“Love from your friend Peter Rabbit:” Beatrix Potter’s Miniature Letters to Jack Ripley Acquired by the Cotsen

CUMBRIA, UK – MAY 30TH 2016: Beatrix Potters writing desk at Hill Top – a 17th Century House once home to childrens author Beatrix Potter, taken on 30th May 2016.

Over the years Beatrix Potter composed picture letters to children she knew.  Noel Moore, the eldest son of her friend and last governess Annie Carter Moore, was especially lucky.  Miss Potter sent him a version of what became The Tale of Peter Rabbit. ne of Noel’s little brother Eric was the recipient of a draft of The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher and Molly Gaddum was sent another one.   Those two picture letters of Jeremy Fisher are among the greatest treasures of Cotsen’s Beatrix Potter collection.

Between nineteen naughts and the early 1920s, Miss Potter wrote teeny-tiny unillustrated letters from her characters in the little books to her young fans.  These miniature manuscripts do not come on the market very often and Mr. Cotsen wasn’t able to acquire any examples while building the Potter collection. Judy Taylor, the Potter scholar, succeeded in tracking down a quite a number, which she published in Letters to Children from Beatrix Potter (1992).    But another Potter devotee, the late Mary K. Young, purchased in the 1990s the four to Master Jack Ripley, of Gloucestershire, whose father was a breeder and trainer of Argentine polo ponies.  She loaned them to the Beatrix Potter exhibition at the Grolier Club in 2000.   It came as something of a surprise that he highlights of Mary Young’s collection were to be auctioned during the pandemic by Doyle’s in New York City.  The sale was not especially well-publicized, but with a derring do, and enthusiastic support from the Friends of the Princeton University Library and John Logan, the English Literature bibliographer, and a canny agent to obtain the letters for Cotsen.

Here they are, as photographed in Judy Taylor’s book.  The letters are matted and framed and my poor cell-phone camera simply wasn’t up to the challenge.   At least these reproductions have transcripts of all the letters, which makes it easier to make out the messages from Peter Rabbit, Josephine Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, and Mr McGregor.

With a second heartfelt thanks to the Friends and to John Logan for making this fabulous acquisition possible.

 

The “Fanaticism” Frederick Douglass Found in the Columbian Orator

The thirteen-year-old Frederick Douglas put down fifty cents for a copy of Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator, which had been first published in 1797.   He described the anthology both as “a rich treasure”  and as a source of fanaticism because its contents included the fiery speeches of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Lord Chatham, William Pitt, and Charles James Fox.  Armed with this volume, Douglass said “My own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the coloured people.”

But the selection he describes in the greatest detail is a dialogue between a master and his slave, who has been recaptured after a second attempt to run away.  Instead of being punished, he succeeds in winning his freedom  through the cogent analysis of the arguments for and against slavery.   Douglass recalls that “I could not help feeling that the day might come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance would find their counterpart in myself.”

This dialogue work had been extracted without credit by Caleb Bingham from the sixth volume of Evenings at Home (1796), a collaboration between John Aikin and his sister Anna Letitia Barbauld, author of the celebrated Lessons for Children (1778-1779) and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). “A Dialogue between a Master and His Slave” was one of Aikin’s contributions to the project.  While the attribution has been known for some years, its significance has not always been appreciated.  Aikin and Barbauld were born into a family of Dissenters, which meant they were denied full religious liberty in their own country.  While their situation was not analogous to enslavement, they knew first hand the pain of  intolerance and alienation.  Aikin and Barbauld wrote as members of the cultured and liberal British middle class, they embraced the responsibility of teaching children how to read, analyze, and evaluate so that they would act as ethical social beings.   Here is the dialog:

Douglass was by no means the only nineteenth-century reader deeply influenced by a piece from Evenings, even though it is unclear if he ever learned that its author was John Aikin.  It was also among the favorite children’s books of George Eliot and John Ruskin, to mention two other distinguished writers.  We may never know what edition of The Columbian Orator Douglass owned or if it has survived in some collection, but it is testimony to the power of a school book to shape the minds of young readers who were not fortunate enough to own many books, but were hungry to read, analyze, evaluate, and act.

John Aikin, author of “A Dialogue between a Master and his Slave”