I remember my amazement on my first visit to Sawrey, when this new aunt left the grown-ups and came to me to imagine windows and doors in the trees with people peeping out.
Nancy Heelis (The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood by Susan Wittig Albert)
The aunt Nancy was talking about was Beatrix Potter, author and illustrator par excellence of the magical Peter Rabbit and other talking animals. Beatrix’s beautiful images of animals in the woods came from years of watching and sketching them as a child. Her parents, avid nature lovers took the Beatrix and her brother on sojourns to Scotland which instilled in her an abiding love of flora and fauna. Educated privately, she filled her solitary hours with more drawings of small animals.
Her first book The Tale of Peter Rabbit written originally as a letter to the sick son, Noel, of her governess. It’s success prompted others like The Tale of Jemima Puddle- Duck. Beatrix also drew purely scientific drawings of fossils and fungi used till this date as the definitive reference on fungi. She was indeed an intellectual powerhouse deeply interested in the world about her and helping children see more of it. Later she went on to man her farm with her husband, rearing the Herdwick sheep and fell farming. She helped in conservation efforts in the Lake district primarily by maintaining the ways and methods of farming used traditionally. She was a woman of many parts, excelling in each and every one.
The story of Jemima Puddle Duck is accompanied by the detailed, exquisite water paintings of Ms.Potter. Puddle ducks are also known as the dabbling duck who can be found near marshes and other shallow water bodies. She stays on a farm where the farmer’s wife takes the ducks eggs to be laid by the hen. Consequently, a brood of ducklings could be found following a hen. Other times Jemima’s eggs would simply be taken away much to her consternation.
She sets out to look out for a place to hatch her eggs, where she is accosted by a rather fine talking fox. Impressed by his manners, Jemima the gullible, lays eggs in the fox’s shed. The fox suggests that Jemima get onions and herbs for an omelette, but are in fact to season Jemima itself. Jemima sets to collect the required items when the farm collie dog, Kep, asks her what she is doing. Kep then takes two foxhound puppies to chase the fox and save Jemima. A fight later Jemima is escorted minus eggs back to the farm, still unaware that she would have most certainly lost her life. The story ends happily with Jemima hatching a new brood later.
Potter as in her other stories hardly dresses up the natural order of things. Neither does she pass judgement. Potter paints farm life not as an idyllic place but as a place where one is either hunted or hunts. Jemima comes across as being too naive for her own good, clueless about the dangers that await her outside the comfort of her farm. Her anger at the farmer’s wife blinds her to far greater troubles. A dependable fellow inmate, a collie who is shown to be aware of the dangers that lurk steps in to save Jemima’s life and brings her back to the farm. If anything the authors seem to caution and counsel young readers that they must be aware of their friends and foes and act wisely.
Image credit: Wikipedia and centurybabies.com