Originality is everything in literature, as in art. “Originals never lose their value,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said. He may have been referring to Shakespeare and Wordsworth, but the statement is just as true of children’s literature. Of course, even originals owe something to the past — “we all quote,” Emerson acknowledged — but he did not envision the havoc that consumer culture might wreak upon original work. This is true especially in the children’s market, where the almost unimaginable monetary value of derivative merchandise, sequels, and spinoffs, and the control and manipulation of original creations through copyright and trademark, can degrade the very characteristics that distinguished the work in the first place.
Perhaps no children’s book has been more subject to the corrosive influence of commerce than Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Its tangled publishing history features professional bullies more ruthless than Mr. McGregor (whose wife put Peter’s father in a pie) pursuing this hapless rabbit across time, committing acts of piracy, “copyfraud,” and criminally bad taste. Potter’s longtime publisher, Frederick Warne & Co., has joined their ranks, baking Peter into an unseemly sequel, The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit (about which more later).
The bunnysploitation seems especially glaring in light of Potter’s unique gifts as writer and illustrator. Born in London in 1866, Potter was an assiduous student of animal anatomy and behavior from childhood on. She and her younger brother Bertram furnished their nursery with exotic pets, wild and domestic, bringing home mice, lizards, bats, frogs, birds, and, of course, rabbits. The children became determined amateur naturalists, documenting their finds in sketchbooks, never squeamish about studying dead specimens. (Indeed, when their captives succumbed, sometimes to rather outré diets, the young Potters would boil the skeletons and draw them as well.)
Beatrix carried her affections into adulthood: Potter scholar Judy Taylor once compiled a list of the author’s named pets throughout her life, tallying eighty-nine. Among them was the rabbit Benjamin Bouncer, who perished after breaking a tooth on hard candy. But he and his successor, the beloved Peter, lived long lives, providing ample opportunities to study their attitudes and habits.
With this intimate familiarity, Beatrix Potter became one of the finest observers of rabbits since Dürer. And not just rabbits: clothed or not, the mice, pigs, red squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs, cats, foxes, and owls of her books are all true to life, animated by a keen eye for muscular and skeletal structure as well as by the common postures and characteristic movements she captured. Animals in her tales do fantastical things — mice embroider buttonholes; newt Sir Isaac Newton, clad in a species-specific “black and gold waistcoat,” dines on “grasshopper with lady-bird sauce” — but they do them plausibly. They are charming and convincing in large part because they are rendered naturalistically. This can be seen in all of her tales but also in a pen-and-ink drawing, the meditative masterwork “The Rabbit’s Dream” (c. 1899). A sleeping rabbit conjures itself under a counterpane in bed, surrounded by portraits of itself in over a dozen different positions — stretched on its side, prone with legs kicked back, with feet tucked under the body, with ears erect, ears folded back, ears parted over the shoulders, etc. A virtuosic performance, it remains among the most moving of Potter’s works, a testament to imagination enriched by experience.
Potter first told the story of Peter Rabbit in 1893 in a picture-letter sent to the bedridden son of her former governess. Its simple line drawings introduce the principals — Peter and his siblings; his mother; and his nemesis, Mr. McGregor — while its tiny tale of temptation and trial in an English garden unfolds in simple perfection. Several years later, she borrowed the letter back, expanded it, and, after failing to interest publishers in producing a small, affordable book with a single color frontispiece and black-and-white illustrations (she felt color throughout was too expensive), printed it herself; it was snapped up by friends and relations. She quickly secured a contract with publisher Frederick Warne, agreeing to redo the illustrations in color.
The book proved an immediate success on publication in October 1902, rapidly selling out a first printing of eight thousand copies. “The public must be fond of rabbits!” Potter wrote to the youngest Warne brother, Norman (to whom she would be briefly engaged, before his untimely death in 1905); “what an appalling quantity of Peter.” To her dismay, the firm failed to register copyright in the United States, leading to piracies and loss of revenue. Although she helped save the company in 1917, after embezzlement by another Warne brother nearly bankrupted it, she scolded them on quality, condemning a copy of Peter Rabbit’s Almanac for 1929 as “wretched.” She wrote sharply, “It is impossible to explain balance & style to people, if they don’t see it themselves.” While she enthusiastically crafted her own unique merchandise prototypes — including an extraordinarily soulful Peter Rabbit doll — she could have had no idea of the extent of commodification to come.
