Beatrix Potter's first "little book," The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was initially printed in 1901, the year Queen Victoria died. Victorian literary conventions were still in evidence at the turn of the century, and qualities in Potter's work derive from the Victorian culture in which she was immersed for the first half of her life. Such conventions evident in her tales contribute to her works' distinctive quality. There is, especially to us, a nineteenth-century quaintness to her children's tales, and since her books present a comparatively muted quality, contemporary readers often perceive of Potter's tales as merely charming stories for nursery children. With the tales' old-fashioned characteristics so apparent, readers may not think to agree with Humphrey Carpenter's assertion that Potter "belongs to the modern age rather than the Victorian" (296). Of course, Potter's prose is not wholly modern in style, nor does it dramatize disaffection, decadence, or despair, nor are her narrative techniques as radically experimental as is stream of consciousness. Yet Carpenter's conclusion is worth testing because Potter's contribution to the development of modern literature remains, for the most part, unacknowledged. When comparing her little books with the revolutionary ideas and styles of literature that began to appear around World War I, we find that, in numerous ways, Potter's unobtrusive, seemingly non-revolutionary children's books are texts that quietly challenge Victorian mores and literary styles. They are, actually, harbingers of modernism.
Since Ezra Pound's most famous manifesto of modernism includes the charge to "make it new," Potter's "newness" must be highlighted—a quality she herself did not trumpet. Features in Beatrix Potter's little books do anticipate [End Page 287] what, during her lifetime, emerged as "modernism"; however, since her divergence from Victorian literary conventions are subtle, and they appear in a genre that is not considered "radical," they are less noticeable than reactions against Victorianism by contemporaries like Pound or subsequentmodernists like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, or other writers of modernist literature for adults. Potter accomplished her "revolution" in genre, illustration, form, and prose much as Lewis Carroll did: quietly (Eaton 194).
Indeed, part of the appeal and uniqueness of Beatrix Potter's little books is the merging of the Victorian with the modern. In one sense, this amalgamation contributes to the modernity of her works through the irony of rejecting traditional rhetoric and values via a seemingly traditional, utterly innocuous façade. The "new" quality of Potter's books primarily lay in the fact that they spoke directly to children and granted young readers an opportunity to explore their world and resist the confines of strict obedience. Her tales exhibit features that anticipate directions many writers of the modern era would, with great intensity, explore. Potter accomplishes this in multiple ways: she modifies genre, liberates highly wrought illustration from fussiness, simplifies book format, hones writing to sparse precision, celebrates anti-heroes, fashions ironic narrators, surprises with unconventional conclusions, and rejects cultural values of the Victorian age.
Potter's appealing artwork is the feature that first draws readers into her stories and demonstrates a lingering influence of the nineteenth century. True to her Victorian naturalist leanings, Potter depicts her animals' physical characteristics accurately rather than as stylized creations, evoking the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for natural history. Even combining the realistic with the imaginative—accurately depicted rabbits wearing jackets—does not radically break with the previous century's literary or visual trends in children's literature. Potter's interest in the natural world extended far beyond the governess-overseen lessons she received in her family's third-floor nursery during the final quarter of the Victorian era; as we now know, Potter studied fungi seriously enough to be considered a mycologist in terms of her depth of understanding and original research. While her scientific studies were quashed in the 1890s by male experts of the royal academies, botanical gardens, and natural history societies, her artwork's fidelity to precise representation of the living world remained. "Her characters are entirely animal," Nicholas Tucker states, "as befits a skilled natural historian, both in their...