Review | She invented Peter Rabbit, then used the money to buy acres of sheep

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NEW YORK — As a boy, I never had much regard for the story books written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter in the first decades of the 20th century. Her watercolors were treacly and her tales too simple-minded and rustic. I lived in a world of plastic and plenitude; what use did I have for wayward rabbits, riddling squirrels and foppish frogs? I preferred the brighter and bolder books of Doctor Seuss, whose humor was sharper to my ear, satirizing the fragility, chaos and absurdity just under the surface of daily life when America was at the apex of her postwar power.

I have long since changed my mind, and anyone who is wavering in their antipathy to the domestic and agrarian idylls of Potter should visit the Morgan Library, where a smart and compelling exhibition, “Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature,” paints her as a multidimensional talent. It surveys her work as an artist and author of children’s books, beginning with the 1902 release of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” But it also covers the larger trajectory of her life, from her privileged middle-class childhood in London to her later years as a farmer, preservationist and advocate for the landscape she loved best, the Lake District of England.

That larger perspective helps clarify the peculiar mix of charm and unsentimental menace in her work, a sense that there are worlds not quite contiguous with our own, subject to friction and conflict when they come into contact. That friction can be potentially deadly, whether it is a rabbit stuck in garden netting or tempting fate from a farmer’s gun (at the cost of its whiskers and tail). It can also be comic, and often it is hard to tell where the comedy levels off and the potential tragedy begins.

Consider an admonition to avoid the garden of Mr. McGregor delivered to Peter and his siblings in the opening pages of “Peter Rabbit”: “Your father had an accident there. He was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” And then we see, like one of the guests at the banquet of Titus Andronicus, Mr. McGregor with his knife and fork poised over a steaming, rabbit-sized pie.

The understatement — “father had an accident” — suggests this is a comic moment, as does the skeptical look on the farmer’s face and the reference to Shakespeare. But for the rabbits, it’s a dark memory of trauma and loss. So, too, in “The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck” (1908), a scene in which a naive and attractive young fowl is seduced into the clutches of a wily fox seems comic, yet it is gendered to feel like the set up for rape.

The menace in Potter’s work feels different than the usual dark allegories in classic fairy tales. Part of the distinction lies in Potter’s drawings, which are never incidental or merely illustrations of the text. As the exhibition demonstrates, Potter’s storybook illustrations were informed by her deep observation of the natural world. Well before she invented Peter Rabbit — in a private 1893 letter sent to the 5-year-old son of her former governess — Potter was making detailed and meticulous drawings of plants, animals and mushrooms. By the late 1880s, she had evolved into a sophisticated amateur mycologist, and in 1897, one of her scientific papers was read at the Linnaean Society in London (read by a man, because women were not allowed to present their own work).

The primary difference between the animal drawings she made before her literary career and the illustrations for her children’s books is the addition of sharper contour lines, as if going over a shaded water color with a little ink clarifies the transition from the real world to children’s fantasy. That roughing in of a few sharper edges parallels the addition of Victorian moralism to the animal world. Her rabbits, kittens, mice and squirrels are anthropomorphized, but there is a ruthless, survival-of-the-fittest ethos always in the background, creating a surreal fusion of quaint, cozy English domesticity and stern, Darwinian rigor.

Some might say that is the definition of England at the height of its empire: well-mannered, gracious and comfortable for those at the apex; brutal for everyone below. And if you want to read Potter that way, there’s plenty of ammunition. The impertinent Squirrel Nutkin, who plagues a taciturn old owl with incessant riddles and rhymes, doesn’t know his place in the natural hierarchy. His punishment: He loses not only his tail, but apparently his ability to speak. Among the prerogatives of power is policing the right to be heard and communicate in our preferred language. The exhibition includes not only original artwork from the 1903 “Tale of Squirrel Nutkin,” but a 1905 letter in which Nutkin implores Old Brown, the owl, to return his tail.

And then there’s the life of privilege that Potter enjoyed. Her discovery of the natural world came, in part, during long vacations taken in the countryside, including weeks in the spring when her London house was cleaned. The wealth she gained from writing children’s books — and selling Potter merchandise including board games, dolls and figurines — enabled her to buy vast tracts of farmland in the Lake District, where she did what wealthy city folk generally do in the country: create a fantasy of rugged domesticity, with a mix of rustic furniture, rare antiques and art. She aligned her identity with the people she found there, joining what William Wordsworth called, a “perfect republic of shepherds.” She tended vast herds of sheep, and imagined that her family’s mercantile bloodline was hearty and resilient, just like her ewes.

If this caricature of her life and work annoys you, as it does me, how do we redeem Potter sufficiently to indulge the charms of her palm-sized books?

For me, the revelation was roadkill, the small, furry carcasses of dead animals one finds alongside almost any highway built through fields, forest or farmland. I have at least once contributed to this slaughter, and it was an agonizing experience. You realize the cost and toll your existence takes upon the world, a world that never asked to intersect with yours. Human beings crash through nature, break it apart and leave it in ruins, just to make supper by 6 p.m.

Your only hope of keeping the agony of this realization at bay is to endeavor to be gentler and better in the tiny scope of things under your control. The literary critic Edward Said argued that many of the great novels of the 18th and 19th centuries were a symptom of imperialism, and the books of Beatrix Potter may well extend that discourse to children. But they are more than that. They enact a decency independent of their larger, historical implications. And only an author keenly attuned not just to nature, but to man’s discordant place in it, could be so clear-eyed about the inescapable pathos of animal life.

If overthinking kids’ books annoys you, as it does me, one final thought: In the second room of the exhibition, the designers have created a kind of window seat to mimic the interior of a home that might resemble one Potter lived in. Sitting in it when I visited was a boy, about 10 or 12 years old, reading “The Tale of Ginger and Pickles” (1909), which tells of two predatory creatures, a tomcat and a terrier, who operate a shop frequented by their natural prey, rabbits and mice. The shopkeepers, salivating, struggle to focus on business: “It would never do to eat our own customers,” says Pickles the terrier.

If the boy had a cellphone, he didn’t look at it once.

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature is on view at the Morgan Library in New York through June 9. themorgan.org.

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