May 24, 2013
Potter's First Peter RabbitOn 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:
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