Beatrix Potter is accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ by academic claiming her most popular stories such as Peter Rabbit were ‘more than inspired by’ folk tales told by African slaves
- Dr Emily Zobel Marshall said Potter’s books owed a lot to the Brer Rabbit tales
- The stories were told by enslaved Africans on American plantations in the 1800s
Beatrix Potter has been accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ by an academic who claimed the author’s most beloved tales copied folk stories told by African slaves.
Dr Emily Zobel Marshall, an expert in postcolonial literature at Leeds Beckett University, has called for wider acknowledgment of the debt Potter owed to the Brer Rabbit stories told by enslaved Africans working on American plantations.
According to the research scholar, the author’s ‘quintessentially English’ tales of Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and Jemima Puddle-Duck, were ‘more than just inspired’ by the Brer Rabbit stories told by slaves in the 1800s.
The tales, about a cunning rabbit who lives in a briar patch and outwits larger animals, can be traced back to pre-colonial Africa, argued Dr Zobel Marshall in an essay for The Conversation.
The stories were later shared by slaves working on plantations in America before being adapted for a white audience in the 19th century by American journalist and folklorist, Joel Chandler Harris.
Beatrix Potter’s most iconic stories, including Peter Rabbit, were ‘more than just inspired’ by folk stories told by African slaves, an academic has claimed. Peter Rabbit is pictured
Dr Emily Zobel Marshall, an expert in postcolonial literature at Leeds Beckett University accused Potter of ‘cultural appropriation’. Potter in 1892
Dr Emily Zobel Marshall said Potter’s were inspired by the Brer Rabbit stories which could be can be traced back to pre-colonial Africa. The stories were told by enslaved African working on American plantations (pictured are slaves working in 1862)
The Uncle Remus stories, as they then became known, were familiar to Potter – and Dr Zobel Marshall has accused the acclaimed author of failing to publicly credit them as the source behind some of her children’s stories.
Dr Zobel Marshall said: ‘Peter Rabbit and the rest of Potter’s tales are viewed as quintessentially English stories about characters conjured from Potter’s brilliant mind and inspired by her life in rural England.
Dr Zobel Marshall has accused the acclaimed author of failing to publicly credit them as the source behind some of her children’s stories
‘Yet her tales are, at heart, folktales that originated in Africa before being adapted to expose and reflect the violence, resistance and survival tactics of the plantation life of enslaved people in the Americas.
‘I was amazed to realise how little comment there has been over the years about the many similarities between Potter’s tales and the Africa-originated Brer Rabbit folktales.’
In Linda Lear’s 2008 biography of Potter, A Life in Nature, it was noted that while her ‘first audience was British’, her work was strongly influenced by Harris – ‘whose Brer Rabbit stories she had loved as a child’.
Copies of Harris’s Brer Rabbit folktale collections, bearing her father’s bookplate, were found at Potter’s Lake District home after she died in 1943.
Dr Zobel Marshall added: ‘These stories had not been published in the UK when Beatrix Potter was a child. It is therefore likely that her early contact with the Brer Rabbit tales (in comparison with the rest of the British public) was a result of her family roots in the cotton industry.’
Potter’s ‘quintessentially English’ tales of Peter Rabbit and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (pictured), were ‘more than just inspired’ by the Brer Rabbit stories told by slaves said the academic
Peter Rabbit, which was first published in 1902 – and has since sold more than 45 million copies worldwide. But Potter has been accused of cultural appropriation and ‘failing to acknowledge the inspiration’ behind her story, an academic has argued
In Lear’s biography, Potter acknowledged in a letter to he publisher that The Tale of Mr Tod, the sequel to the Tale of Peter Rabbit, contained ‘imitations of Uncle Remus’. ‘Having analysed the plotting, language and characters in her tales, it’s clear that Potter was more than just inspired by these folktales,’ Dr Zobel Marshall added.
Who is the academic accusing Beatrix Potter of copying African tales
Dr Emily Zobel Marshall is a Lecturer in postcolonial literature at Leeds Beckett University’s School of Cultural Studies.
She teaches courses on African-American, Caribbean, African and black British literature.
Of Martinican and British heritage and has lived in Leeds for 20 years.
She specialises in Caribbean literature and Caribbean carnival cultures and is an expert on the ‘trickster figure’ in the folklore, oral cultures and literature of the African people.
Pointing out the similarities, the academic said that in Some Lady’s Garden, written in 1883, Brer Rabbit ‘tricks Miss Janey into letting him into her father’s vegetable garden to steal English peas, sparrow grass (asparagus) and goobers (peanuts) by pretending to be a friend of her father’.
