Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Letter from Beatrix Potter

Noel Moore
Five year old Noel Moore lay in bed staring at the patterns in the wallpaper. He could hear the other children having their lessons downstairs or playing outdoors. For in that summer of 1893, Noel had scarlet fever, a frequently fatal children's disease. 

Noel's family lived in London at the edge of a large park called Wandsworth Commons. Unfortunately, his mother Annie didn’t have a lot of time to spend with her sick child. She had other children to care for, and she was expecting again. Sometimes Noel felt sad and lonely.  Sometimes he couldn’t remember what it felt like to run and play.

One day in September, a letter arrived from a family friend. A letter for Noel. It was the very best kind of letter—big! With pictures! The letter said, “My dear Noel: I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.” 

1st page of letter

Beatrix Potter
Sound familiar? The Moore family had a special friend, a lady named Beatrix Potter. Though only three years older than Beatrix, Annie had been her governess, and now Beatrix liked to stay in touch with the Moores. 

Sometimes Miss Potter would come for a visit and bring her pet, a Belgian buck rabbit named Peter Piper. She had taught Peter to do tricks, but occasionally Peter was “naughty” and refused to cooperate. The children loved her visits, but it had been a long time since Miss Potter had come to see them. At least, it seemed like a long time to a five year old boy.

But this letter was almost as good as a visit—maybe better, because this letter was addressed to Noel. And it contained a story written just for him--a story about a naughty rabbit named Peter who went into his neighbor's garden and had great adventures and barely made it out again. The letter cheered Noel greatly. 

A few years later, Noel was sick again—this time with polio. And Miss Potter continued to send story-letters for Noel and the other children to read.

Noel’s mother told Miss Potter that she thought the stories ought to be published. So one day, when Noel was about twelve, Miss Potter asked to borrow the first letter she had sent. She had decided to try to publish the story about Peter the Rabbit, and she wondered if Noel had kept it.

Kept it? Of course he had kept it and treasured it. 

Miss Potter self-published the book in 1901, and it sold only a few copies. But then the publishing firm of F. Warne and Company took an interest in the "bunny book," as they called it. At the Warnes’ request, she rewrote the story, adding more scenes and more pictures. The time was right. Small picture books were just becoming popular, and the book was an instant success.

Beatrix later wrote: “It is much more satisfactory to address a real live child; I often think that that was the secret of the success of Peter Rabbit, it was written to a child - not made to order!”

Little Noel grew up to become a priest. He lived a long life and worked with children in the slums of London.

Beatrix Potter with her dog Kep

Peter's cousin, Benjamin Bunny
Beatrix Potter went on to become one of the most beloved and best-selling children’s authors of all time. Her beautiful books would bring delight to countless children around the world. And it all began because she cared deeply about one little boy named Noel.

The Garden Gate, inspiration
for Mr. McGregor's Garden

And if you'd like to know more about how Peter Rabbit came to be written, the Stark Raving Mythopath recommends The True Story of Peter Rabbit: How a Letter from Beatrix Potter Became a Children's Classic, by Jane Johnson. A delightful picture book.


  1. This is a great blog Patty!!! Great job!!!!!!

  2. Thanks, Patty! These books are my very first reading memory. My dad would take me to the public library in Janesville, Wis. when I was little, and we would sit at a table in the reading room where he would read them to me before checking them out to take home. So, of course, I had to read them to my own children. Now, for some grandchildren to share them with!

    1. Kathy, that is such a great memory. How awesome is that--to have a dad who shared Beatrix Potter with you.

  3. Where did you get your picture of Noel Moore, Patty? I would like to use it for a piece I am doing on him for the South London Press.
    Toby Porter