“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
“Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were –
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was the first, and arguably best-known, of 23 tales published by Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) between 1902 and 1930. The plot, which has more twists and turns than an arrow in flight, features a greedy bad bunny (Peter) who, ignoring maternal instruction and eschewing the company of his more well-mannered siblings (Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail) as they gather blackberries, recklessly breaks into the garden of an elderly man (Mr McGregor). Here, Peter callously wreaks havoc on the lettuces, French beans and radishes that poor McGregor has spent so long cultivating for himself and his wife. Deservedly suffering a dyspeptic event next to the cucumber frame as a consequence of his gluttony, Peter is discovered; but, younger and fitter than his vulnerable pensioner adversary, and in keeping with his feral nature, he manages to escape – though loses his best blue jacket in the process and is forced to drink camomile tea.
Cinema and Potter fans alike were no doubt delighted when this dark, violent, but ultimately morally uplifting, tale eventually made its way onto the silver screen. Peter Rabbit (the movie) is a live-action computer animated production which attracted some controversy on its release in February 2018. Some suggest the film portrays Peter as an irresponsible bully. The critics, interpreting the original Tale of Peter Rabbit as a simple children’s story about an innocent, fatherless, cuddly little coney driven to juvenile delinquency through poverty and boredom, feel that Beatrix Potter would be spinning in her grave at the misrepresentation. Only having seen the trailer, in which Peter comes across as a perfectly conventional gobby brat, there actually seems little in it that would offend your average Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fan. James Corden, who voices the bumptious buck, is reported to have spent time in a hutch on a diet of carrots and lettuce to get into character for the role.
Another way of getting close to the Peter Rabbit experience is to visit the World of Beatrix Potter in Bowness, by the shores of Lake Windermere in the English Lake District. The Lake District is, of course, Beatrix Potter Land: her house, Hill Top, is across the water at Near Sawry, many of her original drawings can be seen at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, in her husband’s former offices, and she left most of her estate, including 4,000 acres and 14 farms in the Lake District, to the National Trust in her will. Regardless of any charm in her drawings or literary merit in her stories (and I confess they don’t do it for me) the Beatrix Potter brand is big business. Huge. She is also surprisingly popular in Japan, because – I’m told – her books are used to help learn English; the mind boggles.
Anyway, for a special treat, and ignoring the fact that Bowness is a tourist magnet and therefore invariably rammed with visitors, one day Mrs Britain took me to the World of Beatrix Potter. Perhaps she additionally thought that Peter Rabbit would be a good topic for our local book group discussion. It is of course always possible that we were accompanied by some younger, smaller, people as well.
As you’ve probably guessed, the World of Beatrix Potter is an attraction primarily aimed at a younger clientele; and at Japanese of any age. When I say ‘young’ I can’t see older children getting terribly excited by it, but some adults will coo appreciatively and find an interesting exhibition about Beatrix Potter at the end. The experience kicks-off with a short introductory video in the world’s cosiest cinema, followed by an indoor walk through life-size (a relative term, I know) recreations of scenes from Beatrix Potter’s stories, complete with many of the much-loved characters. I assume they have been stuffed. But if anyone harbours a lifelong ambition to meet Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Tom Kitten, Squirrel Nutkin, Peter Rabbit (of course) and all the rest, this seems to be the perfect place to realise it. Outside, there’s a very small Peter Rabbit garden. It’s all very cute and, to be fair, quite well done. In the garden is a 15 foot (4.5 metre) high bronze statue depicting three children launching Jemima Puddle-Duck into the air like an unwieldy toy glider, and featuring characters from all of BP’s stories. The statue was unveiled in 2006, an event attended by fragrant US actress Renee Zellweger, who starred in the film Miss Potter, released that year. Renee said, apparently without a trace of irony, that she hoped the statue would become “a distinctive local landmark”. And I’m sure, if it were ever placed where everyone could see it, it would.
Inevitably, at the end of your tour, you will rejoice in discovering a Beatrix Potter shop selling branded merchandise for outrageously high prices, as well as – oh, joy! – a Beatrix Potter café. Exhausted after an hour of talking with fictional characters (conversations tended to be a little one-sided), and taking photographs of Japanese tourists, we trooped in for refreshment. Imagine my disappointment, and surprise, to discover that rabbit pie with vegetables, all fresh from the garden, were not on the menu. There wasn’t even a nice crispy duck. Sighing at the lack of business nous, but mollified by the splendid staff, we settled for tea and buns; and very nice they were too.