Happy 150th Birthday, Beatrix Potter!

Beatrix Potter with pet mouse, 1885

Illustrated letter by Beatrix Potter, 1895

Illustrations by Beatrix Potter

Illustrated letter by Beatrix Potter, 1892

Rabbit drawing by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter with pet rabbit, 1981

Rabbit drawings by Beatrix Potter

I'm so grateful to Beatrix Potter, whose work has deeply influenced my own over all these years...and continues to delight children all around the world, generation after generation.

Rising above the severe social constraints of her very Victorian childhood, she became an internationally celebrated writer and artist, a ground-breaking naturalist, a respected Lake District sheep farmer, and a founding member of Britain's National Trust. She is one of my primary heroes.

For more information about this remarkable woman's life, I recommend Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear. The Tale of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane is also good, and At Home With Beatrix Potter by Susan Denyer is delightful.

Happy 150th birthday, dear lady.

Beatrix Potter's Hill Top Farm

 "I remember I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child. What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and common-sense." - Beatrix Potter

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Illustrations by Beatrix Potter

Illustrated letter by Beatrix Potter, 1898

Beatrix Potter and Kep at Hill Top Farm, circa 1920s

Beatrix Potter's drawing of her sheep dog KepThe image descriptions are in the picture captions.


Fairy tales and youngest sons

Howard Pyle

From "The Boy Who Went Forth," an essay by novelist Christopher Barzak (in Brothers & Beasts):

Howard Pyle"I grew up reading in a home where no one read, and in that home where my older brothers (had they read) wouldn't have been caught dead with a Charles Perrault book, I grew up reading fairy tales. I was an anomoly, I think, born in a small rural town in Ohio, in a ranch house my father built on my grandmother's farm. Looking back on my childhood and adolescence, recalling the friends of my youth, I remember being aware at a young age that, among the boys I was friends with, none of them read very much. And they especially didn't read fairy tales. Watching the Disney versions was okay when we were small, but even those became off-limits the nearer we drew to our teenage years.

"And yet I counted fairy tales among my varied reading pleasures. I enjoyed comic books (Marvel rather than DC), mysteries (Poe), adventure stories for boys (Craig's My Side of the Mountain), science fiction and fantasy (Le Guin's Earthsea cycle), horror (again Poe), folktales (Irving), and fairy tales (Perrault rather than the Grimms, though I love the Grimms as well as Andersen). I didn't speak of my reading habits with my friends or family. It was private. When I read, I felt as if I could leave the world around me where -- perhaps I knew even then, in some corner of my mind -- I didn't quite fit. Why would I expose the very activity that allowed me to engage in a kind of freedom, that allowed me access to a world in which the limitations of this one disappeared and my imagination could roam past the boundaries of the life I'd been born into? I did not hide my reading, as that would only have aroused suspicion, but I did not speak about it either. I must also make clear, though, that I didn't know I was protecting something. I didn't realize that until I was older.

Bearskin by Howard Pyle

"Although I loved reading fairy tale, there was a certain kind of fairy tale I hated to discover. Tales in which two or three sons and a father act as the central characters, wherein one or two of the boys are either talented, smart, handsome, or all of these things, and the youngest or third son is a weak, strange, malformed, or stupid creature. I took an immediate dislike to these stories, but at the time I wasn't sure why. When I came across fairy tales that used this pattern of characters, though, I would pass these stories over for tales in which someone's dreams come true.

"What I did not understand then was that I had found a type of fairy tale that reflected some aspect of myself, my family, my experience in the 'real world,' and that what it reflected I did not want to see. I sought out the fairy tales that did not reflect my experience, because I didn't want to find myself in stories that were not reaffirming about my placement in the world. What the strange brothers of fairy tales showed me was that, in my family, I was this sort of child. The weakling, the strange thinker, the one set apart from social normality."

Howard Pyle

Chris gives one example of this kind of character: the second son in the Grimms' fairy tale The Story of the Youth Who Sets Forth to Learn What Fear Is, a boy portrayed as so useless that he cannot work in his destined trade and earn a living like his elder brother, and so foolish that he hasn't got the sense to be frightened in frightening situations.

