The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter
by Susan Witting Albert
My mom actually read these before me, and when she told me what they were about — Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and others, where the both the humans and animals talk — I was moderately intrigued. But it wasn’t until one day over two months ago that I picked one of them up on a whim.
There was something about the cover that instantly drew my attention. And it was a really wonderful read. Not because it was the most astounding story I’ve ever read, but because of how it reminded me of myself and certain sentimental values and my integrity as a writer.
At its core, the book reminded me why I wanted to write. Not because of anything Potter wrote about (animals, children books) or how she went about it (sketching, painting), but the mood it evoked. A sense of wanting to combine a love of nature, art, and animals into narrative form. (Although on the note of not-what-she-wrote-about, my earliest story was a picture book with cats.)
In the same vein, it reminded me of myself and my interests or what I care about. These include: animals, nature, writing, stories, peace & quiet. It reminded me of a certain tone of life I wanted for myself — quiet, but creative, with attention on animals and natural science.
In fact, it was this blend of observing nature, contemplating human nature, and conceptualizing stories that led me to think Philosophy was a good college major. After all, ancient philosophers concerned themselves with everything from ethics to categorizing nature to the origin of existence. But that’s a bit an aside. Back to the story.
As I said, the story’s mood reminded me of a tone of life I’ve always wanted. As a result of this, it made me remember myself in a very integral way, and specifically how I wished to write since I was young.
I loved the atmosphere at the beginning and how it built conflict but in an everyday kind of way. There was no epic danger or threat of disaster, only a sense of village life, gossip, and personal trouble (Beatrix’s dead fiance). It did open with a death, but the early tension of the story was built on people disliking that a woman was going to be a farmer and had bought Hill Top Farm.
Even more importantly, it had the kind of beginning tone and build up I want in a story of mine (Romance of Three Jewels). I want it to steadily grow and for there to be conflict but an every day kind of conflict until the major conflict strikes.
Likewise, the atmosphere reminded me that I think it’d be fun to write a story in a setting and tone like this one had, but in a completely fantasy setting and with less white people.
In terms of storytelling, I was a little thrown off by how each of the missing items vanished by three different means (rats, misplacement, art dealer). I was expecting the lost of the items to be connected because I read how when writing mysteries you should leave clues that don’t mislead the reader. (Although, oops, that’s for detective stories, which are probably different than mysteries.)
It wasn’t a bad way to find the items, and thinking on it afterwards, I thought the animals solving one mystery and Beatrix another worked because so much of the story is divided between the humans and animals.
Admittedly, I did find the rats (who had flinched the money) to be a little bit jarring (but not the owl). When Crumpet, one of the cats, sees them, we learn that
“One was larger and sleeker than any rat she had ever seen, and seemed to think a good deal of himself. He was a country-gentlemen sort of rat, in a blue jacket, red waistcoat, fawn breeches, and smart boots. He must, however, have fallen on rather hard times, for… his whole appearance was that of genteel poverty… The other two rats were smaller and thinner, with pointed noses and half-closed eyes that gave them a sly, shifty look… One wore a red-and-white striped jersey, like a sailor; the other sported a green jockey’s cap, perched at a rakish angle, and a dirty green silk scarf. Hand-rolled cigarettes dangled from the corners of their mouths, and their protruding teeth were stained an ugly yellow” (225-6)
I’d guess that part of why their appearance was so jarring to me was how human-like they sounded. I mean, two of them have cigarettes. But I think it’s all right, since the description might be trying to evoke Potter’s style and subject.
Finally, the setting was descriptive and lush. I mean look at this:
“It was a clear, cloudless afternoon, and Lake Windermere, England’s largest lake, was a beautiful sight, its blue waters ruffled by a fresh southern breeze, the trees on the western side of the lake dressed in splendid autumn reds and yellows” (16).
“But as Beatrix turned to look westward, toward the majestic Coniston fells rising against a sunset sky painted with lavender and gold, she knew very well what had brought her here. This was October, the trees of Cuckoo Brow Woods were as richly colored as a medieval tapestry, and the meadows along Esthwaite Water, still green, were dotted with serenely grazing sheep and black-and-white cows and flocks of white geese” (26)
“The sky was serene and cloudless, the fells across Esthwaite Water were turning from smoky gray to lilac, and the hill behind Belle Green was brushed with a dewy sheen. The robins practiced their sunrise chorale in the sycamore tree, the rooks cawed lustily, and the farmyard roosters crowed in a raucous chorus. It was a lovely morning, Beatrix thought, turning to glance toward the woods, where beeches and larches paraded in their gold-and-bronze autumn finery” (98-9)
The description was part of why it made me remember why I was a writer – to evoke a strong sense of place, of being in-world or elsewhere. That’s like the most magical part of reading and (for me) is one of the highest crafts a fiction writer can create/evoke/achieve.
Overall, I immensely enjoyed reading it. It will probably be a good book to re-read periodically, just to re-center myself as a writer, why I write, how I want to live, and what is of value to me.
Albert, Susan Witting. The Tale of Hill Top Farm. New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2004. Print.