Emma Thompson does Beatrix Potter
In the summer of 2010, the Oscar-winning actress and writer Emma Thompson received an intriguing package in the mail. Inside was a small cardboard box with a half-eaten radish leaf and a letter from Peter Rabbit. The letter said that a “certain mischievous twinkle” in Thompson’s eye made her the perfect person to write another adventure for the rabbit — a sequel to Beatrix Potter’s beloved children’s story.
“It was such a witty invitation,” Thompson tells me, “and it was very clever because in a sense I was completely tricked.” She laughs in that familiar warm and spontaneous way. “If Frederick Warne,” — the publisher of the Peter Rabbit stories — “had sent some official letter I would have said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I can’t think of anything I want to do less than step into the footsteps of a genius like Potter.’” But the publisher’s sweetly cunning ploy worked, and next week sees the publication of The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit by Emma Thompson, published in time for the 110th anniversary of the book’s original publication.
The story has a nice symmetry with the way in which Potter first created her animal stories. In September 1893, Potter heard that Noel Moore, the young son of her ex-governess, was unwell. To cheer him up she sent him a letter with the story of Peter Rabbit who, unlike his goodygoody siblings Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, disobeys his mother and breaks into Mr. McGregor’s garden.
Potter also included charming sketches that she later coloured in for the 1902 published version. She honed her skills through drawing insects and mushrooms and had even submitted a scientific paper to The Linnean Society of London (it was rejected because she was a woman). As shown in the 2006 film Miss Potter, she fell in love with her editor Norman Warne and they got engaged in opposition to her parents, who thought his profession lowly. A month later, however, Warne died.
Thompson is attracted to the darkness in Potter’s stories. “Some of them are profoundly unsettling,” Thompson tells me. “Of course, those were my favourites when I grew up.” When Mr. McGregor chases Peter Rabbit there is the real danger he will share his father’s fate — being baked in a pie for the farmer’s table. “When I was doing Nanny McPhee,” says Thompson, referring to two hugely successful films she wrote and starred in, “people would say, ‘But there’s death and there’s divorce and there’s disappointment.’ But children more than anyone instinctively know that life is full of danger.”
She adds, “I’m sure if you asked Jo Rowling, she’d say the same thing.”
In this respect (and others), Thompson takes inspiration from her father, Eric, who wrote and narrated The Magic Roundabout television series. “He would say, ‘please don’t say I’m writing for children,’” she recalls with passion. “It’s patronizing to write for children as though they came from another planet. Dad said he wrote to please himself.” In the same way, she says, “Potter didn’t write for children; she wrote for everyone.” She insists her Nanny McPhee films and The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit are not exclusively for children. “This separation of us all out into camps according to our age or our sex is depressing. I don’t think it’s culturally healthy.”
Thompson’s father read her the Potter books when she was a child, and her new book resonates with her childhood visits to Scotland. The Further Tale, like the original, finds Peter Rabbit squeezing under the gate into Mr. McGregor’s garden. He then hops into a basket covered with a tartan picnic cloth, eats the cheese and pickle sandwich inside, and promptly falls asleep. When he wakes up he finds that Mr. and Mrs. McGregor have taken him up the High Road. There he meets a huge black rabbit called Finlay McBurney, who turns out to be his cousin.
“I thought that Potter had been so influenced by Scotland as a child so it seemed right that he should visit,” says Thompson. It’s also an homage to the Scottish side of her family and — once more — her father: Eric wrote a book based on The Magic Roundabout characters called Dougal’s Scottish Holiday.
As a child, Thompson was taken to Highland games — “It was a great treat to sit on a wall with a packet of crisps and see all the pipers go by” — which make their way into her book. (I won’t spoil the ending, but there is some messing about with radish tossing.) She will soon be attending similar games in the Cowal Peninsula, Scotland, where she has a home. “It’s bonkers: we take this tree and throw it. It’s absolutely mad.”
Some people have said the same thing (in the nicest possible way) about Thompson herself. Let us say she is exactly the right kind of bonkers to write a successful children’s book. Her relish for language is clear and there are a few lovely Scottish phrases that the children (and even the adults) will have to look up.
These, along with Eleanor Taylor’s Potter-inspired illustrations, make the book a delight.
Does she have plans to take up some of Potter’s other characters?
“I have since received a communique from Benjamin Bunny,” she tells me earnestly. “And I’m trying to think of something he can join in with …”
A “certain mischievous twinkle” in Emma Thompson’s eyes made her perfect to write a Peter Rabbit sequel.