The Swan Maiden by Howard PyleThe boy ventures off to learn about fear, moving through an odd series of adventures. He "spends the night among the hanging corpses of the dead husbands of a rope-maker's daughter without realizing he is keeping company with dead men, and he destroys demonic cats in a castle because he knows they are tricking him when they ask if he wants to play cards (slyly he says yes, and before they can put forth their claws he destroys them). He conquers an entire castle full of ghosts and demons and the living dead. Yet somehow this boy is considered stupid.

"The real trick of this tale is in what it reveals about the teller of the story, who I take to be a great sort of Everyman or Everwoman figure, a member of small-town agrarian society who understands the rules of that society and what is considered good and what is considered bad. We are told the second son is stupid because he has no way of earning his own bread, and because he apparently does not fear many of the things that everyone else in the society clearly sees reason to fear. He is unafraid of corpses, ghosts, and demons. He does not run when anyone with any sense would run. Of course the town and town teller, Mr. or Mrs. Everyman or Everywoman, finds the boy to be a stupid, queer sort of fellow.

"Difference, then, constitutes stupidity in the land of fairy tales."

Differences like reading. Or going to college. Or growing up to write books instead of working with one's hands.

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

Later in this fine essay (which I recommend reading in full), Christopher writes:

The Swan Maiden by Howard Pyle"It was not until I re-read as an adult the Grimms' fairy tales, as well as Hans Christian Andersen's and Charles Perraults' stories, that I came to understand why the stories of the dullard sons and brothers pierced me so keenly as a child, to the point that I would slap a book closed or flip furiously to find a different sort of tale. As an adult I was able to see that the stupid sons were stupid only in the eyes of constructed social norms, that they were not inherently useless or strange. They were, in many cases, the real heroes of their lives and the lives of their families. From Perrault's Tom Thumb, a tiny weakling among his healthy strong brothers, I learned that the smallest, weakest child could also be the one to outwit an ogre and save his brothers from certain death and his family from poverty. His smallness, his weakness, provided him with advantages and a keen intelligence that his brothers did not have.

"But it is to the Brothers Grimm boy who went forth to learn what fear was that I still return. As an adult male reader of fairy tales, I can now take some comfort and nourishment from his absurd journey, his going forth fearlessly on a path that others would turn away from. In him I've found a sort of kindred spirit."

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

The art today is by the great American illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911). Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Pyle drew and painted from a young age, spent three years working in the studio of F. A. Van der Weilen in Philadephia, then moved to New York to become an illustrator with the help of Edward Austin Abby and Frederick S. Church. By the time he returned to Wilmington in his late twenties, Pyle's career was well established and he was writing books as well as illustrating them, while also producing sumptuous work for magazines. Generations have now grown up on Pyle's books for children, including The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, The Story of King Arthur's Knights, Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, and The Wonder Clock. (Most of the drawings in this post are from the latter.)

In 1990, Pyle established The Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art -- first in Wilmington, and then in eastern Pennsylvania near the Brandywine River. The school and the art movement it engendered -- both now known as The Brandywine School -- produced an extraordinary number of superb illustrators including  N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Jessica Wilcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

From The Wonder Clock by Howard PyleThe passage above is from Christopher Barzak's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The Neil Gaiman poem in picture captions first appeared in Black Heart, Ivory Bones, edited by me & Ellen Datlow (Avon Books, 2000), and was reprinted in Brothers & Beasts. All rights reserved by the authors.


The books that shape us: 2

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Arthur Hughes

From an essay by A.S. Byatt in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:

The Pained Heart by Arthur Hughes"The roots of my thinking are a tangled maze of myths, folktales, legends, fairy stories. Robin Hood, King Arthur, Alexander of Macedon, Achilles and Odysseus, Apollo and Pan, Loki and Baldur, Sinbad and Haroun al Rashid, Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, Tom Bombadil and Cereberus. I have no idea now where I got all this, except for the Norse myths, which came from a turn of the century book, Asgard and the Gods, bought by my mother as a crib for her Ancient Norse and Icelandic exams at Cambridge. I read the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang and several collections of ballads, and 'How Horatio Kept the Bridge' from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. The tales and myths and legends...made it clear that there was another world, beside the world of having to be a child in a house, an inner world and a vast outer world with large implications -- good and evil, angels and demons, fate and love and terror and beauty -- and the comfort of the inevitable ending, not only the happy ending against odds, but the tragic one too.

