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October 23, 2017

Potter's First Peter Rabbit

On this day in 1901 Beatrix Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Having been turned down by a half-dozen publishers, Potter financed this first edition herself -- 250 copies with her own black and white illustrations, given away or sold at a half-penny each because, as she put it, "little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings." Within a few weeks, another 200 copies were needed; within a year, Potter had a deal with a major publisher and orders for the entire first printing of 8,000 copies; by now, forty million copies of Peter Rabbit have been sold, in just about every language. A first edition copy of the 1902 edition can cost $20,000 today; a copy of Potter's own 1901 edition is expected to fetch upwards of $70,000 at an upcoming auction, a price for only the very furriest.

The tale of Beatrix Potter's life suggests that she would be suspicious of those who could afford it. She made a lot of money from her books, and from the industry she built up around them -- her "side-shows," she said -- but much of it went to charity, including the 4000 acres of Lake District farmland and cottages she gave to the National Trust in her will. Potter started going to the region as a teenager, on holiday with her family; at forty-seven, she moved there for good, marrying the local solicitor who was helping amass her real estate; by her death she had long-given up writing for conservation work, farming and sheep-raising, having become an authority on the local breed.

Potter wrote many of her tales at Hill Top Farm, now the most popular stop on the Lake District tour (and so a bigger draw than Wordsworth's Dove Cottage). While alive, this would not have been encouraged, according to friend, D. H. Banner:
    No humbug or affectation could approach. She refused to be lionised: and not very many of her unnumbered admirers penetrated her cottage garden, still less her cottage. . . . Her penetrating gaze could alarm the intrusive; but it was those eyes which had observed the creatures that she drew with such a sure hand and such exquisite taste. Her solidity was the basis of her freedom from sentimentality.
For thirty years, from her mid-teens to her marriage, Potter kept a journal in code, to keep that penetrating gaze from getting her into mischief. But she could certainly speak up, here in a letter: "If it were not too impertinent to lecture one's publisher -- you are a great deal too much afraid of the public, for whom I have never cared one tuppenny button. I am sure that it is that attitude of mind which has enabled me to keep up the series...." To children she would write differently, as in this more famous letter, the one sent to the son of her governess in 1893, and which started it all: "My dear Noel, I don't know what to write you so I shall tell you a story about four rabbits...."

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