There are some writers of children's books whom you could classify as "one hit wonders" - authors whose current reputation as a children's writer rests on one book. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, for example, for The Story of a Bad Boy, or Charles Kingsley for The Water Babies. Beatrix Potter, however, is not one of them. She was a prolific writer of animal tales, such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse. How did she come to write these stories which have remained popular for almost one hundred years. In response to an editor's request to write about the roots out of which her work had sprung and her inspiration for writing them, Beatrix Potter gave several answers.
One source of inspiration, she believed, was her solid, no-nonsense ancestry, generations of Lancashire yeomen and weavers whom she described as "obstinate, hard headed, and matter of fact" folk. A determined bunch of Puritans, Nonconformists, and Dissenters who, rather than sail for America, stuck it out in England, and bought up land in the Lake District.
A second source of inspiration was the "accidental circumstance of having spent a good deal of [her]childhood in the Highlands of Scotland with a nurse who believed in witches and fairies, and spun fanciful tales. She also felt her pecularly "precocious and tenacious memory" served her well as a writer. "I have been laughed at," she writes, "for what I say I can remember." She claimed to remember events, places and feelings from when she was one year old. She remembered learning to walk. She also credits her childhood reading of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels and the stories of Maria Edgeworth. And she was forever grateful that her formal education had been neglected. She was glad that she hadn't been sent to school because, she writes, "if I had not died of shyness or been killed with over pressure first, [I'm sure school] would have rubbed off some of [my] originality."
Drawing on her fantastic memory and those whimsical fairy tales told to her by her nurse, she wrote a first draft quickly, then, drawing on that deliberate, determined ancestry she carefully rewrote it again andagain. She wrote because she enjoyed writing and she enjoyed taking pains over it, and she always wrote to please herself, which has pleased generations of children as well.
Potter, Beatrix. "Roots of the Peter Rabbit Tales," Hornbook Magazine, May, 1929, p. 69-72.
Copyright © 2001 by Rita Smith
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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:24:26 EDT