Enoch Arden's Despair by Arthur Hughes

A Music Party by Arthur Hughes

The Death of King Arthur by Arthur Hughes"At the same time, and just as early, I remember the importance of poetry, Nursery rhymes, ballads, the 'Jackdaw of Rheims' from Richard Barham's The Ingoldsby Legends and A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Slowly silent now the moon' by Walter de la Mare. I think one of the most important writers to me ever has been Walter de la Mare, though it is a debt hard to recognize or acknowledge. Partly for the singing strange rhythms of his poetry, partly for the strange worlds and half-worlds he gave one glimpses of, the world of a pike suspended in thick gloom under a bridge, the journeyings of the Three Mulla Mulgars, which I read over and over. The most important poems were three coloring books we had, a page of poetry beside a picture, all three complete stories: The Pied Piper, Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott,' his Morte d'Arthur. I knew them all by heart long before I thought to ask who had written them. Their rhymes haunt everything I write, especially the Tennyson. The enclosed weaving lady became my private symbol for my reading and brooding self long before I saw what she meant for him, and for 19th century poetry in general.

The Lady of Shalott  by Arthur Hughes

"Truthfulness forces me to admit that we did not have that great anthology of magical and narrative verse, de la Mare's Come Hither, but we were brought up on its contents by my mother, who gave us poems and more poems, as though it was unquestionable that this was the very best thing she could do for us.

The Rift Within by Arthur Hughes

Sir Galahad Armed by an Angel by Arthur Hughes

"What about fiction, as opposed to fairy tales? What I remember most vividly is learning fear, which I think may be important to all animals -- I used to love the song from The Jungle Book -- 'It is fear, oh little hunter, it is fear.' And I remember Blind Pew tapping, the terrible staircase and the heather-hunting in Kidnapped, I A Passing Cloud by Arthur Hughesremember Jane Eyre locked in the Red Room, and poor David Copperfield at the mercy of Mr. Murdstone, the horrors of Fagin in the condemned cell (I could only have been eight or nine) and worst of all (though I still have nightmares about executions) Pip on the marshes being grabbed by Magwitch in that brilliant and terrible beginning of Great Expectations. I must have been very little. I didn't understand any more than Pip that Magwitch's terrible companion was fictive.

"I remember my first meeting with evil, too, and it has only just recently struck me how strange that was. I worked my way along my grandmother's shelf of school prizes -- was I nine or ten? Or younger? And read Uncle Tom's Cabin before anyone had told me that slaves had really existed outside The Arabian Nights. Tom's sufferings and the evil of the system and the people who killed him, with cruelty or negligence, made me feel ill and appalled. I never talked to anyone about it. We sang about Christ's suffering in church but that seemed comparatively comfortable and institutional and had after all a happy ending, whereas Tom's story did not. And yet one is grateful for the glimpses of the dark: as long as they do not destroy, they strengthen."

An illustration for George Macdonald's Phantastes by Arthur Hughes

An illustration for Phantastes by Arthur Huges

The art today is by Arthur Hughes, a Victorian painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London in 1832, Hughes studied art at Somerset House and the Royal Academy, and had his first picture accepted for a Royal Academy exhibition when he was only 17. Upon meeting Rossetti and other members of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hughes pledged himself to the Brotherhood's cause and spent the rest of his life creating paintings and drawings rooted in Pre-Raphaelite ideals. He was also a leading book illustrator in what was known as the "Sixties Group," remembered best today for his classic drawings for the fantasy novels of George Macdonald. The artist was married (to the model for his painting "April Love") and had six children, one of whom became a successful landscape painter.  (The "fairy painter" Edward Robert Hughes was Arthur Hughes' nephew.) The artist died at home in London in 1915, after a long and prolific career.

The White Hind by Arthur Hughes

Fair Rosemund by Arthur HughesThe passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading A.S. Byatt's essay in full. All rights reserved by the author.


