Everyone loves Beatrix Potter and her charming character, Peter Rabbit, which first appeared in 1902 and has since sold over 45 million copies worldwide. The inception of the tales is traced back to 1893, when Potter began writing to a friend’s sick child, incorporating stories of her pet rabbit.
A recent article on The Conversation suggests that the origins of Potter’s stories may actually be related to slaves’ tales instead of being original as most of us think. Peter is likely linked to the trickster hero folklore of Br’er (“Brother”) Rabbit, which originated from pre-colonial Africa and was brought to America by enslaved people. The American journalist Joel Chandler Harris adapted these tales for a white audience in the late 19th century. Potter, who loved the Brer Rabbit stories as a child, was deeply influenced by Harris’s work, even making direct references to the Uncle Remus folktales in her writing.
Peter vs. Brer Rabbit
The Peter Rabbit tales were likely not only inspired by, but also owe a significant debt to the Brer Rabbit folktales.
Beatrix Potter was exposed to the Brer Rabbit folktales by Joel Chandler Harris during her childhood, as copies of his collections were present in her father’s library. Given that these tales weren’t published in the UK during her childhood, her early exposure could be attributed to her family’s roots in the cotton industry.
Beatrix’s grandfather, Edmund Potter, was a wealthy industrialist in the Manchester cotton mill industry. The business was exploitative, with heavily taxed “peasant cultivators” in India growing the cotton. In the UK, the development of weaving techniques led to the decline of the traditional Indian cotton industry.
Edmund Potter’s wealth was largely inherited by Beatrix’s father, Rupert Potter, a lawyer and photographer. Rupert married a wealthy heiress, Helen Leech, whose family also amassed wealth from the Manchester cotton industry. During this time, Manchester was known as the world’s “cotton capital”, with its success tied to the enslavement of Africans. The cotton used in these mills was primarily picked by enslaved people from the Caribbean and the US.
Given the Potter family’s connection to the cotton industry, the US, and the slave trade, is it possible that the tales of plantation Brer Rabbit were introduced into the Potter household?
The first drawing of Uncle Remus
The influence of Brer Rabbit on Potter’s work is apparent from Potter’s earliest creative endeavors, with her first drawing of Uncle Remus in 1893 and more in 1895 and 1896.
Potter illustrated Harris’s tales for enjoyment and to enhance her artistic skills, not due to a commission, and there is no evidence to suggest that Harris knew about or ever saw these drawings. However, there are clear similarities between her illustrations of Uncle Remus and those in her Peter Rabbit tales. An example is her drawing of Brer Rabbit pretending to be Mr. Billy Malone, which is strikingly similar to her illustration of Peter and Benjamin in ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny’.
Potter never publicly acknowledged the source of inspiration for her drawings or plots and seemed aware of the perils of plagiarism, as evidenced in an 1883 diary entry where Potter wrote as if plagiarism were a viral illness:
It’s a risky thing to copy. Shall I catch it?
The roots of Brer Rabbit
The character of Brer Rabbit, central to the folktales that influenced Beatrix Potter, has its roots in the Bantu-speaking peoples of south, central, and east Africa. Brought to the Americas by enslaved people, Brer Rabbit became a popular trickster figure in both Francophone and Anglophone regions, representing survival tactics employed by enslaved people to withstand the harsh realities of plantation life.
Joel Chandler Harris adapted these tales, introducing the figure of Uncle Remus, a formerly enslaved man content with plantation life. This portrayal sanitized the harsh realities of plantation life and slavery, catering to white readership’s nostalgia for a perceived benign past.
Harris’s tales preserved African American vernacular, some of which found its way into Potter’s stories. Terms like “rabbit tobacco”, “puddle-duck”, “lickety-split”, and “cottontail” were taken from the vernacular present in the Remus tales. Potter’s tales also featured plot similarities with Harris’s stories, often involving theft of food, mirroring the survival tactics of enslaved people.
Potter’s Tale of Mr. Tod, for instance, closely mirrored Harris’s narrative of Brother Rabbit Rescues Brother Terrapin. Potter’s depiction of her fictional world also mirrored the harsh realities of plantation life. Her characters lived in an unforgiving environment where survival was paramount and consequences were severe.
Brer Rabbit beyond Potter
Potter, constrained by Victorian patriarchal norms, probably found liberation in these stories that often centered around tricksters defying authority. However, she was hardly alone in this. Just as Potter did, another British author, Enid Blyton, wrote her own versions of Brer Rabbit stories. She began creating these in 1934, in a series of stories featuring Brer Rabbit and friends. Most stories appeared in various magazines, starting with Heyo, Brer Rabbit! (1938) and ending with Brer Rabbit Holiday Adventures (1974).
Unlike Potter, however, Blyton openly acknowledged her inspiration from Harris’s work. She adapted the tales to an English country setting, added her own characters, and wrote an extensive number of Brer Rabbit stories. Blyton retained phrases from the African American vernacular found in Harris’s stories, though she aimed to make the difficult vernacular more accessible to her readers.
Blyton was hardly the only one to reference Brer Rabbit. From artist Jean Mohr who adapted the Uncle Remus stories into a two-page comic story titled Ole Br’er Rabbit for The North American in 1902 to the character of Br’er Rabbit in Walt Disney’s Song of the South (1946) and even a brand of molasses produced by B&G Foods named after the character, Brer Rabbit is a common cultural reference. One that extends beyond Earth, too: on April 21, 1972, astronaut John Young became the ninth person to step onto the Moon, and in his first words he stated, “I’m sure glad they got ol’ Brer Rabbit, here, back in the briar patch where he belongs.” And in 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection, the Starship Enterprise entered a region of space called the Briar Patch. At some point during a battle with the Son’a, Commander Riker states that it is “time to use the Briar Patch the way Br’er Rabbit did”.
A pretense of originality
Given how influential Brer Rabbit tales are, Beatrix Potter’s use of them as the foundation for her own stories isn’t an issue. After all, this is a traditional way folktales migrate across cultures. However, Potter’s attempts to distance her tales from their Brer Rabbit inspiration, presenting them as original creations, is problematic as her tales frequently begin with a “pretense of absolute originality” despite their indebtedness to Harris’s work.
Potter rarely acknowledged the influence of Brer Rabbit stories in her writing, although occasional hints, like a reference to a fox coming from a plantation, might suggest a “secret desire to be caught”. Alternatively, these hints may be unintentional “slippages”, where Potter momentarily lapses back into the world of Brer Rabbit.
Ironically, Potter herself accused other authors of plagiarism, exemplified by her critique of children’s writer and illustrator Ernest Aris, whom she initially defended but later accused of having “no originality”.
Potter’s efforts to distance her work from its Brer Rabbit influences have led to an erasure of the tales’ black cultural origins. Despite plenty of evidence of Potter’s deep debt to Harris’s tales, no reference to these black American sources is found in any of the Beatrix Potter museums, attractions, films, or biopics. As a result, the African American tales that inspired her, a crucial part of our understanding and appreciation of Beatrix Potter’s tales, are largely overlooked and unacknowledged.
If you wish to further explore the relationship between Peter Rabbit and the Brer Rabbit tales, check out the original article on The Conversation!