The Secret Life of Beatrix Potter

By Anna RussellMarch 12, 2022

A new book and an exhibition on Potter, who wrote “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” use letters, sketches, and a coded journal to capture an author who delighted in the detail and humor of the natural world.

Many teen-agers will go to great lengths to keep their diaries private—I kept a little key for mine in a wooden jewelry box, which I guarded jealously—but the children’s book author Beatrix Potter took it to an extreme. Between the ages of fourteen and thirty, she fastidiously recorded observations about her stiff Victorian world in several journals. Her parents, descendants of wealthy cotton merchants in the North of England, were rich and exceedingly proper. Perhaps to protect her work, Potter wrote in a minuscule handwriting using a code that only she could understand. Her journals remained a mystery until 1958, when a collector, searching through them, identified a passing reference to Louis XVI, and then painstakingly decoded years’ worth of Potter’s innermost thoughts. (Fans are nosy, too)

In public, Potter, the author of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” and “The Tale of Benjamin Bunny,” whose books have now sold more than two hundred and fifty million copies, was demure and perfectly respectable. In private, the journals suggest, she was forthright and opinionated, a budding artist, who delighted in the detail and humor of everyday life. “She was quite a strong and determined personality,” Annemarie Bilclough, who co-curated an exhibition on her life at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, told me. Born in 1866, Potter lived with her parents in a grand house in South Kensington, a rapidly growing community, until she was forty-seven years old. She felt like an outsider much of the time. She hated the noise and grime of the city—“Why do people live in London so much?” she wondered—and longed to be in nature. She called her birthplace “unloved.” “My brother and I were born in London because my father was a lawyer there,” she wrote. “But our descent—our interests and our joy was in the north country.”

What was Potter doing all that time she lived at home with her parents? In childhood, she rarely ventured into the rest of London, and she had few friends besides her younger brother, Bertram. Mostly, it seems, she spent her days drawing. She drew compulsively, rapturously, from a young age, in a sketchbook that she made from drawer-lining paper and stationery. “It is all the same, drawing, painting, modelling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye,” she wrote. She drew when she was unsettled, regardless of the subject. “I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever, and settles on the queerest things,” she wrote in her journal. “Last time, in the middle of September, I caught myself in the back yard making a careful and admiring copy of the swill bucket, and the laugh it gave me brought me round.”

Potter’s sketchbook and coded journal, and many of her other belongings, are on display at the V. & A. through early next year, in an exhibition titled “Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature.” (Rizzoli has recently published an accompanying book by the same name.) Some two hundred and forty eclectic objects, including manuscripts, sketches, tchotchkes and collectibles—even the alleged pelt of Benjamin Bunny–—tell the story of a remarkable transformation. Having lived the first two-thirds of her life in near-total acquiescence to her family’s wishes, she made a sudden turn in her third act. “A town mouse longing to be a country mouse,” as Bilclough put it, Potter gave up the trappings of her privileged life in London and bought a cottage in a remote part of the English countryside. She became a farmer and conservationist, with muddy shoes and prize-winning sheep. She walked the fells and lakeside paths around her new home, sketching them, and ultimately saving them from destruction.

Potter may not have had many friends as a child, but she had lots of animals. She and Bertram sneaked a rotating cast of pets into their nursery, including snakes, salamanders, lizards, rabbits, frogs, and a fat hedgehog. The V. & A. exhibition, which includes a series of dark rooms that evoke the cloistered atmosphere of Potter’s childhood, showcases her early drawings of the natural world as she would have known it then: a mouse, a caterpillar, a beady lizard.The siblings loved animals, but they were “unsentimental about the realities of life and death,” as the show puts it.

