For a story to withstand the test of time, it needs to bring something special to the reader. It needs to have the power to captivate audiences far and wide. The ability to do so over 120 years – now that’s a rarity. But Beatrix Potter’s classic children’s tale, Peter Rabbit has done just that. Peter remains as recognisable a character as he did when he first appeared in one of Potter’s letters in 1893.
So, what is it about the writing of Beatrix Potter that has succeeded in captivating our attention for so long? From the beloved story to the charming illustrations, generations of children have fallen in love with this mischievous character. To mark the 120th anniversary of the book, we’re diving down the rabbit hole into the world of Beatrix Potter and asking – what makes her work quite so special?
120 years of Peter
We caught up with Sarah Melhuish from the World of Beatrix Potter Attraction to find out why this is such a big occasion.
“Beatrix Potter’s stories have an enduring appeal” she explains. “They are loved by children and also parents and grandparents who have enjoyed the books themselves as children. The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction welcomes many thousands of visitors through its doors each year who are fascinated by the world’s most famous rabbit. They say they like Peter Rabbit because of his ‘cuteness’ and because of his ‘Britishness’ so it is fantastic to be celebrating this year his 120 Years of Mischief!”
To get a deeper understanding of why this story has become such a classic, let’s take a step back in time to find out where it all began. Peter Rabbit was actually first thought up within the context of a letter, written by Beatrix Potter to cheer up her late Governess’ son, Noel. The letter told the tale of a tricksy rabbit, who would soon become a household name.
Despite the success we associate Peter Rabbit with now, the character was not an instant triumph. In fact, Potter had to self-publish the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901 after the book was turned down by multiple publishers. Resiliently, Potter decided to publish 250 copies herself, and a year later, the story was republished by Frederick Warne & Co. This time around, the endearing charm of Peter caught on, and the book had to be reprinted six times thanks to the surge of demand.
From that point on, Peter’s success has never wavered. Fast-forward 120 years and the beloved book has sold over 45 million copies and been translated into more than 45 languages.
However, the legacy of Beatrix Potter runs far deeper than book sales. Potter’s words, illustrations, and beliefs have had a huge impact on British culture.
The woman behind the wildlife
In learning more about the Tales of Peter Rabbit, we simply can’t ignore the creator – Beatrix Potter. Specifically, the things you might not have known about her.
For one, she didn’t just write about wildlife, but she also lived with it. As the story goes, Potter spent her childhood surrounded by a whole host of pets – some more usual than others.
Her collection included rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, mice, and even long-eared bats – one of which she chloroformed and stuffed as a teenager. Such scientific tendencies seem at odds with the flowery world of children’s picture books, but first and foremost as it seems, Potter was a dedicated naturalist.
As well as having a keen interest in animals, both alive and stuffed, she was invested in other elements of the natural world. She was a proud naturalist when women were still shut out of such intellectual circles – no matter what they had to offer.
Potter, being particularly fascinated by fungi, wrote the paper “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae”. It was presented at a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1897. Despite having written the paper herself, it was presented by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens as women were strictly forbidden from the all-male meetings.
Nature, landscape, and in particular, the Lake District were extremely important to Beatrix Potter according to Sarah Melhuish:
“Beatrix loved the Lake District and the landscape inspired her to write many of her stories. In later life, she became a prominent member of the farming community, and over the years she bought a large amount of local land with the aim of protecting and preserving it. She later bequeathed it to the National Trust.”
“Her legacy has helped ensure the survival of the Lake District she knew and loved.”
All in all, there was a lot more to Potter than her fiction. However, her fiction is why her name is still as relevant as ever today, and what will propel her legacy into the future.
From a picture book to a business empire
Peter Rabbit may have enjoyed mass fame in the early 1900s, but there was no stopping this boisterous character after that.
Over the years, there have been many different ways to lose yourself in the world of Beatrix Potter. As well as reading and re-reading the classic tales, Potter enthusiasts can now explore Peter Rabbit’s Garden at the World of Beatrix Potter Attraction in the Lake District. This year, guests can even celebrate Peter’s 120th birthday with a special anniversary show, which runs throughout the summer.
The story of Peter Rabbit has also been recreated time and time again since its initial publication. After the Peter Rabbit TV series launches in 2012, the franchise saw even more success with two movies released in 2018 and 2021, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Bryne, and James Corden.
The expansion of the franchise would undoubtedly have been approved by Potter herself. She was an astute businesswoman, after all. In fact, she is often credited with being a pioneer of merchandising. She was one of the first authors that decided to merchandise her characters directly, creating a licensing system that has been used ever since.
After the initial success of the story, she decided to create Peter Rabbit toys, eager to make the most out of her franchise.
In conversation with Smithsonian Magazine, Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life In Nature said:
“[Potter] was an incredibly astute businesswoman. It’s not generally known how successful she was at it. My view is that she was a natural marketer. She came from a marketing family and mercantilism was in her blood.”
With such a flair for marketing and building a business, we can only assume that Potter would have been proud to see how far her work has come. A story that captured – and continues to capture – the public’s imagination, paired with savvy marketing has made the magical world of Peter Rabbit unstoppable – even 120 years later.
Find out more about the 120 years of Peter Rabbit celebrations at the World of Beatrix Potter