Teaching Beatrix Potter

Hannah Swamidoss, Rowlett High School / Eastfield College

Several of Beatrix Potter’s stories for children offer special opportunities for critical engagement with issues in class and gender and concepts like the individual and community. I have found that using Potter in my world literature classes opens up fruitful ways to explore culture, particularly in thinking of the economic, ethical and gender values that Potter presents to her intended child audience. Potter’s continued popularity from her time period to today also provokes thoughtful student responses.

During 1901-1913, Potter wrote twenty animal fantasies, the first of which, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901 self published, 1902) gave her immediate success and an international audience. Although Potter’s tales have different plots, they share a similar paradigm with popular characters often appearing in other tales. Potter’s universe, for instance, often contains violence: Mr. McGregor makes rabbit pie out of Peter Rabbit’s father and tries his best to do so with the Flopsy bunnies; Mr. Tod (a fox) and Mr. Brock (a badger) have a vicious scuffle; and another fox tries to eat Jemima Puddle-duck and her eggs. Likewise, Potter’s stories tread a delicate balance between animals sometimes behaving like animals and at other times acting like humans. All of her stories written during this period fall under the category of picture books and provide an additional opportunity of analyzing the pictorial narrative as well as the written. Because of their small size, the books may have about fifty odd pages or so, but the stories can be read within a few minutes. Perhaps the most valuable trait for pedagogical purposes that Potter’s books offer lies in their quality of being both familiar and unfamiliar to students. Whether students have read any of these stories or not, they find the books size and presentation of a story familiar to other picture books they remember from childhood or have seen in libraries and bookstores. On closer examination of the stories, however, students find elements of the story strange and possibly perplexing. As adult readers, students understand the different levels of Potter’s stories and recognize that a young child may not grasp the violence or distinctions within the text.

In my classes, I use two of Potter’s stories, The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904) and The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910) as assigned reading and then have the students complete a short assignment in which they find a different story of Potter’s and identify aspects of gender, class, agency, the individual/community, and the concept of the home. Much of Potter’s work has become public domain, and students can access her books on Project Gutenberg or easily find hard copies at a library. This assignment introduces students to at least one more of Potter’s stories but usually several, as students skim through a few books before finding one suitable for analysis. While not required to, students frequently look up Potter’s background to see if details of her life will help them with their analysis of the text. Consequently, students come to class discussion with some knowledge of Potter’s life and a familiarity with her works. Since the plots of the books can be quickly summarized, students can understand each other’s contributions from a story that they may not have read.

I tend to organize classroom discussion around concepts such as alienation, authority, agency, or societal anxieties to name a few. I provide students with a broad question for the week’s discussion or have students generate a question for the class. The general rule for discussion is that students can use any texts that we have read over the course of the semester to explore and respond to the discussion questions, but because Potter is accessible at many levels, I allow students to use their outside readings of Potter in class discussion. To raise the level of the discussion and to encourage students to be better prepared when they participate, I require students to write a short analysis paper of the topic at hand over a text of their choice. Even though the questions vary, students may only analyze a text once for their written papers, so invariably, several students will use Potter at least once for discussion. Examples of questions are: What elements create authority in the texts that we have read? Who or what has agency? What role does gender play? What elements create identity? Beatrix Potter’s tales lend themselves well to these types of questions and also provide useful points of comparison with other texts from different authors that we have read in class. To better explain the various possibilities Potter’s texts offer in the classroom, I am providing a brief background to Potter, a synopsis of Two Bad Mice and Mrs. Tittlemouse, and points of critical interest in these two narratives.

Potter’s Background

Born in 1866, Potter grew up in a wealthy middle-class home in London and had a typical Victorian childhood. She and her brother sketched from nature and both demonstrated artistic talent. For a period in her life, Potter did research on fungi and tried to present her material to the Linnean society; the society, however, did not take her work seriously because of her gender. Trying to find a measure of financial and personal freedom, Potter turned to using her drawings for stories. With the success of Peter Rabbit, Potter achieved some financial independence, and she proved to be a very savvy businesswoman. Once she entered the world of writing and authorship, Potter also found romance, as she and Norman Warne, an editor at her publishing house (Frederick Warne), developed a close friendship which culminated in Warne proposing to Potter. Potter’s parents, however, objected to the match on the grounds that Warne was involved in trade and therefore had questionable social standing. Tragically, Warne died of leukemia shortly after becoming engaged to Potter. Potter later married William Heelis, a country solicitor, to whom her parents once again raised objections based on social standing, but this time eventually agreed to the marriage. With respect to gender and class, students can quickly see that Potter struggled with the expectations of her time period and negotiated space for herself as an individual.

