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Beatrix Potter’s Letters to Children

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Hedgehog, from letter to Eric Moore, Aug. 8, 1896. MS Typ 789 (1). Reproduced by kind permission of Frederick Warne & Co.


October 26, 2010 – Throughout her life, Beatrix Potter corresponded regularly with a number of children, filling dozens of letters with amusing tales, as well as accounts of things she had recently seen and done. The stories and characters first sketched in those letters would later form the basis of many of Potter’s most famous books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, to name just a few.

A new exhibition, “Beatrix Potter, Letters to Noël, Eric, and Freda Moore 1896-1902,” which opened earlier this month at the Houghton Library, provides visitors the opportunity to see several of Potter’s original letters. Organized in conjunction with the Beatrix Potter Society, the exhibition features the Potter letters held at Houghton, all of which are addressed to the children of Annie Carter Moore, Potter’s last governess and life-long friend.

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Written on both sides of the folded sheet, the letters are each four “pages” long, and open like a book, so pages one and four, or pages two and three can be viewed together. One, addressed to Noel Moore, describes and illustrates a minnow trap. Another, sent to Eric Moore, tells the story of a mother squirrel and her babies, and a tame owl that ate mice. The other seven letters, all addressed to Winifrede “Freda” Moore, touch on topics like Potter’s pet rabbit, a storm on the sea front at Hastings and a colony of puffins that nested on an island off the coast of Wales, driving rabbits out of their burrows.

Only one of the nine letters held by Houghton is not illustrated. Addressed to Freda Moore and dated October 6, 1902, it is notable for Potter’s announcement that “the coloured edition of Peter Rabbit is ready & I think it is to be in shops this week…The publisher has sold more copies than he printed (6000) so he is going to print another edition at once.”

“People’s letters are always interesting and useful for someone studying a particular author, or artist for that matter,” said Judy Taylor, the author of five books on Potter, who presented a lecture, “Beatrix Potter’s Letters to Children,” in conjunction with the exhibition on October 7. “Where they were written from, the date on them, what they say, it all helps to build up a story of the person. Nearly all her early books began in letters, the first in particular. The Peter Rabbit letter is, nearly word-for-word, the book.”

Potter’s picture letters are also useful as a way to trace the source of her inspiration, Taylor said. In a letter addressed to Noel Moore, Potter mentions an American story of squirrels crossing water on small rafts, using their tails as sails. A similar scene later appeared in Squirrel Nutkin.

“By studying her letters, you can start to link things up,” Taylor said. “It’s fun.”

Beatrix Potter, Letters to Noël, Eric, and Freda Moore 1896-1902” will be on display at Houghton Library through October 30. Digitized versions of the letters are also accessible through HOLLIS, Harvard’s online library catalog. Hours, Directions