Why Beatrix Potter is Awesome

Beatrix Potter booksThough having been an Anglophile for all of my life, growing up I had somehow managed to miss the wonderfully literary children’s books by Beatrix Potter. As a first generation American, the son of Latin parents, it was just not a part of the bibliography of my home.

Now that I am older, with my own children, and a wife who – being Canadian – is a subject of the Queen, God love her, I have not only discovered but grown to thoroughly enjoy reading a Potter book at bedtime… and when I do my children are almost always there too.

The small books with charming illustrations are, however, more than just entertainment. They are moral tales from which we can all learn a thing or two.

Take the hilariously direct language of The Story of the Fierce Bad Rabbit, where we find a good rabbit bullied by a bad one. The good rabbit creeps away to hide, and you feel sad for him. Then you turn the page to be introduced to a pictured hunter with the words, “This is a man with a gun.” I cannot help it but mirth just spills into my heart as I think of what some of the more progressively minded might think about guns in children’s books.

Or there is the classic The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the story of an incorrigible bunny who finds himself running for his life because of his inability to take hold of his own passions. In it we read this:

Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.

Those last words may be some of my favorite in the whole English literary tradition.

implored him to exert himself.

implored him to exert himself.

Then there is the morbidly entertaining story called The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck which ends with – well I won’t spoil it for you – but beware. It is not the touchy feely ending that our children are used to. It is brutal and honest, as much of farm life is. But is also a story of an honorable dog and a most dishonorable fox.

These are all great tales, but my favorite is The Tale of Ginger and Pickles. Ginger is a yellow tom-cat and Pickles a dark terrier, and the two unlikely partners run their own alimentary shop. The only other shop in the town was run by Tabitha Twitchit, a neurotic cat whose three kittens keep her in a state of perpetual hysteria.

Now what makes this story so wonderful to me is its economic lessons. Economics, after all, is just the study of actions in relation to scarce goods. Economics is something we all deal with every day, and it is a crucial part of the social doctrine of the Church. So lessons like those found in this story are important for children and adults. And one of these lessons is learned when we read that Ginger and Pickles run a shop that accepts buying things on credit. Here’s how Potter describes the concept of credit:

Now the meaning of ‘credit’ is this – when a customer buys a bar of soap, instead of the customer pulling out a purse and paying for it – she says she will pay another time.

And Pickles makes a low bow and says, ‘With pleasure, madam,’ and it is written down in a book.

The customers come again and again, and buy quantities, in spite of being afraid of Ginger and Pickles.

But there is no money in what is called the ‘till.’

Ah, there’s the rub. There is no money at all.

Pickles diligently recording the "purchase."

Pickles diligently recording the “purchase.”

There have been several studies done that show that people tend to buy more when they are paying by credit card than when they are paying by cash. There is something in the human spirit, something consuming and consumptive that propels us to unnecessary purchases. When there is no immediate consequence to a purchase, you know, like having fewer dollars and cents… well one is less apt to restrain oneself. It seems that the law of diminishing returns is dashed against the rocky shores of human wanting. We consume and consume with no reference to actual changes in our bank account. It is all on credit.

You can guess what happens to poor Ginger and Pickles. The town’s folk seldom pay up their bill. The partners begin to run out of money and have to start eating their own supplies. Pickles doesn’t have enough money for a dog license, and when a policeman, or at least a doll dressed as a policeman, arrives at the store, the partners are sure that he is there to haul Pickles away. Ginger exhorts his friends to bite the police doll. Shouting at his canine partner,

‘Bite him, Pickles! bite him!’ spluttered Ginger behind a sugar-barrel, ‘he’s only a German doll!’

Yes. Blast those dastardly German dolls.

But the reason for the police doll’s visit is not about Pickles, or rather not just about him. He has come to deliver the tax assessment bill at £3 19 and 11¾. The State comes in for its share of the spoils and the two small businessmen give up. It is “the last straw,” they say, and so Ginger and Pickles shutter (and not shudder) their store and go back to working for other people.

This causes some ruckus in the town of course. Tabitha Twitchit, the cat with the only other store and thus now a monopoly, raises her prices on everything and still refuses to allow for credit. Ah capitalism. Of course the market responds. A Mr. John Dormouse and his daughter begin to sell candles. However, the candles are of poor design. They melt in warm weather, and Mr. Dormouse does not respond to the customer’s complaints:

And when Mr. John Dormouse was complained to, he stayed in bed, and would say nothing but ‘very snug;’ which is not the way to carry on a retail business.

No sir. Customer service is one of those things that may be often overlooked, but which ought to be part and parcel of the Catholic businessman’s participation in the social teaching. To serve is a great calling, and to serve the customer ought to be a deep motivation for a retail or any business.

So then Sally Henny Penny opens up her own shop. Great excitement ensues and people flock to the store… anything to avoid the inflated prices of Tabitha Twitchit. This time, however, Henny insists on being paid in cash. The lesson is learned it seems.

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter provides us with some wonderful vignettes that bring cheer and entertainment, but they also bring warning and advice. Peter Rabbit would never have been in the situation he was in, needing sparrows to implore him to exert himself lest he be baked into a pie, had he not been disobedient to his mother, stolen from Mr. McGregor, and been a gluttonous imp of a rabbit.

The fierce bad rabbit might today still have his whiskers and cotton tail had he not bullied that good rabbit. Jemima Puddle-Duck might have had a place on the farm to sit with her eggs if she hadn’t been so impatient a sitter and insisted on going outside the support of the community. And Ginger and Pickles might have their little store if only they were more careful with credit and others had not been so irresponsible as to not pay their bill.

The nefarious rat Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria were such a couple. They never paid their bills. They are despicable rats who leach on the rest of the community. Oh, how one is drawn to dislike them. Indeed, when we were thinking of girl’s names for our latest baby, “Anna Maria” was right out of the running. Sloth, wickedness, vice is associated with these characters, and any reader can spot it. Even in Potter’s descriptions of the bad characters we learn.

These stories of Beatrix Potter are very often morality tales, and just the sort of tales that our children ought to be hearing. In a world where excess and self-fulfillment are the ultimate measures of good, where a government can spend like mad on stupendously inept departments, and where the population does not bat an eye towards racking up mounds of credit card debt as they purchase every trinket and bobble available, well we would all do well, whatever our age, to listen to Beatrix Potter.

We would learn to live honestly, to treat people fairly, to live within our means, and to always always  make sure we have enough to pay for the dog license.