“Passing Extraordinary”: Beatrix Potter

“On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae.”

That was the title of the scientific paper that Beatrix Potter submitted to the Linnean Society in 1897. The society is the “world’s oldest active biological society” and, at the time that Potter was working in mycology (the study of fungi), not open to women members. Nowadays, we don’t think first of Potter’s scientific work or the way that her beautiful watercolor illustrations were useful for scientific record. We usually think instead of her vast accomplishments in the world of children’s literature. But she was a multifaceted woman: a mycologist, a writer and illustrator, and a farmer and sheep-breeder. She was deeply invested in preserving and recording nature.

So, too, were her stories nuanced and complex. The narratives are straightforward (Peter Rabbit must escape Mr. McGregor; mice feud with cats; Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle helps a girl with laundry), but the illustrations and themes comment on the struggles to survive, both as animal and as farmer, and address the question of whether these two occupations can be reconciled. And, interestingly enough, Potter does not prioritize the human experience over the animal. In imbuing mice and bunnies and squirrels with personalities and motivation (however anthropomorphic), she asks her readers to decentralize humans for just a few moments.

I find The Tailor of Gloucester one of the most charming examples of this. Though the narrative ultimately stems from the struggle of a tailor to finish a coat for the Mayor of Gloucester in time for the latter’s wedding, the story on the page is primarily concerned with the tailor’s cat, Simpkin, and his struggle to care for the poor, sick tailor and yet also revenge himself upon the mice who taunt him. As much as Potter’s work always feels speculative, just on the edge of our reality, Tailor explicitly engages with a world of magic and legend. The story takes place on Christmas Eve, when—as legend has it—“all the beasts can talk.” And Potter here notes that humans rarely have access to this world: “there are very few folk that can hear them, or know what it is that they say.” And ultimately the world of the animals is always just out of reach of human comprehension. The mice, for example, have a whole community in secret: “For behind the wooden wainscots of all the old houses in Gloucester, there are little mouse staircases and secret trap-doors.”

In many ways the world of the humans is far more prosaic. While McGregor might be obsessed with his vegetables, the tailor is obsessed with the coat that will ensure his escape from poverty, for, “although he sewed fine silk for his neighbors, he himself was very, very poor.” The commissioned coat is stunningly beautiful, fitting as the promise of prosperity: “a coat of cherry-coloured corded silk embroidered with pansies and roses, and a cream-coloured satin waistcoat—trimmed with gauze and green worsted chenille.” But the tailor is sick and his time to complete the coat is running short. True to many Christmas stories, a miracle occurs. As he lies ill in bed, the mice whom he has released from Simpkin’s traps and “who run in and out without any keys through all the old houses of Gloucester” finish the coat. Simpkin observes them, even though his master does not, and he is struck by his own selfishness (he has hidden away the last bit of twist that the tailor needs to finish the coat): “he felt quite ashamed of his badness compared with those good little mice!” Much like Scrooge of Christmas Carol, the repentant Simpkin is by his master’s side when he wakes on Christmas morning, a cup of tea in hand.

The coat crafted by the mice ensures the tailor’s success and he becomes especially popular for his button-holes which the narrator wryly wonders at: “I wonder how they could be stitched by an old man in spectacles, with crooked old fingers, and a tailor’s thimble.” This contrast—between the charity and agon of the animals and the understated tragedy of the tailor’s struggle—highlights part of the appeal of Potter’s work. She gives us a glimpse into a world not human and too often invisible or unacknowledged. Even the tailor, when he releases fully dressed mice from Simpkin’s teacup traps, though he remarks that it is “passing extraordinary,” cannot be long distracted from his economic woes. Potter encourages us to do differently. She displaces human concerns with animal and, in doing so, reminds us of the kinship between the two. We must simply find those liminal and magical moments when we might truly recognize them.