Beatrix Potter, an Analysis of Feminism and Oppression
“I hold that a strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations.” Potter had once said as quoted on Goodreads. Potter had not lived a single day conventionally for a lady of her era. She was bold in her pursuit of something more, challenged the status quo of what a woman should do, and she was determined, rejection after rejection didn’t deter her from becoming one of the world’s most loved and renowned children’s authors and illustrators. A strongly marked personality can influence much more than descendants, it can influence the world. Not only have graphic narratives been used to entertain children over the centuries, the return of the graphic novel, made a triumphant return in the late 1960’s to reach the youth of the generation. “The expansion of an alternative press that appeared in the mid-1960’s in and around major urban areas…each embraced the emerging hippy culture and appealed to youth audiences that were alienated from mainstream politics and culture.” (Petersen, 2010). Much like Potter’s use of her anthropomorphized characters to tell a story of the struggles she faces and viewed, graphic narratives have since served similar purposes within different contexts. Had Potter been ahead of her time? Was she a pioneer in the nineteenth century? Or was she just a cynical, literary genius? All we can use to assess her reasoning now, is her journals, her published works and anecdotes left behind by her loved ones. One thing is clear however, whatever it was that drove Potter to her success has undoubtably cemented her in history as one of the greatest graphic narrative authors of all time.
For lovers of literature and art alike, picking up the small, colourful collection of books filled with mischievous woodland creatures will be sure to spark a flood of nostalgia and delight toward the familiar stories. The well-known picture book is synonymous with Beatrix Potter who used the visual and written form of narrative to tell wild and colourful stories that often broke the fourth wall to further entice the reader. In The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher when discussing the boisterous frog’s dinner choice, Potter cheekily and cleverly injects a sense of herself into the narration,“And instead of a nice dish of minnows—they had a roasted grasshopper with ladybird sauce; which frogs consider a beautiful treat; but I think it must have been nasty!” (Potter, 2002. p57) This use of technique has commonly been used in comic books where the characters speak to the reader and even more recently in movies like Deadpool where it’s a very effective mechanism to throw the viewer out of the universe and then drag them back in by shifting the viewers immersive experience. These techniques have worked tremendously well in the case of Beatrix Potter’s children’s stories mainly because they bring the children reading these stories right into the character’s worlds and encourages them to immerse themselves as though they were a part of the universe. It’s as though the characters are reaching through the pages and asking the children what they think of the adventure Potter has put them through and in turn, she is asking children to think beyond the scope of
their present setting.
While Potter has been a pioneer in some of her writing and storytelling, she has also been an unknowing victim of her era. She tried and succeeded in many ways to break conventions however subservient characters, a nod to the time in which she grew up, are still at the forefront of her stories. Ideas such as mother rabbits being stay-at-home mums, and idealistic daughters who do as they’re told while their brothers venture out and have adventures have certainly not aged well. In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter is off on his naughty adventures into Mr. McGregor’s Garden where his father perished many years earlier and ended up in a pie (is this perhaps reminiscent of a workplace accident?) while his three sisters stay close to home like good, obedient little girls and do as they’re told, also reminiscent of the expectations of women in Potter’s era. “Floppy Mopsy and Cotton-tail, who were good little bunnies, went down the lane to gather blackberries…” (Potter, 2002. p16) It isn’t the first time Potter has infused her workings of children’s literature with parallels to real life and the observations she’d made of the world. In Children and their books; a celebrations of the world of Iona and Peter Opie, Humphrey Carpenter, discusses Blake Morrison’s sonnet comparing a “couple of blokes he has seen in the Deptford pub with Potter’s The Tale of Tommy Tiptoes”. It’s evident that Potter, while writing for children and entertaining them with colourful characters full of wit and humour, are rather macabre in their behaviours much like adults in the real world.
Had Potter herself, perhaps become disillusioned during her life in an era where certain expectations were placed upon women and even more so, female writers? Perhaps these nods to real life are what made Potter so successful, those seemingly nonchalant moments where she breaks the fourth wall, her real intention—to feed and educate the mind of the willing. Parents found parallels to their lives while their kids cheered with glee as Peter Rabbit evaded the nasty Mr. McGregor who was passionately disliked.
Potter wasn’t in the business of giving children and their parents a cosy ride, she was in the business of providing a well-rounded and realistic insight into the world. While the kid-friendly characters were at the forefront of her graphic narratives, she was well known for covering topics that transcended the mere principles of entertainment for children. She covered love, loss, death and daily struggles. This is perhaps what made her as prolific as she was. Potter was fond of journaling as a means to not only keep track of her ideas, but also to process how she was feeling throughout her journey. She must have cared deeply for her inner most secrets as she secured them with a private journal code she created on her own. In it, as described in Catherine Golden’s Beatrix Potter: Natural Artist she shared her musings, “In the solitude of the nursery, her creative imagination and thirst for knowledge grew. She read avidly, selecting books from the well-stocked household library (which included natural histories)…” She often people watched and shared their anonymous stories in fun formats, mainly her detailed and fun illustrations of the wonderous worlds of the animals she cared for. While Potter was predominantly an author, she was also a successful sheep farmer—many of the animals she wrote about and brought to life, were animals she saw and interacted with in her daily life.
