Were it not for Squirrel Nutkin, a lion and a witch might have remained forever undiscovered in C.S. Lewis’s enchanted wardrobe.
Or they’d have emerged in very different guises.
The Belfast-born writer of one of history’s best known stories - The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe - was five years old when Beatrix Potter’s impertinent little red squirrel had a narrow escape from an old brown owl.
Roamer remembers being very relieved, but the story affected young C.S. Lewis infinitely more profoundly. “Nutkin and Twinkleberry and all the other little squirrels came out of the wood, and down to the edge of the lake” on an autumn day at the beginning of the 20 th century.
They were the result of botanist, artist and storyteller Beatrix Potter’s vivid imagination.
The squirrels sailed to Owl Island on little twig-rafts, where the owl allowed them to gather nuts.
Nutkin annoyed Old Brown with sing-song riddles till the owl’s patience ran out, and he suspended him by the tail “intending to skin him.”
Over 50 years later Lewis wrote about Potter’s pastoral autumn day, with all of its little-animal exhilarations, in Surprised by Joy.
“Here at last - beauty.” Surprised by Joy was Lewis’s epic Christian classic, recounting the author’s search for “an elusive and momentary sensation of glorious yearning” - the joy that he found in his Christian faith. His life and his literary output changed dramatically, and Lewis regarded The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin as his “second glimpse” of joy, which “came through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books” which he collectively described
as “the delight of my childhood.”
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in London on 28 July 1866 - 150 years ago next Thursday.
Her first writings were rejected by several publishers before Beatrix self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, printing an initial 250 copies for family and friends in December 1901. Frederick Warne and Co., one of the publishing companies who’d turned it down, reconsidered their decision and agreed to print the book with Beatrix’s coloured illustrations.
It hit the bookshops in October 1902 and was an immediate bestseller.
The following year Potter published The Tale of Squirrelb Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester. The rest is history, which will be marked round the world on
Her little red squirrel “was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure,” Lewis wrote in a letter to his own publisher “…something, as they would say now, ‘in another dimension.’”
I’m sure that many of us ‘of a certain age’ remember quaking with fear as Nutkin dangled in the face of death, held aloft by the owl. We breathed a huge sigh of relief as Nutkin “pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two, and he dashed up the staircase, and escaped out of the attic window.”
Many of us will agree with Lewis that Potter’s little animal adventures were the “delight of our childhood.” My mother read them to me at bedtime, and all of my little chums similarly went to sleep with Jemima Puddle-Duck, Benjamin Bunny or Tom Kitten whispering in their ears.
“Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.”
Or three little fur-coated kittens called Mittens, Tom Kitten, and Moppet who “tumbled about the doorstep and played in the dust.”
Or Jemima Puddle-Duck “who was annoyed because the farmer’s wife would not let her hatch her own eggs.”
There were Beatrix Potter board games, painting books, teddy bears, dolls, almanacs and woollen slippers. Today there are stage shows, films, musicals, videos and all sorts of modern merchandise including toys, dishes, food, clothing and cards.
More than two million Beatrix Potter books are sold around the world annually - about four books every minute!
Her first tale about Peter Rabbit recounted the mischievous and disobedient wee bunny being chased through Mr McGregor’s very delicious vegetable garden.
“Your father had an accident there,” warned Peter’s mother, “he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor!” Risking the pastry, Peter gorged on the McGregor’s juicy
beans, lettuce and radishes.
Aided and abetted by various other little animals, he evaded Mrs McGregor’s oven by the merest whisker and arrived home with an unsettled stomach.
Mrs Rabbit put him to bed after dosing him with camomile tea while “Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail had bread and milk and blackberries for supper!”
Potter’s first tale was written in 1893 for five-year- old Noel Moore, her former governess’s son. It has been translated into dozens of languages and with over 40 million copies sold is one of the best-selling books of all time. The author patented a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903, followed
almost immediately with a Peter Rabbit board game, and since then by an every-burgeoning industry. Peter is probably the world’s oldest licensed literary character!
I wonder if any News Letter readers have an original doll passed down through the generations, or any of Potter’s books or merchandise tucked away in their attics. Maybe you have stories to share about the author or her part in your childhood.
There’ll be more here on Wednesday, the day before the 150th anniversary of her birth. Helen Beatrix Potter died on 22 December 1943 aged 77.