The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse

In Two Bad Mice, a young, wealthy middle-class girl plays with a dollhouse and two dolls, Lucinda (the owner of the dollhouse) and Jane (the cook). When the girl and the dolls are not in the nursery where the dollhouse is kept, two mice – Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca (husband and wife) – emerge from their humble home (a hole in the wall) and explore the dollhouse looking for food. When the mice realize that none of the attractive toy food is edible, they become enraged and cause damage to the house and then steal some of the items for their own use. These two acts lead the narrator to label the mice as “bad” although they make up for some of their destruction: Tom Thumb finds a sixpence and gives it to the dolls, while Hunca Munca voluntarily sweeps the dollhouse in the mornings.

In contrast to Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, Mrs. Tittlemouse has a spacious abode in a hedge, and instead of invading someone else’s home, for the majority of the narrative, Mrs. Tittlemouse evicts uninvited and unwelcome guests from her home. At one point, Mrs. Tittlemouse encounters bees in her storeroom which she cannot physically remove by herself; fortunately another of her unwelcome guests, the toad Mr. Jackson takes care of the bees and then leaves. The narrative ends with order restored in Mrs. Tittlemouse’s home, and after a fortnight of spring cleaning, she throws a party for a select group of mice.

The Shift from Victorian Social Responsibility to the Individual

Potter’s portrayal of animal families often depicts children exploring their environment, disobeying adults, and displaying individual characteristics. Peter Rabbit, for instance, disobeys his mother, explores Mr. McGregor’s garden, and shows less courage than his cousin Benjamin Bunny. This type of individuation of the child is, of course, a familiar theme in children’s stories. Two Bad Mice, however, offers a more subtle form of the individual: the manner in which each character plays with the dollhouse demonstrates each character’s individual preferences. Another subtle idea of the individual occurs in Mrs. Tittlemouse when Mrs. Tittlemouse protects her property and chooses whom to invite to her party. In each narrative’s development of the individual subject, Two Bad Mice and Mrs. Tittlemouse, however, demonstrate a problematic element of exclusion. For example, the mice in Two Bad Mice cannot play in the dollhouse while the dolls or their owner is about; when Hunca Munca comes to clean (a form of play in the text since there is no real dirt in the toy home), the text makes it clear that no one is awake. The dollhouse brings about a certain kind of community as it ties the mice, humans, and dolls together, but these individuals have very limited interactions with others. Likewise in Mrs. Tittlemouse, students can see that the protagonist is within her rights when she secures her house, but students are also quick to discern that this insistence on the rights of the individual has an empty quality to it. Mrs. Tittlemouse spends most of her time cleaning, being morbidly obsessed with the marks of footprints left by the feet of other animals. Arguably, as the narrative suggests, the little mouse enjoys this type of lifestyle, but for the majority of the narrative, the mouse is alone, stressed about the cleanliness of her home, and coming into conflict with her neighbors.

Most students are not familiar with the Victorian understanding of social responsibility, but once I have provided them with background information, students can quickly recognize how much Potter’s stories have moved away from the idea of societal responsibility to an emphasis of the individual. Potter’s background proves particularly useful here, in her own strategies to find means in which to develop her personal interests and meet her goals. This aspect of her work opens up several ways to explore historical and cultural elements and compare and contrast these elements to contemporary American ideas of the individual and social responsibility. Usually, students apply this idea of social responsibility to their own independent readings of Potter and explore the ways in which she presents the individual in her other texts.

