The Tale of Peter Rabbit is a children’s book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter that follows the mischievous and disobedient young Peter Rabbit as he is chased about the garden of Mr. McGregor. He escapes and returns home to his mother, who puts him to bed after dosing him with tea. The tale was written for five-year-old Noel Moore, son of Beatrix’s former governess Annie Carter Moore, in 1893. It was revised and privately printed by Beatrix in 1901 after several publishers’ rejections, but was printed in a trade edition by Frederick Warne & Co. in 1902. Multiple reprints were issued in the years immediately following its debut, and it has been translated into thirty-six languages.
Since its release the book has generated considerable merchandise targeted at children and adults, including toys, dishes, food, clothing and videos. Beatrix herself patented a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903, and followed it almost immediately with a Peter Rabbit board game.
The story was inspired by a pet rabbit Beatrix had as a child, which she named Peter Piper. Through the 1890s, Beatrix sent illustrated story letters to the children of her former governess, Annie Moore. In 1900, Moore, realizing the commercial potential of Beatrix’s stories, suggested they be made into books. Beatrix embraced the suggestion, and, borrowing her complete correspondence (which had been carefully preserved by the Moore children), selected a letter written on 4 September 1893 to five-year-old Noel that featured a tale about a rabbit named Peter, to which she added some text and new black-and white illustrations. According to Beatrix Potter biographer Linda Lear, the additions added suspense and imparted a greater sense of the passage of time. Beatrix then copied the story into a stiff-covered exercise book, with a coloured frontispiece showing Mrs Rabbit dosing Peter with camomile tea.
Beatrix initially submitted her manuscript to six publishers, including Frederick Warne & Co, who ten years earlier had expressed some interest in her artwork, but they all turned it down. Some wanted a longer book, others a shorter one, but most wanted colour illustrations instead of black-and-white; by the turn of the century colour printing had become popular and affordable.
Undaunted, in September 1901 Beatrix commissioned the printer Strangeways & Sons to produce 250 copies of what she had by then decided to call The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and Hentschel of London to print 500 copies of the coloured frontispiece in case she might want to reprint the book. Her privately printed edition was ready to be distributed to friends and family on 16 December 1901.
A family friend and sometime poet, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, offered to make a final effort to help Beatrix get her manuscript published commercially. He turned Beatrix’s text into “rather dreadful didactic verse” and submitted it along with some of Beatrix’s illustrations once again to Frederick Warne & Co.
The story focuses on a family of anthropomorphic rabbits. The widowed mother rabbit keeps her four rabbit children, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter from entering the vegetable garden of a man named Mr. McGregor. Her triplets (Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail) obediently refrain from entering the garden, but Peter enters the garden to snack on some vegetables. Peter ends up eating more than what is good for him and goes looking for parsley to cure his stomach ache. Peter is spotted by Mr. McGregor and loses his jacket and shoes while trying to escape. He hides in a watering can in a shed, but then has to run away again when Mr. McGregor finds him, and ends up completely lost. After sneaking past a cat, Peter sees the gate where he entered the garden from a distance and heads for it, despite being spotted and chased by Mr. McGregor again. With difficulty he wriggles under the gate, and escapes from the garden, but he spots his abandoned clothing being used to dress Mr. McGregor’s scarecrow. After returning home, a sick Peter is sent to bed by his mother, and his triplet sisters receive a scrumptuous dinner of milk, bread and blackberries whilst Peter has a supper of chamomile tea.
Writing in Storyteller: The Classic that Heralded America’s Storytelling Revival, in discussing the difference between stories that lend themselves well to telling and stories that lend themselves well to reading, Ramon Ross explains Peter Rabbit is a story created for reading. He believes Beatrix created a good mix of suspense and tension, intermixed with lulls in the action. He goes on to write that the writing style – “the economy of words, the crisp writing” – lends itself well to a young audience.
Lear writes that Beatrix “had in fact created a new form of animal fable in: one in which anthropomorphic animals behave as real animals with true animal instincts”, and a form of fable with anatomically correct illustrations drawn by a scientifically minded artist. She further states Peter Rabbit’s nature is familiar to rabbit enthusiasts “and endorsed by those who are not … because her portrayal speaks to some universal understanding of rabbity behaviour.” She describes the tale as a “perfect marriage of word and image” and “a triumph of fantasy and fact”.
According to Stuart Jeffries, “psychoanalytic critiques of her work have multiplied since her death in 1943.” Carole Scott writes in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit that the reader cannot help but identify with rebellious little Peter and his plight as all the illustrations are presented from his low-to-the-ground view, most feature Peter in close-up and within touching distance, and Mr. McGregor is distanced from the reader by always being depicted on the far side of Peter. Scott explains: “This identification dramatically instills fear and tension in the reader, and interacts with the frequently distanced voice of the verbal narrative”, sometimes with contradictory effects. The moment when Mr. McGregor attempts to trap Peter under a garden sieve, for example, is presented in the narrative as a matter-of-fact, everyday occurrence, but the illustration presents the desperate moment from the terrified view of a small animal in fear of his life – a view that is reinforced by the birds that take flight to the left and the right.
In the illustration of Peter standing by the locked door, the narrative describes the scene without the flippancy evident in the moment of the sieve. The inability to overcome obstacles is presented with objective matter-of-factness and the statement, “Peter began to cry” is offered without irony or attitude, thus drawing the reader closer to Peter’s emotions and plight. The illustration depicts an unclothed Peter standing upright against the door, one foot upon the other with a tear running from his eye. Without his clothes, Peter is only a small, wild animal but his tears, his emotions, and his human posture intensifies the reader’s identification with him. Here, verbal narrative and illustration work in harmony rather than in disharmony. Scott suggests that The Tale of Peter Rabbit has encouraged many generations of children to “self-indulgence, disobedience, transgression of social boundaries and ethics, and assertion of their wild, unpredictable nature against the constrictions of civilized living.”
Frank Delaney notes “a self-containment” in Beatrix’s writing reflective of an uninterested mother and a lonely childhood spent in the company of pets. John Bidwell, curator at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, observed “the sardonic humor that makes Beatrix Potter so much fun for kids and grown-ups.”
Beatrix believed that her tales would one day be nursery classics, and part of the “longevity of her books comes from strategy”, writes the biographer Ruth MacDonald. Beatrix was the first to exploit the commercial possibilities of her characters and tales; between 1903 and 1905 these included a Peter Rabbit stuffed toy, an unpublished board game, and nursery wallpaper.
Considerable variations to the original format and version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, as well as spin-off merchandise, have been made available over the decades. Variant versions include “pop-ups, toy theatres, and lift-the-flap books”. By 1998, modern technology had made available “videos, audio cassette, a CD-ROMs, a computer program, and Internet sites”, as described by Margaret Mackey writing in The case of Peter Rabbit: changing conditions of literature for children. She continues: “Warne and their collaborators and competitors have produced a large collection of activity books and a monthly educational magazine”. A plethora of other Peter Rabbit related merchandise exists, and “toy shops in the United States and Britain have whole sections of [the] store specially signposted and earmarked exclusively for Potter-related toys and merchandise”.
Unauthorized copying of The Tale of Peter Rabbit has flourished over the decades, including products only loosely associated with the original. In 1916, American Louise A. Field cashed in on the popularity by writing books including Peter Rabbit Goes to School and Peter Rabbit and His Ma, the illustrations of which showed him in his distinctive blue jacket. In an animated movie by Golden Films, The New Adventures of Peter Rabbit, “Peter is given buck teeth, an American accent and a fourth sister Hopsy.” Another video “retelling of the tale casts Peter as a Christian preacher singing songs about God and Jesus.”