"My dear Noel, I don't know what to write to you so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter."
Beatrix Potter was 27 years old when she wrote and illustrated a letter to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her former governess. It was just one of numerous letters, each telling a different story--usually about animals--that Potter wrote to individual children throughout her life.
Nothing unusual about that. But, unlike most letters, less than a decade later, it was turned into a commercially produced picture book and the rest, as they say, is history.
Potter's letter to Noel, like many of the others, was inspired by her holidays in the Lake District. For three months of the year, the Potter family would leave their London home and settle in the country. Here Potter drew and painted, recording in beautiful detail the countryside she saw around her, particularly the animals. Her favorites were rabbits, and she had her own pet rabbits at home in London: Peter, whose name is now eternally linked to the creatures, was one of the best loved.
When, a few years after writing this memorable letter, Potter decided to turn it into a book, the work was relatively easy. But, as so often is the case, getting it published proved harder. It was difficult for Potter to find anyone willing to take a risk on her picture book. While Frederick Warne was interested in her story, with its black-and-white illustrations of rabbits, the company found the costs unpromising. In frustration, Potter had the book privately printed in 1901, in an edition of 250 copies. On viewing the finished product, Warne was quick to see the commercial possibilities, and soon made up for its initial lack of courage by publishing the book--replacing the black-and-white illustrations with color--in the now-familiar format a year later.
From the beginning, the book was a considerable commercial success. It was sold in Harrods and other London bookshops, alongside a soft toy Peter Rabbit that made him the first licensed character. Warne followed up quickly with The Tailor of Gloucester (which Potter also had had privately printed) and her third title, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, both of which were published in 1903.
Potter as Entrepreneur
One hundred years on, the initial success of that small-format picture book continues unabated. Never out of print, The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 35 languages. Potter herself was nominated as the second-most "classic" author in a Library Association poll conducted in the U.K. in 2000, being beaten only by Ernest Hemingway, while The Tale of Peter Rabbit appears regularly on Top 10 favorite children's books lists, and was voted the #7 top children's book of all time on an Amazon.co.uk survey in 2000. It and the 22 other titles that Potter wrote and illustrated in the same format--among them The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tale of Jeremy Fisher and The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle-- inspired many other animal stories throughout the decades, including recently those by Dick King-Smith.
To celebrate such an achievement, Frederick Warne, which since its acquisition by Penguin Books in 1984 has been energetic in extending and developing the Beatrix Potter range, has published new editions of the complete set of Potter's books. These are the first totally new editions in more than 50 years (though Frederick Warne issued deluxe and limited editions in 1993, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Potter's letter to Noel). The books are printed on creamy paper that closely matches the paper Potter herself selected for her original, self-published edition, while the pictures have been re-scanned to make the illustrations look fresher and brighter, like the watercolors Potter originally painted.
In The Tale of Peter Rabbit itself, there are some original illustrations, including a suitably sinister one of Mrs. McGregor producing the pie made from the young rabbits' father for the waiting knife and fork of Mr. McGregor, which, along with three others from Potter's original edition, became the endpapers in the first Warne edition. There are also two completely new images of Peter desperately trying to get home, having lost all his clothes.
Designed as "collectibles" and packaged in presentation boxes and gift boxes, the new editions mark just the tip of The World of Peter Rabbit, the massive merchandising business that Frederick Warne has developed, following in Potter's own footsteps. The line now sells a cool $500 million of product worldwide year after year through international companies such as Wedgwood and Royal Doulton (both of which have been involved in the Potter business since the 1940s).
Potter also oversaw a range of products, including tea sets, slippers and handkerchiefs, which were licensed by Frederick Warne. She did, however, have less-than-enthusiastic feelings about an approach from Disney in 1936, saying: "There is a scheme to film Peter Rabbit. I am not very hopeful about the result. They propose to use cartoons; it seems that a succession of figures can be joggled together to give an impression of motion. I don't think the pictures would be satisfactory without the landscape backgrounds, and I doubt if the backgrounds would be satisfactory on a larger scale and without color."
Though Potter continued to oversee these merchandising and licensing opportunities, she stopped writing new stories in 1930. After her marriage to William Heelis, she devoted herself to him and to the Lake District that she so loved, concentrating on farming and especially on her prized Herdwick sheep. She had no regrets about giving up writing and illustrating. In 1934 she explained to a friend: "I am 'written out' for story books, and my eyes are tired for painting; but I can still take great and useful pleasure in old oak--and drains--and old roofs--and damp walls--oh the repairs!"
But while their author moved on to other things, the books survived. The enduring qualities of the entire The World of Peter Rabbit empire lie in Potter's original stories and pictures, proving the all-embracing power of a good storyteller with a keen sense of her audience. Beatrix Potter understood this absolutely. As Noel Moore grew up, Potter continued to write illustrated letters to other children and once wrote to the mother of one, "It is much more satisfactory to address a real child. I often think that was the secret success of Peter Rabbit: it was written to a child, not made to order."