Catholic Herald, 5 January 1990
Review: Beatrix Potter’s Letters, selected by Judy Taylor (Frederick Warne, £20)
My intention had been to look at that excellent book, first published in 1946, in tandem with this selection of letters. Tant pis. The pleasantly unobtrusive biographical notes that link and annotate the letters provide the reader with more than enough detail to fill in the background.
This is a collection to savour – slowly. Letters, of course, are not meant to be read non-stop, one after another or pell-mell. One writes and receives them at decent intervals.
Large collections (more than 1400 here) can be awkward to digest. The temptation to “dip” should be resisted; it’s worth absorbing these letters consecutively.
How otherwise would one grasp the transition Beatrix Potter made from mycologist to successful hill farmer via Jemima Puddleduck et al? Careful reading is rewarded by delightful incident: the “foxy gentleman” for example, pictured by mistake without knickerbockers.
As well as a host of gorgeous illustrations, some in very good colour, there are facsimiles of the early picture-letters. These were written to young nephews and nieces and are an enchanting introduction to such household names as Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.
What a privilege to be in at the birth of that arch-hero, Peter Rabbit! And here is Mr. McGregor, the terror of so many childhoods! Sketchy and unpolished as yet, but the dibber, specs, beard and rake already threaten.
Most readers will hunt for their favourite characters; but the letters also reflect the social upheavals of Beatrix Potter’s life-span, the slowly revolving seasons in glorious Lakeland, acute comments on conservation, and the minute gossip of village life.
This clever, funny; brilliant author/ artist shunned publicity. Apart from her books, these letters bring us as close to the real Beatrix as we are ever likely to get.
Fortunately for us she wrote heaps of letters and the recipients preserved them carefully. Pity the literary ferret 50 years from now. Despite the avalanche of paper that is wasted every day, letter-writing diminishes before our very eyes while we make someone happy with a ‘phone-call.
Such letters as we do receive tend to be thrown out as we move house more frequently into ever-shrinking living space.
The last letter in this collection deserves to be quoted in full for it typifies the humour, eccentric syntax and thoughtfulness so apparent elsewhere in the book.
The author was 77 when she wrote to her shepherd, “Very far through, but still some kick in me. Am not going right way at present. I write a line to shake you by the hand, our friendship has been entirely pleasant. I am very ill with bronchitis. Best wishes for New Year.” Nine days later she died; just before Christmas 1943.