The Grisly Habits of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter as a child.

“You like Beatrix Potter?” my friend Jodi, a retired English teacher, asks casually.

Love her. Flopsy, Mopsy—and Squirrel Nutkin was my favorite. Those gentle little books are so great for kids. So peaceful. Did you know they named an asteroid after Bea—”

“She boiled bunnies,” Jodi cuts in. “Read Scary Stories for Young Foxes.”

And so I do. It turns out to be an exceptionally good book, though much darker than Beatrix Potter. Well, darker than the Beatrix Potter I knew. In the haunted season in Antler Wood, two fox kits get separated from their litters and face unspeakable dangers. About three-fourths of the way in, one is taken captive by Miss Potter. Who will steal her essence by drawing her, a rabbit warns, then steal her breath with an ether-soaked white cloth, then boil and stuff her.

“Miss Potter doesn’t like animals the way they are,” the rabbit explains. “So she changes them. Makes them more like her.” A widower, he speaks from experience: His beloved wife is now the Nice Gentle Rabbit, trapped forever in Miss Potter’s books.

In Scary Stories, Miss Potter has the scary benevolence of the true psychotic. Yet her storybooks have lulled millions of children to sleep and charmed just as many adults.

Most of whom now want author Christian McKay Heidicker’s hide.

“I know, I know,” he says. “I’ve ruined Beatrix Potter for so many people. I’m…not really sorry.”

Potter was a Victorian naturalist, Heidicker points out. “She loved animals, but she also strived to know how they worked, inside and out.” Putting them to sleep with ether was “common practice, and relatively merciful.” He mentions “her struggle to be recognized in the scientific field for her legitimate genius articles and sketches.”

Intrigued, I look up Potter’s scholarly treatise on fungus: “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricinae.” It was dismissed as nonsense by the male members of London’s Linnean Society in 1897—and later proven to be correct.

“I’ve always said that one must see, smell, and touch one’s subject,” Heidicker has Miss Potter murmur. “I’ve said, ‘Beatrix, you must know how fog smells, how frost tastes, before you draw it.” He is quoting from Potter’s journals, kept between ages fourteen and thirty in a tightly compressed, encoded handwriting went deciphered until years after her death. Then The Times of London reported her mention of boiling down a squirrel (Nutkin, no doubt) to study its anatomy.

Word of Potter’s taxidermy rolled through the English countryside the way Martha Stewart’s investment scandal swept Westport, Connecticut. “It’s been represented quite out of proportion, really,” Michael Hemmings, then administrator of Potter’s sweet stone cottage (and vegetable patch), told a Washington Post reporter in 1997. When she was a child on holiday, he says, a local gamekeeper found a dead squirrel, and she asked him to boil it down so she could study it.

Ah, but she did plenty of boiling herself. She babysat her little brother Bertram’s bat, pronouncing it “a charming little creature,” then boiled, stuffed, and preserved it. Biographer Matthew Dennison described how young Beatrix stripped the fur and flesh from animal carcasses and reassemble their skeletons, inserting glass eyes into skulls she had scraped clean. Animal bones were cleaned, measured, labeled, and kept in “our little bone cupboards.” Beatrix tells her journal, with no apparent distress, about a vigorous dusting that knocked apart several mice skeletons: “I caught the skeleton of a favorite dormouse, but six others were broken and mixed. I mended them all up. I thought it a curious instance of the beautifully minute differences and fittings together of the bones.”

Potter was thoroughly a scientist—yet she turned that knowledge into pastel paintings of animals with adorable names and human clothing. The discrepancy feels like a lie, as though the truth was in the cool investigation and the softness was only summoned afterward. Am I being unfair, seeing a contradiction only because of my own stereotypes? The finest of scientists have used art in service of their science, and the finest artists have based their work on science. Leonardo da Vinci did both. Yet somehow, I get the sense that Potter was hiding her scientific acuity, cloaking it in denim overalls and frock coats. Sure, children’s books anthropomorphize; we connect with creatures different from us by finding something we have in common. But what should have emerged from an intelligence as sharp as Potter’s is something a good deal less twee—and less angry and judgmental, underneath. Perhaps after being burned by the scientific fraternity for attempting scholarship, she felt she had to hide her aggression and keep her world small and safe?

As I learn about her childhood, it all makes a bit more sense. Beatrix did not grow up in the pastel countryside she painted. She grew up in a big, stuffy house in London. Her parents had inherited money, and they enjoyed their ease. (She described them as “apathetic.”) Yet they were weirdly controlling, and they sheltered her to an almost pathological degree, hiring tutors to home-school her so she would not come into contact with the germs and unsavory manners of the hoi polloi. Beatrix’s friend group consisted of the hedgehogs, snakes, rabbits, rites, owls, and mice she kept as pets. “Rabbits are creatures of warm volatile temperament but shallow and absurdly transparent,” she writes in her journal. “It is this naturalness, one touch of nature, that I find so delightful.”

What we yearn for, as children, shapes us more powerfully than what we are actually given.

And what an artist suffers finds its way out.

The double role played by animals—to show her both wildness and affectionate companionship—might account for the way she later depicted them. She was scrupulously accurate, down to the grain and shading of the fur, before she added their human costumes. A chill runs down my spine as I remember the line spoken by Heidicker’s rabbit: “She changes them. Makes them more like her.”

Or like her parents.

Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, and Pigling Bland are all fatherless. Jemima Puddle-duck is a foolish and inadequate mother, and Potter treats her “with contempt bordering on cruelty,” in Dennison’s opinion. When she sketches a doll’s house for The Tale of Two Bad Mice, it looks just like her parents’ Victorian manse, and she tells her editor it is “the kind of house where one cannot sit down without upsetting something, I know the sort!” She then allows the two bad mice to wreck the place.

“Throughout her tales,” writes Dennison, “simple domestic  tasks—unpacking the vegetable box, shopping for groceries, carving a ham, rolling out pastry, baking a pie, spring-cleaning—are darkened by suggestions of menace; the home was a conflicted region for Beatrix.”

It was also a voluntary prison. She lived in her parents’ home for forty-seven years.

Her career had begun in 1893, when she wrote and illustrated a little story for her former governess’s son because he was quarantined with scarlet fever. She later borrowed back the letter and turned it, barely changed, into The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which she wound up self-publishing for family and friends. A vicar who was charmed by the book did a bit of editing and took it round the London publishing houses again, and this time, Frederick Warne & Co. grudgingly agreed to publish “the bunny book.”

If she could not be a scientist, she would be a storyteller. She wrote at least two books a year, and her publisher, Norman Warne, was now in her thrall. He proposed marriage in 1905. Over her parents’ strenuous objections, Potter, then thirty-nine years old, accepted.

A few weeks later, Warne died of leukemia.

Eight years later, Potter married a tall, skinny, and very quiet solicitor who lived happily with her in a stone cottage on Hill Top Farm. I will be so glad for her, as soon as the queasiness of these discoveries subsides. For now, I look at those watercolors and wonder, Was the model for this one dead or alive? Did Miss Potter care for these creatures only insofar as she could control them?

Serves me right for assuming that any creative work, however pastel, exists only at its decorative surface. What makes those books so utterly appealing is how real the animals are. She was convinced that “drawing that was wholly imaginary could never succeed,” Dennison notes. She needed the full truth, even if she intended to dress it up tenderly. And as her readers, we need the full truth, too.

Genius is seldom peaceful.