Beatrix Potter, Servitude & Symbiosis


January 3, 2014 by Beatrice Marovich

20131231-185533.jpgThis past week, somewhere in the open-ended cycles of holiday time, we unearthed an old copy of The Tailor of Gloucester at my partner’s childhood home. There’s something about Beatrix Potter illustrations that transports me, almost immediately, to a sort of deluded and wondrous mood that I associate with being a kid. Something about the mice and hedgehogs, dressed up in their tiny bonnets and skirts. I recognize, now, how problematic it is to dress animals up in humanoid clothing. I don’t mean to condone this. But, as a child, I always had the sense that these costumed animals, with Victorian mannerisms, were teaching me something important about how to be alive in the world. I’m not sure I ever figured out what it was. But Potter somehow became a staple of my childhood literary diet. To this day, her creatures generate a kind of instant and cozy sense of nostalgia in me. There’s a Jemima Puddleduck mug in the cabinet of my Brooklyn kitchen that always seems an infinitely comforting vessel for coffee and tea. And this is all despite that fact that, as a number of critics have noted, there is also something a bit dark and unsettling at the heart of many Beatrix Potter tales.

The darkness of Potter’s stories makes sense, perhaps, in the context of the new perspectives on Potter that have been emerging over the past decade or so. Books like Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature or exhibits like the one at the Victoria & Albert Museum (whose website has posted many of her unpublished illustrations and sketches), underscore the fact that Potter was an amateur naturalist before she was ever an author of children’s books. As a young woman she was trained, like many other girls in her social class, to paint flowers. But her interest in the natural world quickly extended beyond this. She began to sketch other plants, and small animals. She paid frequent visits to the Natural History Museum. Eventually, after undertaking a close study of the botany of fungi, she developed a deeper curiosity in the nature of lichen. She apparently went so far as to cultivate alga and fungal spores in her own kitchen, in an attempt to develop experimental proofs of the hypothesis she was developing. She believed there was a symbiotic connection between lichen and its host. This conviction developed into a paper that was presented, by her uncle, to the Linnean Society in her home region. Women were not allowed to attend meetings, let alone to present at them. So she was effectively shut out. And, in her absence, it appears that her findings and hypothesis were pooh-poohed.

This was due, in part, to gender dynamics in this amateur scientific culture. But it was also due, in part, to the fact that she had been deeply influenced by the theories of the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener, who’d developed an early theory that lichen were produced through a symbiotic relation between fungus and alga. His theories had been rejected by other lichen botanists of his era. Apparently his theory flew in the face of claims that all organisms (such as lichen) had to be fully autonomous. Schwendener even went so far as to claim that there was an actual master-slave relational dynamic at work in the relation between fungus and alga (the fungus, he believed, was making a veritable slave of the alga). This seems, perhaps, a polemical claim almost designed to contest the autonomy of organisms. Many later botanists, who made use of his ideas, apparently distanced themselves from the master-slave claims at the heart of his theory. So far as I can tell, the master-slave relation doesn’t appear to feature prominently in Potter’s own theory. But I do wonder to what extent the social theory embedded in Schwendener’s work continued to influence the way that Potter herself conceived of the world around her.

Eventually, after being squeezed out of the amateur scientific community, Potter’s sketches and illustrations verged away from the realism of the naturalist and into the fantastic world of the children’s tale. But it seems to me, after re-reading The Tailor of Gloucester, that the theory of symbiosis never really disappeared from her intellectual work, and re-appears in interesting ways, even in this strange little tale.

For those who’ve never read it, or have long since forgotten the plot, it revolves around a very poor, bachelor tailor who owns a little shop on Westgate Street, in one of the oldest parts of Gloucester, but lives in the kitchen of an old building on College Court. He rooms with his cat, Simpkin, who is apparently astute enough to do the grocery shopping for the household, but cannot speak in complete sentences to the tailor himself. This tailor, we’re told, is living through the era “when gentlemen wore ruffles” and, when we meet him, he’s hard at work designing a cherry colored cloak (lined with yellow taffeta) for the mayor of Gloucester to wear to his wedding on Christmas Day. The cloak is almost finished, but lacks a bit of cherry colored trim. The tailor, exhausted from a day’s work, goes home and asks Simpkin to purchase the goods for him (along with a scrap of food), and hands over his last bit of change to the cat.

While Simpkin is out, the tailor discovers that Simpkin has trapped several mice below a series of teacups (ostensibly saving them for a midnight snack). The tailor frees the mice, and subsequently falls ill with a terrible fever. When Simpkin returns home, he discovers that his mice are gone, and he becomes irate. He hides away the trim he’s purchased for the tailor, and proceeds to sulk. Over the next few days, the tailor is unable to leave the house and finish his jacket—lost, as he is, in the throes of a fever. But when Simpkin goes out for a stroll on Christmas Eve, to work off the depression, he passes by the tailor’s shop and realizes that the mice have been finishing the tailor’s cloak on his behalf. They taunt him, from inside the building. Simpkin runs home, to find the tailor and to return the trim to him. The tailor—recovered from his short illness—hurries to the shop to find his project complete. But the mice are gone, leaving Simpkin, still, without his feast. The story ends happily, for the tailor. He’s able to present the cloak to the mayor. And this project, apparently, brings him many more. He ends his life as a fat, rich man—a sought-after tailor whose buttonholes were so triumphant, so small, so neatly crafted, “they looked as if they had been made by little mice!”

