I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr Tod. Nobody could call Mr Tod nice . . .
Thus, in 1912, Beatrix Potter opens the darkest of all her tales. Set in a brooding Cumberland landscape of crags, empty dwellings and moonlit woodland, the characters, menacing atmosphere and plot of Mr Tod have all the hallmarks of classic crime fiction – approaching, indeed, something much greater. In his essay on Potter published in 1933, Graham Greene placed the book ‘at the end of the period of great near-tragedies’ and speculated on the author’s state of mind when she wrote it. Greene’s own vision of evil had yet to find its first full expression in Brighton Rock (1938), but his discussion of Potter’s work is alert to the enemy within many of her novels. Some of these enemies are human: Mr McGregor, of course, in Peter Rabbit (1902) and, much later, the vile and squalid farmer Mr Thomas Piperson in Pigling Bland (1913).
Of those in the animal world, Greene omits to mention Old Brown, the owl in Squirrel Nutkin (1903) whose implacable dark eye and vicious beak, wrenching off that impertinent red tail, so frightened me as a child. But he is very good on ‘the gentleman with sandy whiskers’, Mr Tod’s first incarnation in Jemima Puddle-duck (1908); on Mr Drake Puddle-duck, advancing ‘in a slow sideways manner’ towards Tom Kitten in order to steal his discarded clothing; and on ‘the gross and brutal’ Samuel Whiskers, demanding of Anna Maria in 1907 that his ‘kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding’ be properly made with breadcrumbs.
But although the cavernous, rat-infested chimney-breast where
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