If you ever decide that it’s finally time to take advantage of all that Harvard has to offer, start with Houghton Library. This library, tucked between Lamont and Widener, is a sanctuary for all things precious on paper, from illuminated books of hours to Emily Dickinson’s personal writings. The library also presents modest but fascinating exhibits that slip by most of us. Most recently, if you go downstairs in search of the bathroom between now and October 30, you’ll encounter the latest exhibit: an ornate wooden display case guarded by a portrait of Chaucer, boasting illustrated letters from Beatrix Potter herself.
These nine letters, addressed to children of the Morris family, contain doodles and musings that provided the starting point for her famous “Little Books.” On the yellowed and aged paper, folded and written on like a card, Potter’s rough cursive accompanies black ink sketches of squirrels, mice and other wilderness creatures, including her own rabbit (who, by the way, reaches his own moment of fame by the ninth letter, dated October 6, 1902, when Potter announces that she will finally be publishing the color edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”).
Writers often brainstorm in private notebooks in their private homes; Beatrix Potter shared her imagination regularly with children, in letters written especially for them. The reader hears Potter thinking aloud on paper, testing her ideas on her prospective audience. A particularly amusing excerpt concerns a puffin invasion off the coast of Wales that drove rabbits out of their burrows:
“I don’t believe either rabbits or puffins are able to hurt much, but the puffins always win and take possession of the best holes. I don’t know what becomes of the rabbits; perhaps they go and live with the jackdaws, who are much more polite.”
So go to the basement of Houghton and pause a little before you shoot for the restrooms. I guarantee you’ll feel Beatrix Potter’s signature tenderness and wit radiating from the old pieces of paper as in the books you read as a child. The letters are, after all, little narratives in and of themselves. And if you want to revisit the story, check out this lively reading of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” It will take you back to childhood — and may lead you to Houghton!