We are meant, it seems to me, to assume that the tailor is ultimately rewarded for freeing the mice. The tailor allows these liminal creatures to live, and they (in turn) serve him by helping to produce beautiful garments that bring in a lot of cash. Ultimately, there is a mutualistic benefit to the creatures in this relation. The mice depend on the tailor, to stay alive. The tailor, in turn, begins to depend on the mice for his economic vitality. In a more abstract sense, he also depends on them in order to stay alive. There is, then, a kind of symbiotic relation that’s set up between these two biotic communities. Perhaps we can extrapolate, from the dynamics of this relation, a kind of moral or ethical fortune cookie message: when we extend our kindness to other creatures, we can expect great benefits. Or, better: if we serve other creatures, they in turn will (willingly) serve us, bringing prosperity to all. The relation between the mice and the tailor is the optimistic and cheery model of a kind of mutalistic sense of servitude between humans and animals.

But what is to be made of poor, frustrated, Simpkin? It would appear, on the surface, that he too is involved in symbiotic relations with both the mice and the tailor. Without the mice, he is left without the pleasure of a nice snack. The mice fulfill a kind of desire, for him. When this desire is frustrated, he is thrown into a depression. He depends on the tailor, however, for shelter and companionship. But it is Simpkin’s troubled relations with both the tailor and the mice that provides the narrative tension in this tale. The mutually beneficial relation between the tailor and the mice only exists because the tailor frustrates Simpkin’s desires and foils his plans. The mice are only able to be useful to the tailor (finishing his unfinished cloak) because Simpkin has hid away the trim. Simpkin, the domestic creature, serves as a kind of negative foil. Perhaps we can imagine the symbiosis between Simpkin and the tailor, or Simpkin and the mice, as parasitic. Perhaps we are meant to see that Simpkin’s world is set up to reap benefits from his relations with the mice (or the tailor) that are not mutual. Thus, the relations that Simpkin models for us are inherently problematic. They are morally and ethically inferior to the mutualistic relations between mice and tailor.

There are, surely, other ways of reading this. But given Potter’s interest in symbiotic relations between species, I’m tempted to believe that we can witness a kind of theory unfolding, even here. I’m interested, additionally, in the sort of commentary Potter appears to be making about human relations with their domestic creatures. Potter, herself, didn’t appear to be opposed to the domestication of animals. There are pictures of her, as a young woman, leading a rabbit (the prototype, perhaps, for Peter Rabbit himself) around on a leash. But, perhaps, she was making a commentary on how our (symbiotic) relations with domestic animals threaten the livelihood of other forms of species life. She was, if the rotund Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle can stand in as any indication, a lover of hedgehogs. These creatures are now endangered, in the U.K., perhaps in part because they’ve become victim to capture by growing numbers of domestic cats on the prowl at night. I have to wonder whether Potter’s portrayal of liminal creatures—who live near us, but never truly with us—as domesticated in their own right (busy in their kitchens, caught up in all manner of domestic tasks) serves as some sort of challenge to our sensibility of what it means to be in relation with domesticated creatures in the first place–a way of raising questions about who serves who, in the messy web that weaves creatures together.

7 thoughts on “Beatrix Potter, Servitude & Symbiosis

  1. Fabulous post! Potter actually had two rabbits, Benjamin Bounce and Peter Piper, both of whom became the models for her famous characters. Interestingly (to me at least!) Potter was one of the first people who was known to have kept house rabbits, because she wrote of them sleeping indoors in front of her fire.

  2. Yeah, that image of Potter with a rabbit on a leash definitely lead me to believe that she had developed some sort of sustained relationship with this creature. She’s such a fascinating personality, and I’ve been happy to have my childhood sense of her literary work complicated…

  3. Lori Gruen says:

    This is just fantastic! (But why is there a vitamix ad at the bottom — not that I’m opposed to vitamix!)

  4. No direct endorsement! I can’t see it on my screen… I think that WordPress throws ads onto the bottom of the screen when people view the blog from iphones or ipads. One of the “hidden costs” of the free blog platform… Hopefully they keep it clean, and limited to vitamins and other health-promoting products…

  5. Although it’s the cat impact on the environment that forms the heart of this blog, you’ll want to look at
    Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales Hardcover
    by Marta McDowell (Author). –Marion W. Copeland

  6. Talk about serendipity! Just received this update

    A article in the December 2013 issue of the journal Rural Sociology might be of interest to list members.

