I’ve had Margaret Lane’s magnificent biography of Potter for years but waited till laid low in bed to read it. The thirteen years of Potter’s extraordinary literary achievement (which she would never have called literary) are laid out in detail, and her animal characters thoroughly investigated, including “Mr. Jackson,” the tiresome toad who has to be closed out of the house with a board under the door—he used to creep in through the crack—although at the cats’ party, he is allowed a glass of honeydew, handed out through the window.
We all have our Mr. Jacksons. I’ve had quite a few, all attracted to honey of various kinds, not all male—in fact one of my most voracious was a Ms. Jackson—and we all know what it is like to nail the board under the door, and perhaps eventually—but only perhaps—to hand the glass of honeydew out through the window. If we are fortunate, we finally learn to love—at a distance—those we will never entirely understand.
Potter’s stories cover the whole range of animal behavior, and although she dresses her mice, rabbits, squirrels and porcupines in little jackets—but never trousers, she hated trousers—and flounced dresses and aprons, they are still recognizably animals, perhaps most clearly in their ability to get along with one another.
There is plenty of conflict, especially when nasty rats like Samuel Whiskers are involved, yet all manage to live together in the barns and attics of the old English country houses Potter loved—and eventually owned.
The Tale of Ginger and Pickles aroused skepticism because it is the story of a shop run by a cat and a dog; the cat has to ask the dog to serve the mice customers because his mouth waters when he sees them “going out the door with their little parcels.” But there is no mayhem.
A recent news story tells of a similar dog-cat pact in the arid desert of southern Israel between bands of wolves and hyenas, traditional enemies, who travel and hunt together, this from a study in “Zoology in the Middle East.”
“Animal behavior is much more flexible than described in textbooks,” Vladimir Dinets, associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas, writes.
“When necessary animals can abandon their usual strategies and learn something new and unexpected.”
This unlikely alliance between wolves and hyenas may result from the fact that the hyenas benefit from the wolves’ stronger hunting skills, while the wolves benefit from the hyenas superior sense of smell and ability to break bones and open tin cans found in the garbage.
Beatrix Potter saw this adaptation in the domestic animal she studied in an English village.
Is there any reason to hope that we humans can also “abandon our usual strategies and learn something new and unexpected?”
It may be our only hope.