The books that shape us: 1

The Bride and the Lindorm by HJ Ford

For her anthology The Pleasure of Reading (published in an illustrated edition in 1992, and an expanded edition in 2015), Antonio Fraser asked a wide range of contemporary writers to describe their early reading, and what did (or did not) influence them. Here is how the great mystery writer Ruth Rendell answered the question:

The Draken by HJ Ford"The picture I can still see in my mind's eye is of a dancing, gestulating thing with a human face and cat's ears, its body furred like a bear. The anomaly is that at the time, when I was about seven, the last thing I wanted was ever to see that picture again. I knew precisely where in the Andrew Lang Fairy Book it came, in which quarter of the book and between which pages, and I was determined never to look at it, it frightened me too much. On the other hand, so perverse are human beings, however youthful and innocent, that I was also terribly temped to peep at it. To flit quickly through the pages in the dangerous area and catch a tiny fearful glimpse.

Night Owl by HJ Ford"Now I can't even remember which of the Fairy Books it was, Crimson, Blue, Yellow, Lilac. I read them all. They were the first books I read which others had not either read or recommended to me, and they left me with a permanent fondness for fairy stories and with something else, something that has been of practical use to me as well as a perennial fascination. Andrew Lang began the process of teaching me how to frighten my readers....

"Because I had a Scandinavian mother -- I have to describe her thus as she was half-Swede, half-Dane, with an Icelandic grandmother, born in Stockholm, brought up in Copenhagen -- I was early on introduced to Hans Andersen. I never liked him. He was too much of a moralist for me. His stories mostly carried a message and a threat. Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, the one I hated the most was the favorite of my mother, who had her stern Lutheran side. This was 'The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf,' which is about ugsome Inger who used a loaf of bread as a stepping stone to avoid wetting her fine shoes at the ford. The rest of course was that she sank down into the Bog Wife's domain, a kind of cesspit of creepy-crawlies, and that is only the beginning of her misfortunes.

The Bridge of Blood by HJ Ford

"I never really wanted to read anything my parents wanted me to read. No doubt this is normal. The exception would be Beatrix Potter, but we grow out of her early and only return to our passion after twenty or thirty years. Does anyone read The Water Babies today? Charles Kingsley is just as improving as Andersen but in a different way. It was social rather than moral evils he pointed out. Andersen never gave a thought to Inger's poverty and deprived childhood. The poor little chimney sweep's boys always excited my wonder and pity. I never imagined I would one day live in a house where, inside the huge chimney, you can see the footholds the boys used to go up with their brushes. The water creatures the metamorphosed Tom encountered started me on a lifelong interest in natural history.

The Princess and the Fox by H.J. Ford

"Two years after Tolkien's The Hobbit was published I read it for the first time. Twenty years later I read it again and experienced just the same feeling of delight and The Lion and the King by HJ Fordhappiness and a quite breathless pleasure. That first time, when I was nine, was also the first time I remember feeling this. It is a sensation known to all lovers of fiction and comes about at page two, when you know it's not only going to be a good one, but immensely satisfying, enthralling, not to be put down without resentment, drawing inexorably to a conclusion of power and dramatic soundness.

"While I was engrossed in The Hobbit I was also reading The Complete Book of British Butterflies, a fairly large tome by the great naturalist F.W. Frowhawk -- what a wonderful name that is, he sounds like a giant butterfly or moth himself. That copy I still have, can see it on the shelves from where I sit writing. I used to collect butterflies, kill them in a bottle containing ammonia on cottonwool and mount them on pins. The disapproval of a schoolfellow, whom I rather disliked but must have respected, put an end to that and I have killed hardly anything since, a few flies, a mosquito or two. Outside the pages of fiction, that is."

The Faithful Beasts by HJ Ford

The drawings today are from Andrew Lang's Fairy Books, published from 1889 to 1910, illustrated by H.J. Ford. I have no idea which particular illustration from the series frightened Ruth Rendell, however!

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941) was born and raised in London, where his father was a solicitor and the entire family was mad for cricket. (His father wrote books on the subject and his brother played professionally.) He studied classics at Cambridge, received a first-class degree, and then veered into an art career instead, training at the Slade and the Bushey schools of art. In addition to illustrating children's books and classics from the 1880s through the 1920s, Ford also painted historical works and landscapes exhibited at the Royal Academy, designed the Peter Pan costume for J.M. Barrie's first staging of his famous play, and was part of an artistic London set that included Barrie, P.G. Wodehouse, and Arthur Conan Doyle. He settled in Kensington, where he married late in life and had one much-loved adopted daughter.

The Falcon by HJ FordThe passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); all rights reserved by Fraser and the Ruth Rendell estate.