    The Symbiotic Ideology: Stewardship, Husbandry, and Dominion in Beef Production
    Colter Ellis
    Social studies of agriculture tend to overlook the micro and symbolic interactions that structure relationships among agriculturalists, the environment, and animals raised as commodities. In this study, I use ethnographic methods and in-depth interviews with conventional beef producers to understand their perceptions of the environment and the nonhuman animals they raise. Central themes in this setting are the ethics of stewardship and husbandry. I seek to understand how these values are constructed and used interactionally. I argue that stewardship and husbandry help describe a process of co-constitution that binds together ranchers, cattle, and the natural environment. The analysis engages actor-network theory by emphasizing nonhuman activeness and draws from symbolic interaction and cultural sociology to show how people interpret the actions of nonhumans. The findings show that ranchers frame their relationships with cattle and the environment as symbiotic and work to understand the interests of the nonhuman as complementary to production. I introduce the term symbiotic ideology to show the way this approach mystifies power dynamics embedded in the ethic of dominion.


    Elizabeth Cherry
    Assistant Professor
    Department of Sociology & Anthropology
    Manhattanville College
    2900 Purchase Street
    Purchase, NY 10577
    (914) 323-5160


  7. ntbronco says:

    I realize there are various and conflicting ethical views of cats: as a hedonist, I have the choice between providing my cat with an indoor-life which is comfortable and convenient or with an out-door life which offers the possibilities of hunting and mating, alongside the distress of fighting. If I were a perfectionist, however, I would categorically oppose neutering and declawing on the basis that such surgeries prevent the animal from realizing its species-specific potential. So, where so I stand? As far as the neutered, declawed cat-on-my-lap is concerned, I am an indoor-pleasures kind of hedonist. I hold that, as her caregiver, I should not let this companion animal do anything which would harm her. But what is her relationship to me? Is it symbiosis (mutualism) or parasitism?

    As Beatrice points out, in Potter’s story, Simpkin is parasitic. The cat’s goal is to gather benefits– from his relations with the mice and the tailor–that are not mutual. While this ranks the cat’s goals—both morally and ethically–as inferior to those of the symbiotic mice and tailor, the cat’s behavior is factual while that of mice-and-tailor is fictional. Observing my own cat, I cannot think of a single action which she willingly performs that serves anyone but herself. Indeed she can be quit nasty. If, while she is sitting on my lap between me and my laptop, I attempt to search through books or notebooks beside me, she meows a harsh warning, then grasps my right arm and bites it, before leaping off the bed where we have been sitting.

    I would like to think, however, that Beatrice is correct when she suggests that Potter is concerned about how our domestic animals (specifically cats) threaten the livelihood of other forms of species life. I was encouraged to read about the cat curfew being enforced in Australia and saddened to hear about the declining hedgehog populations in the U.K.

    Here is an update for the U.S.: in the October 15, 2013, issue of Sierra, contributing writer Dashka Slater quotes a study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute which indicates that cats kill more birds and small mammals than cars, pesticides, poisons, colliding with windows, or any other human cause. The numbers are astounding: cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds each year, along with 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals. While feral cats are responsible for the vast majority of the carnage, even well-fed house cats kill an average of 2.1 animals per week, while let outside.

    In the U.S., every issue having two sides has at least two non-profit corporations supporting it. Here, Alley Cat Allies comes to mind. About themselves, they say “Alley Cat Allies is a leader in the fight for the humane protection and treatment of all our nation’s cats.” They practice TNR (trap-neuter-return) and believe that this is the only effective and humane method of stabilizing feral, or community, cat populations. Then the cats’ human neighbors are asked to provide (outdoor) shelter and extra food/water. Their goal is to keep feral cats from being killed by government shelters, under a “trap and kill” philosophy. Notice that nothing is said about the continuous negative effect of such cat-support on the local environment.

    However, living as a caretaker of eight acres of woodland, I am prejudiced against outdoor cats. I am concerned for native wildlife: birds, chipmunks, mice, cottontails, and ground squirrels, who struggle against the people-invasion of their woods. I don’t want any cat hunting these original residents, not only for their own sake but also because catching them could give the cat fleas (carrying Hantavirus, transmittable to humans) and eating them could give her parasites.

    In this my neighbor across the street (brushing aside the Hantavirus threat) disagrees. She regularly lets her neutered fifteen-year-old cat out at night to hunt, on the belief that there is an unlimited quantity of chipmunks and that the cat’s successful hunt does no harm. When the cat runs out of trophies at home, she doubtless visits other people’s properties.

    In my view, every hedgehog counts; every chipmunk counts! I cannot count all the representatives of one species, even within a one mile radius. I can only count the number of chipmunks I see frolicking on my back steps, harvesting grass seed, drinking from a ground-level bird bath, and sharing the watch with ground-feeding birds and cottontails–and that number this past summer declined from four to one.

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