December 16: On this day in 1901 Beatrix Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Having been turned down by a half-dozen publishers, Potter financed this first edition herself — 250 copies with her own black-and-white illustrations, given away or sold at a half-penny each because, as she put it, “little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings.” Within a few weeks, another 200 copies were needed; within a year, Potter had a deal with a major publisher and orders for the entire first printing of 8,000 copies; by now, some 40 million copies of Peter Rabbit have been sold, in just about every language.
Potter made a lot of money from her books, and from the industry she built up around them — her “side-shows,” she said — but much of it went to charity. The donations included 4,000 acres of Lake District farmland and cottages bequeathed to Britain’s National Trust. Potter started going to the region as a teenager, on holiday with her family; at forty-seven, she moved there for good, marrying the local solicitor who was helping amass her real estate. Long before her death at age 77, she had given up writing for conservation work, farming and sheep-raising, becoming an authority on the local breed.
Jane Austen was born on this day in 1775, into a large family whose social position, says one biographer, “hovered at the gentry’s lower fringes.” This meant that, on one hand, the Austens raised cows and chickens and took in boarders to make ends meet; on the other hand, Jane and her siblings were well schooled and in the habit of putting on three-act plays in the barn. Thirteen-year-old Jane was so impressed by these productions that she tried her hand at playwriting, with results that foreshadow her later talent for social comedy. Below is “The Mystery,” a mini-lampoon in which no one ever explains what they are so breathlessly gossiping about:
Daphne: My dear Mrs Humbug how d’ye do? Oh! Fanny t’is all over.
Fanny: Is it indeed!
Mrs Hum: I’m very sorry to hear it.
Fanny: Then t’was to no purpose that I…
Daphne: None upon Earth.
Mrs Hum: And what is to be come of?…
Daphne: Oh! that’s all settled. [whispers to Mrs Humbug]
Fanny: And how is it determined?
Daphne: I’ll tell you. [whispers to Fanny]
Mrs Hum: And is he to?…
Daphne: I’ll tell you all I know of the matter. [whispers to both]
Fanny: Well! now I know everything about it, I’ll go and dress away. Mrs Hum & Daphne: And so will I. [Exeunt]