When their pets died, they would stuff them, or boil their skeletons for further study. There’s a drawing by Bertram of a pickled fish next to a human skull, and a note from him about his pet bat: “If he cannot be kept alive . . . you had better kill him, + stuff him as well as you can,” he wrote to Potter from boarding school. Nearby, stretched out in a display case, is a flattened rabbit hide and the disturbing sign, “Rabbit pelt, thought to be that of Benjamin Bouncer.” Benjamin Bouncer was one of a series of rabbits that Potter owned, and a favorite muse. She brought him home in a paper bag when she was in her teens. Later, she brought home the rabbit Peter Piper, who learned how to jump through hoops but “flatly refused to perform” in company.

In early adulthood, Potter observed her pets closely, inventing narratives about them, and filling her letters to the children of friends with their adventures. Her dispatches are playful and alive, illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings of rabbits. In 1892, she wrote a letter to Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, about an encounter that Benjamin Bunny had with a wild rabbit in the garden. (Benjamin hardly noticed; he was eating so much.) After Benjamin died (“through persistent devotion to peppermints”), Peter Piper became Potter’s leading man. In 1893, she wrote to Noel again: “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.” A drawing of a whiskered Peter on his hind legs, ears perked, immediately suggests mischief.

Potter sent the Moore children story after story in illustrated letters, until Noel’s mother suggested that she try to turn them into books. (The children had saved their copies.) In 1901, Potter self-published the first edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” which appeared almost exactly as she had written it to Noel, down to Peter’s “blue jacket with brass buttons, quite new.” A series of established publishers had turned her down, partly because of her insistence on keeping the book’s price low. “Little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings on one book, and would never buy it,” she wrote to a friend. She was also particular about the size of the book; it had to be small, for small hands. The following year, Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to put out an abridged version. Potter compromised on the cover image, which she called the “idiotic prancing rabbit.”

“Peter Rabbit” was an instant hit, selling out multiple editions. (“The public must be fond of rabbits! what an appalling quantity of Peter,” Potter wrote.) Her publisher asked for more books, and she began pumping them out one after another, beginning with “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” and “The Tailor of Gloucester.” She also patented her characters. In the exhibition, there’s a fraying Jemima Puddle-Duck doll, with a fabric bonnet and shawl, and a Peter Rabbit teapot, as well as a complicated-looking board game. “She was very savvy in what was created, and what was made,” Helen Antrobus, who co-curated the show, told me. Potter believed that her first books found an audience because they were written for real children. “It is much more satisfactory to address a real live child,” she wrote. “I often think that that was the secret of the success of Peter Rabbit, it was written to a child—not made to order.”

She also had a knack for making the familiar strange. Her attention to the practicalities of being an animal, even a very civilized one, produced beguiling images. If a hedgehog wears a bonnet, as one does in “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle,” her quills will certainly poke through. If a tortoise is invited to a dinner party, as happens in “The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher,” he’ll probably bring a salad in a string bag. She took silliness seriously. At the V. & A., one display case holds tiny folded letters that Potter wrote as if they were sent from one character to another: “Letters between Squirrel Nutkin, Twinkleberry Squirrel and Rt Hon. O. Brown, Esq. MP.”


pratyakṣa 和 anumānā 是建立在对现实性的测量之上。除此之外,瑜伽和 Samkhya 哲学也指出了另一种方法,āgamāāgamā 是我们不能通过感觉,感官可以知道的。也不是我们可以通过部分的知道的现实情况,可以推论出来的。有一些现实,我们不得不参考资料与材料。

apta vākya pramāṇa 

apta: dependable 可靠的

vākya: sentences  句

pramāṇa: means of knowledge  知识的手段 


āgamā pramāṇa        是通过有可靠来源的材料获得正确的知识

anumānā pramāṇa    是通过影响而获得知识

pratyakṣa pramāṇa    是通过直接的感觉感官获得知识

有些时候,我们很难直接或者间接的获得知识,我们不得不通过一些可靠的人来获得知识,这种获得知识的方法,可以是简单的,也可以是高深,深厚,深刻的获得方法。比如,一位来旅游的游客,给你介绍在他的国家,某个事情是这样或者那样的,我们可能没有机会直接亲身去他的国家体会,或者受到什么影响而了解到,我们只能通过这位游客的介绍而了解到。这是一位来自这个国家的人,他是个可靠的人,我们可以相信他,我们可以从他的资料里或者知识。这是 āgamā pramāṇa  。

