Matthew Dennison

Don’t cancel Beatrix Potter

A 1979 UK postage stamp with an illustration of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (iStock)

I spoke too soon. Beatrix Potter, I suggested in an afterword to my 2016 biography of the author and illustrator, had escaped the distortions of sexual and racial revisionism that now blight so many eminent and long-dead British writers. But no longer.

Last week a specialist in postcolonial literature at a northern university accused Potter of failing to acknowledge her indebtedness to an oral storytelling tradition of enslaved Africans working on American plantations. Welcome, please, a new Potter for the 21st century: exploitative, colonialist, dishonest. Potter’s concealment, claims Dr Emily Zobel Marshall, ‘[feeds] into a damaging and recurring appropriation of Black cultural forms that continues today’.

Blimey. Zobel Marshall’s hypothesis rests on a comparative reading of several of Potter’s children’s books and the Brer Rabbit stories published by American folklorist Joel Chandler Harris, beginning in the 1880s, which celebrate the cunning of a trickster rabbit whose misdemeanours, like those of Peter Rabbit, include stealing food. Chandler Harris had firsthand experience of the slave community’s storytelling tradition from his time on a Georgia plantation in the early 1860s. Potter, by contrast, was brought up in cloistered mid-Victorian respectability in South Kensington. Dominating her childhood were the social anxieties of her fretful mother and gadfly father, both of them inheritors of very recent fortunes based on their own fathers’ graft, canniness and – oh, joy – cotton, some of it American in origin.

For Zobel Marshall, it’s too good a coincidence to ignore. Correctly she points out that Chandler Harris’s stories had not been published when Potter, born in 1866, was a child. She concludes that Potter’s knowledge of the Brer Rabbit tales ‘was a result of her family roots in the cotton industry’. So easily in 2023 is a reputation scuppered.

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