‘This plot is the main storyline in most of Potter’s tales and is directly linked to the need for enslaved people to steal food from their masters to survive,’ the research scholar argued.
But Dr Zobel Marshall argued that Potter had attempted to ‘steer’ her audience away from the inspiration behind the likes of Peter Rabbit, which was first published in 1902 – and has since sold more than 45 million copies worldwide.
‘She appears to have been keen to claim the stories as her own, while ensuring that readers didn’t make the connection between Peter Rabbit and the stories narrated by Uncle Remus,’ she wrote.
Dr Zobel Marshall claimed that by failing to publicly admit the inspiration for her stories, Potter’s actions ‘fed into a damaging and reoccurring appropriation of Black cultural forms that continues today.
‘The Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit brands are highly lucrative, yet I have found no references to the black American sources of these tales in any of the Beatrix Potter museums and experiences in the UK and US, which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly. There is similarly no mention of these sources in any of the films of her tales, or in the 2006 Hollywood biopic Miss Potter.’
MailOnline has approached Potter’s publisher, Frederick Warne & Co, a branch of the Penguin Group, for comment.
How Beatrix Potter’s tales became some of Britain’s most beloved
She created some of the most beloved children’s stories in British history, penning the likes of Peter Rabbit, Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
During her sensational career, Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated 28 books, including her 23 Tales which have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide.
In her later years, she became a farmer and sheep breeder and helped protect thousands of acres of land in the Lake District.
But she has now been accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ by an academic, who says her iconic tales were ‘more than inspired’ by folk stories told by African slaves on American plantations.
Born on July 28, 1866, in Kensington, London, Beatrix was the only daughter of cotton fortune heirs.
Beatrix Potter pictured alongside her dog, was born on July 28, 1866 in South Kensington, London. She is pictured at her Lake District home, Hill Top, in 1907
For much of the first 47 years of her life, she lived at her family’s home at 2 Bolton Gardens.
Her family was well connected. Edmund, Beatrix’s paternal grandfather, had become wealthy by setting a successful calico printing works at Dinting Vale in Glossop, Derbyshire. He later became a Liberal MP for Carlisle.
And Beatrix’s maternal grandfather, John Leech, was a merchant who inherited a cotton mill at Stalybridge in Cheshire.
But growing up, her childhood was a solitary one that was occasionally brightened by long holidays to Scotland or the Lake District – trips that inspired her love of animals and painting.
During one of these trips in Scotland, at the age of 27, Potter sent an illustrated animal story to a sick child of a former governess, about four bunnies named Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.
It proved so popular that, aged 35, she decided to privately publish it as the Tales of Peter Rabbit in 1901. The following year it was published commercially by Frederick Warne & Company and proved a runaway hit.
Over the next 20 years, 22 additional books were produced, starting with The Tailor of Gloucester (1903), The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904).
Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated 28 books, including her 23 Tales which have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide. Peter Rabbit (pictured) was one of her most acclaimed
‘What an appalling quantity of Peter,’ she remarked, in her typically dry style at the time.
In 1902 she met the first love of her life, Norman Warne – who was the son of her publisher, Frederick Warne.
In July 1905, at the age of 39, she had become secretly engaged to Norman, who was 37. Her parents, shocked that their daughter was thinking about marrying ‘into trade’, did not approve of the match. But Beatrix would not be overruled.
She went on holiday with her parents to north Wales. On August 24 she wrote Norman a letter – ‘a silly letter all about my rabbits, and the walking stick that I was going to get for him to thrash his wife with’, she recorded in her diary – but he was never to read it.
The next morning she received a telegram telling her that he was gravely ill. That afternoon he died of leukaemia, before she could go to see him.
She wrote later in her diary, ‘I am quite glad now I was not in time, I should only have cried and upset him, and I am sure he would have sent for me if he had wanted me.’
Following his death, she spent much of her time alone at Hill Top, a small farm ion the picturesque village Sawrey in the Lake District, bought with the proceeds of a legacy and the royalties from her books.
In 1913 she married her solicitor, William Heelis, and spent the last 30 years of her life extending her farm and breeding Herdwick sheep.
The home and its land was later bequeathed to the National Trust.
As well as her love for writing and painting, Potter also closely studied fungi – even writing a paper on spore germination that was read before nature experts at the Linnean Society in 1897.
Beatrix Potter died on December 22, 1943, aged 77.
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