One such tale that she brought to life was the darker side of ‘humanity’ as was Potter’s custom, in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. Here Potter describes the very real story of loss where a mother duck loses her children. In the beginning we’re told of the struggles Jemima faces when she is frustrated that the human woman won’t let her hatch her own eggs and instead always takes them away from their coop. Fed up with this, Jemima eventually decides one day that she is going to find a safe, family friendly spot out in the woods where she can hatch her own eggs and live a peaceful life. On her adventure she meets a polite and what she describes as handsome fox who is seemingly very kind and helpful. He offers to help Jemima by giving her a safe place to leave her eggs while she sits on them and warms them. Potter gives us an insight of the plights a young, naïve woman might find herself in. The need to have the emotional and physical support of a man as a single woman. There are red flags throughout as the reader knows foxes are depicted as sly and conniving for their tendency to steal eggs. Without even reading the words, one can make out the plotting in the fox’s eyes through Potter’s wonderfully detailed drawings. Jemima desperate to have her safe spot, ignores these red flags and follows the fox blindly. Even when the fox asks Jemima to bring ingredients to make an omelette, Jemima is trusting and doesn’t see the glaring issues facing her. Her impending danger is blatantly obvious to the adult reader, however. “Jemima Puddle-duck was a simpleton; not even the mention of sage and onions made her suspicious.” (Potter, 2002. P 39). It is clear through these small snippets into Potter’s female characters, how she viewed the world as a female in her time. Perhaps this is another reason Potter felt the need to cement her own success by buying up land and starting her farming career. One could almost see her writings as cynical, the females always on the backfoot, hardly ever having a happy ending. Despite the dog in this tale, often seen as a loyal companion, saving Jemima from her fate with the fox, her eggs are destroyed by hungry puppies. No happy ending is offered to this character either. Furthermore, it’s even insinuated she needed permission to carry out her womanly/motherly desires i.e., having children, only when the people controlling her, the humans in this case, said so. There is also the glaring self-loathing, where Jemima blames herself for the ‘miscarriages’ of the rest of her eggs, as women so often have. “Jemima Puddle-Duck was escorted home in tears on the account of those eggs. She laid some more in June, and she was permitted to keep them herself; but only four of them hatched. Jemima Puddle-Duck said that it was because of her nerves; but she had always been a bad sitter.” (Potter, 2002).
The trend of feminism and breaking the oppression women faced, continued throughout Potter’s life not only through her work but also in her journals. When starting out in her career, Potter dreamed to one day write a natural histories book and as with all her endeavours she was determined to make it as accurate as possible. She took to learning about the skeletons and makeup of woodland creatures by dissection and study, comparing to those at the museum. Where she needed help, she was shocked to find herself locked out due to the mainly male dominated department. She records in her journal, “At the Natural History Museum the clerks seem to all be gentlemen and one must not speak to them. If people are forward I can manage them, but if they take the line of being shocked it is perfectly awful to a shy person.” (Warne, 2011. p268) This setback didn’t deter her, after a short-lived marriage to her editor who passed away of leukemia within a month of their wedding, Potter embarked on her next journey—conservation. After finding the winning formula for her books “a simple story, a whiff of danger, much naughtiness and a cast of carefully anthropomorphized animal characters—never over cute—whom she drew brilliantly in authentic settings.” (Thomson, 2007), Potter had earned enough confidence and money to gain financial independence slowly setting herself up as the woman she yearned to be. She made her first purchase, Hill Top Farm, where she still felt the clutches of her family and disappointment in her un-lady like approach to life. It wasn’t until after her father’s death that Potter was finally able to live her life the way she dreamed. Here she eventually did more research on the natural histories topics she was desperate to write about while still producing two books a year for her publisher. “She always opposed the notion of women’s suffrage. She had become an astute businesswoman.” (Thomson, 2007).
“Been to the Winter Exhibition of Old Masters at the Academy. I had been looking forward to it very much, but I never thought it would be like this. I never thought there could be such pictures. It is almost too much to see them all at once—just fancy seeing five magnificent Van Dyck’s side by side, before me who never thought to see one. It is rather a painful pleasure, but I have seldom felt such a great one.” (Warne, 2011. p60) Art, it seemed was Potter’s greatest and fondest achievements. She knew she could do more, and she knew she wanted to see more. Despite her family’s expectations of Beatrix, she refused to accept her fate as a housewife, and she did not let her dreams of being an author and a businesswoman falter. She focused on her determination and found a way to succeed. So it’s no wonder Potter was ahead of the curve in the 1800’s with the writing convention she chose to employ. She had mastered the art of telling riveting, insightful stories about human-like creatures in a way that would entertain children for generations to come while successfully committing the parents to her future books. Potter did this by breaking the fourth wall and by creating anatomically correct, yet cute illustrations thanks to her enviable obsession with learning how to draw animals accurately. This along with her talent and vision has been paramount in her success and in cementing her in history as one of the greatest storytellers of all time.