“It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’.”
This is perhaps not the best known or most memorable quote in literary history but one which caused much consternation in my household. I loved a good story and my mother would read to me every day. She rarely felt the need to interrupt any story with her personal observations but this line from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies caused her to pause. Her issue was the word soporific which she felt was a little too erudite for the average three year old.
I should mention at this point that my mother also believed that Paint Your Wagon was a suitable film to see on the occasion of my first visit to a cinema. As this Clint Eastwood classic featured a great deal of drunkenness, some prostitution and a ménage à trois, some might question my mother’s choice of viewing for a toddler! The three year old me wasn’t the least disturbed by the antics of the inebriated gold miners nor the complexity of Beatrix Potter’s language.
Dog Eat Dog
Once my mother had explained the meaning of soporific I had learnt something new and was keen to hear the rest of the story. It was the rest of the story that my mother should really have been concerned about! Beatrix Potter’s much loved children’s books did not feature happy ever after endings and peaceful rural idylls but were rather allegories depicting a dog eat dog world.
From the very beginning of her first book, the Tale of Peter Rabbit, her characters are shown to be in mortal danger. Peter’s mother is anxious that he does not suffer the unfortunate fate of his father and end up in a pie. Tom Kitten sadly finds himself in a sausage roll fashioned by a pair of rats who are savouring the prospect of a delicious dinner. All of which makes the gold miners of Paint Your Wagon look positively benign.
Potter’s books are actually surprisingly dark. Scratch beneath the surface of the rather cutesy veneers and you discover a menacing world of theft, murder and helpless parents. The books possess a Darwinian sense of the survival of the fittest which makes each tale incredibly compelling.
Potter’s books have stood the test of time, not because they are brilliantly written and imaginative tales, which they certainly are, but because children and adults alike understand that the books expose universal truths. The facts of life are laid bare enabling youngsters to learn valuable lessons and not just the meaning of the word soporific! Which is, incidentally, the tendency to cause tiredness or sleep.
Long before Walt Disney had dreamed up Mickey Mouse and founded his dynasty, Beatrix Potter had already discovered the secret of the compelling children’s story. Charming, imaginative and packed with memorable characters, her work featured just enough harsh reality to appeal people of all ages. Children see and love the lighter side of the stories. The darker nuances may escape them initially but they are there and leave their mark. Beatrix Potter was not merely the spinner of a good yarn, she was a literary genius who was ahead of her time. But who was this incredible women and how did she become one of the most respected writers of all time?
The Stamp Issue
This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth. Royal Mail are marking the occasion with a fabulous stamp issue that is sure to delight Potter enthusiasts of all ages. Six 35mm x 35mm stamps feature Beatrix Potter’s best loved characters.
1st Class – Peter Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle
£1.33 – Squirrel Nutkin and Jemima Puddle-Duck
£1.52 – Tom Kitten and Benjamin Bunny
The issue also includes a mini sheet which showcases four additional stamps featuring scenes from the Tale of Peter Rabbit. The mini sheet also references the first line of the book.
A First Day Cover designed by Interabang has an envelope including a reproduction of Beatrix Potter’s signature, alongside a selection of her original illustrations, featuring flowers and a dragonfly.
The beautiful presentation pack has been written by Emma Laws, the Warne Curator of Children’s Literature at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It features a general biography of Beatrix Potter as well as a summary of the six stories represented on the stamps together with background information about the origins of each story. It is decorated with many of Beatrix Potter’s original illustrations of colourful flowers and insects and various characters from her books.