After Potter died in 1943 at the age of seventy-seven, Warne cast itself as the guardian of her legacy. But eventually the guardian began behaving badly, seeking to wring profits from its most famous long-eared property. In 1983, Warne was acquired by Penguin, itself owned by the international conglomerate Pearson, the largest book publisher in the world. Then, as scholar Margaret Mackey chronicles in The Case of Peter Rabbit: Changing Conditions of Literature for Children, Warne embarked on the expensive process of remaking printing plates for Potter’s books. While the new reproductions were a welcome improvement, Warne festooned them with what Mackey terms “aggressive” assertions of copyright, although Peter was already in the public domain. (In the UK, copyright protection lapsed but was then extended until 2013 when the European Union “harmonized” copyright law.) Warne seized on its “re-originated” illustrations to declare itself “owner of all rights, copyrights and trademarks in the Beatrix Potter character names and illustrations,” going so far as to attach a “tm” to the scampering Peter on the cover. Back in 1979, the publisher had sued a competitor, claiming trademark rights to eight images from Potter’s books that, it argued, were identified in the public mind with Warne alone. The case was settled out of court, but Viva R. Moffat, a legal scholar who teaches at the University of Denver, has called Warne’s claims (in a paper on “Mutant Copyrights”) a “stretch.”
Warne has applied for trademarks here and in the EU for every imaginable Peter Rabbit–related item that might feasibly be sold, from “books and texts in all media” to “toilet seat covers” and “meat extracts.” Moffat assails the practice of forcing trademarks to pinch-hit for lapsed copyright, while another legal expert, Jason Mazzone (who teaches intellectual property law at Brooklyn Law School), defines the placement of misleading warnings on public domain works as “copyfraud” in his book by the same name.
Warne’s zealous pursuit of its rights has not deterred it from crass acts of its own. In 1987, the same year it published its painstakingly remade edition, the firm allowed Ladybird Books, a purveyor of cheap paperbacks owned by the parent company, Pearson, to market The Tale of Peter Rabbit with bowdlerized text, eliminating Potter’s dry wit, dispensing with the pie made of Peter’s father (Mrs. Rabbit instead explains that Mr. McGregor just “doesn’t like rabbits”), and replacing Potter’s illustrations with photos of stuffed animals. Warne was excoriated in The Times of London, which condemned the new edition as “Hamlet without the ghost, Othello without the handkerchief.” Undaunted, a few years later Warne took out an advertisement in The Bookseller — “Peter Rabbit™ Packs a Powerful Punch” — threatening those who wandered into its garden with “expensive legal action” (see below).
Now the firm has set its hobnailed boot upon Peter again, muddying the same waters it sought to protect: publishing The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit, a large-format sequel written by actress-celebrity Emma Thompson and illustrated by Eleanor Taylor, whose previous books include Go-Go Gorillas. The idea did not originate with Thompson. According to her, Warne solicited the sequel, sending her two half-eaten radishes and a note purportedly written by the Rabbit Himself. The story finds Peter once again in Mr. McGregor’s lettuce patch (ground already covered in Potter’s own sequel, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny), climbing into a picnic basket, and being carried off to Scotland, where frenetic adventures involving a giant black rabbit named Finlay McBurney ensue. Smarmy in tone, the text relies heavily on italics and typographical tricks to engender interest. Its author clearly knows little about rabbits, suggesting that Finlay’s mother goes about with her ears “tied in a neat knot.” (One hopes an impressionable toddler will not do the same to a pet.) Saddled with a thankless task, artist Taylor produces soft-focus brushwork that seems timid and amateurish, lacking Potter’s precision and authority, her unerring color sense, and her humor. Taylor’s Mrs. McGregor is copied from Potter’s privately printed original and is more appropriation than homage, while poor Finlay’s chest juts above his kilt like a pouter pigeon’s. Missing are Potter’s beautifully detailed portraits of flora and fauna, from the water beetle in The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher to the Red Admiral butterfly in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse. No one, it seems, has done more to dilute Potter’s work than her own publisher.
Other ersatz sequels have proliferated recently, as publishing houses cash in on classics, from The Wind in the Willows to Winnie-the-Pooh to A Little Princess to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Indeed, there will be sequels to The Further Tale: Thompson has signed up for two more. Ultimately, such derivative stuff can’t harm the originals, just as a bad production of Shakespeare can’t touch the play itself. But sequels, it seems to me, are particularly confusing to the youngest readers, who are just developing notions of authorship. As the editor of the Library of America’s edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I’ve been asked by children where the recent sequels, written by an heir who never met Wilder, came from. From someplace hotter than the Dakotas, I think.
What sets The Further Tale apart is that it presents inferior work to an audience of very young children who have not yet developed the intellectual capacity to distinguish between original and unoriginal text and art. In her discussion of the multiplicity of Peters, scholar Mackey quotes Margaret Meek’s essay on the profound influence of early encounters: “Children’s literature is undeniably the first literary experience, where the reader’s experiences of what literature is are laid down. Books in childhood initiate children into literature; they inaugurate certain kinds of literary competencies.” The competency that The Further Tale inaugurates is that of copying. It tells children, It’s acceptable to be unoriginal. It’s acceptable to exploit the work of others. And it’s acceptable — even desirable — to make money from that exploitation. This is being done in an era when publishing has been beset with scandals involving plagiarism and other unethical practices, the perpetrators of which are often young. With the model set by today’s publishers, this is hardly surprising. Perhaps Warne could learn a lesson from the original Peter: gluttony always leads to tears.
From the May/June 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.