Patanjiali 为什么会讲到这条经文,正是因为,我们不是所有的时候可以直接的感受,或者通过部分的事实来推断,很多时候我们是通过从可靠的人口中,从资料当中获得知识。我们可以看到的事物是有限的,瑜伽或者Samkhya 哲学经常提及那些我们很难看到的事物。

Patanjiali 的这一条经文,是在证明瑜伽或者Samkhya 哲学,经常让我相信或者依存于一些我们一般感官,看不到的事物。一个经典例子就是 purusha 和 drasta。purusha 和 drashta 的存在就不是依存于感觉,是超越感觉的,purusha的现实性是自我揭示,你是证明不了了的,purusha 是自己揭示出来的。是超越感觉的,感觉感官是抓不到的。比如:狗可以听的东西,我们是听不到的,有一些声音是我们听不到,但是狗可以听到的。所以,虽然我们感知不到,但是不代表它就不存在。

同样的drasta 或 purusha,是超越感知范畴的,并不代表它是不存在的,并不是因为有些事物我们不能直接感觉,或者间接证明,它就不存在。并不是有些事物我们看不到,他就是不存在的。这个世界上有成百上千的人,我们都没有见过,并不代表那些人就不存在。所以,有些现实,像 purusha 对于瑜伽或者 samkya 哲学来说是很重要的,samkya 哲学说我们要依赖,信任purusha ,我们要明白,purusha 和 prakriti 的关系,瑜伽哲学还告诉我们,kaivalyam(自由,隔离的) 是当你消除 avidya ( 愚昧,无知),要明白purusha 和 prakriti 的不同点。purusha 就是 āgamā pramāṇa。

在samkya 哲学当中还提到了 zabda pramana,zabda 是 声音,话语的意思,也就是唱诵,有些时候,purusha 是通过唱诵的力量所链接的。有些现实性,有些事实是通过唱诵而被我们所认知的。自我认知的过程,是通过vedic 唱诵,或者通过  mantra japa, 当我们在唱诵的时候,身体的振动会改变,大脑变得安静下来,感知,感觉变得安静下来,会把自己带领到一个,自己很深的地方,在这个地方有一个反应会发生,那就是什么在你的心里,你会看到究竟是什么在自己的心里。 viedic chanting, Mantra japa 是开启自我觉醒,自我智慧,是一个走进自身当中智慧的一个方法,我们可以听到这个智慧的声音,意识到事物的存在。

āgamā pramāṇa 也可以被称为通过意识,领悟而被了解的现实。比如,很多时候,我们犯了一个错误,当别人指出来的时候,我们知道,但是自己意识不到。我们知道这是一个错误,但是我们始终还是意识不到,反反复复的重复犯错,但是在某个时候,在我们的生活当中,你真的自己觉醒过来,才意识到。是自我觉醒,告诉的自己,这个是不对的。不管我们看到什么,不管有什么影响,我们都认识不到,只有自我觉醒之后才能真正意识到。比如,有些人喜欢抽烟,在烟盒的上面明明白白写着,吸烟有害健康,但是人们意识不到,吸烟有害健康,仍然继续抽烟。很多年以后,到医院检查身体的时候,各种检查报告,医生都在告诉他烟草对身体产生的影响。但是他仍然意识不到,但是突然有一天,有些变化在他的自身当中发生,只有自己真正觉醒的之后,自己告诉自己的时候,才会放弃抽烟。

这就是 āgamā pramāṇa ,智慧不总是从外面的世界获得,也可以从自己自身的觉醒当中获得。