HAPPY EVER AFTER
Beatrix Potter’s daring young hero continues to charm a new generation. By Jenny Uglow
For more than 100 years, Peter Rabbit has squeezed under the gate, dived into the watering-can and wriggled out of his blue coat in the gooseberry net. His latest big-screen appearance confirms his appeal. ‘Once upon a time,’ the story begins. It’s a classic tale of children on their own, as Mrs Rabbit sets off to the baker with her basket and umbrella. In a magical, miniature version of an ancient plot, we find rebellion against parental commands, daring adventure, danger and blissful return. We can tell at once by the look on Peter’s face that he’s determined to ignore the warning ‘don’t go into Mr Mcgregor’s garden’, despite the dire fate of his papa. The suspense is terrific.
Beatrix Potter wrote this escape from sickness and trouble in 1893 for five-yearold Noel Moore, who was recovering from scarlet fever. Since its first publication in 1901, how many parents and children have enjoyed sounding out the threatening screech of the hoe, ‘scr-r-itch scratch, scratch, scritch’? Gardeners may have some sympathy with Mr Mcgregor, but the story makes us all trespassers, with a warm bed and camomile tea our only punishment. Potter based Peter on her much-loved pet rabbit Peter Piper, and every ‘lippity-lippity’ movement is beautifully observed. She takes the same care with the blackbirds who pinch the blackberries, the robin that pecks at Peter’s shoe, the friendly sparrows, dangerous white cat and old mouse. No Disney animation can match this scrupulous, affectionate attention to animals and birds.
We associate Beatrix Potter with the Cumbrian fells, but Peter Rabbit’s settings are simply a wood and a garden. It’s a story about the lure and risk of boundaries, and the relief of getting home. Something we can all feel, however old we are. ‘Peter Rabbit’ will be released on 16 March.
above: beatrix potter with her pet rabbit in 1891. bottom: a still from the new film
left: peter rabbit munching radishes (1902). above right: potter, aged five, holding a toy rabbit, with her cousin. right: a 1902 illustration