw than Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage as more people seem acquainted with children’s books than with poetry.) However, Potter was not inclined to meet fans of her books while she was alive and living at Hill Top Farm. According to her good friend, D.H. Banner:

No humbug or affectation could approach. She refused to be lionized: and not very many of her unnumbered admirers penetrated her cottage garden, still less her cottage.... Her penetrating gaze could alarm the intrusive; but it was those eyes, which had observed the creatures that she drew with such a sure hand and such exquisite taste. Her solidity was the basis of her freedom from sentimentality.

From her mid-teens to the time of her marriage, Beatrix Potter kept a journal in code because she didn’t want her less-than-savory private thoughts to ever be made public. However, when needed, she could speak up as she did in this excerpt from a letter to her publisher:

If it were not too impertinent to lecture one's publisher – you are a great deal too much afraid of the public, for whom I have never cared one tuppenny button. I am sure that it is that attitude of mind, which has enabled me to keep up the series....

When it came to children, however, Potter had an entirely different attitude. In this famous letter sent to the son of her governess in 1893, Potter wrote:

My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write you so I shall tell you a story about four rabbits....

And we’re so glad she did.

Also, today in 1775, the great Jane Austen was born to George and Cassandra Austen. Happy 235th birthday, Jane!


Anya said...

Great entry. I have always been a huge fan of Peter Rabbit.

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...
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