Social Class and Gender

Frequently, the presentation of the individual in Potter’s tales makes students think that her stories will be more progressive with respect to social class and gender . To a certain extent, Two Bad Mice does reveal the mice moving upward in class by gaining material goods and having access to the dollhouse which from the pictorial and written narrative clearly represents a wealthy middle-class home. However, this upward class mobility has definite limits in when the mice can play in the house and what material goods they can have (bedding, a cradle, and clothes but not a bookcase or birdcage). Gender further complicates the matter when the Hunca Munca cleans the dollhouse as a form of play; the narrative portrays her having a seemingly natural desire to be a servant. Mrs. Tittlemouse again reemphasizes traditional expectations of gender and class. While the central character is clearly a wealthy, independent female, the narrative only presents her in a domestic role. Class may not be as clearly demarcated in Mrs. Tittlemouse as it is in Two Bad Mice, but the story clearly depicts the social standing of various characters, particularly through Mr. Jackson. Mr. Jackson proves particularly troublesome to Mrs. Tittlemouse, not only because he drips on her nice clean floor, but also because she cannot hope to physically remove him from her home. Once Mr. Jackson leaves, however, Mrs. Tittlemouse alters the dimensions of her door so that he cannot enter again. At the end of the narrative when Mrs. Tittlemouse throws her party for a select group of mice, Mr. Jackson tries to attend the party (uninvited of course) but cannot enter the house. The story ends with Mrs. Tittlemouse handing out refreshments to Mr. Jackson through the window; the text indicates no censure of the mouse’s behavior and instead explains that Mr. Jackson takes no offense at this treatment. The narrative’s unspoken message suggests that everyone in his or her place provides contentment for all.

Students find these elements of gender and class in these stories extremely problematic when they place it against Potter’s own life experiences where she faced discrimination based on gender and heartache because her fiancé Warne was seen as lesser in class. Likewise, Potter went against both gender and class expectations in her business dealings and eventual marriage to Heelis. Some students try to read against the text to resolve this discrepancy between Potter’s life and her works, but whether students try to read against the text or not, these elements provoke thoughtful discussions.

Audience, Popularity, and the Literary Canon

Potter’s intended and actual audience – children – further complicates issues of gender, class, and the individual. Although students may have a range of responses to the idea that narratives shape culture, most students do see a didactic quality in children’s literature. Likewise, because Potter’s works are picture books and she favored a smaller size for her books (which creates a toy-like appearance), students point out that her targeted audience probably consists of younger children unlikely to be old enough to discern problematic elements of gender, class, and the exclusion of characters in the text. In this context, students frequently bring up Potter’s repeated use of the word “dirty” in Mrs. Tittlemouse in reference to several characters and what a disquieting moral value that this word introduces to the text; Mr. Jackson, after all, is kept outside (with the narrator’s approbation) because of his dirtiness.

Potter’s immense popularity and her place in the children’s literary canon also provide opportunities for students to critically engage with issues. As with any text, students have a range of responses to Potter’s stories, but whether appreciative of her tales or not, students can see that the way in which Potter and other entrepreneurs exploited the commercial values of her characters (dolls, games, wallpaper, figurines, china) helped establish Potter’s books in British culture which in turn also helped place her within the children’s literary canon. This commercial aspect, of course, opens up additional interesting issues of literature and culture.

To conclude, I believe that Beatrix Potter has much to offer in the literature classroom. While my world literature classes may not necessarily have enjoyed Potter’s stories, students definitely engaged with the text. For instance, some students came up with their own (scandalous) sequels to Potter’s tales (something that I did not require, but which I am considering as an optional assignment in the future) which demonstrated a sound understanding of Potter’s complexity. Potter provides an interesting and accessible segue to discussing a variety of critical issues.

Selected Resources on Potter

Kutzer, M. Daphne. Beatrix Potter: Writing in Code. NY: Routledge, 2003.

Lane, Margaret. The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter. London and NY: Frederick Warne, 1978, 1979.

Lear, Linda. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

McDonald, Ruth K. Beatrix Potter. Twayne’s English Authors Series. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Rahn, Suzanne. “Tailpiece: The Tale of Two Bad Mice.” Children’s Literature 12 (1984): 78-91.

Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. London and NY: Frederick Warne, 1986, 1987.

Underhill, Jennifer. “Beatrix Potter – a Tale of Commodification: Examining the Place of ‘Classics” in the Primary

Classroom.” English in Education 36.1 (2002): 56-65.