The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck is a children's book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. It was first published by Frederick Warne & Co. in July 1908. Potter composed the book at Hill Top, a working farm in the Lake District she bought in 1905. Following the purchase, her works began to focus on country and village life, incorporating large casts of animal characters and sinister villains. Jemima Puddle-Duck was the first of her books set wholly at the farm with background illustrations based on the farm buildings and yard, and nearby locales.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck cover.jpg
First edition cover
AuthorBeatrix Potter
IllustratorBeatrix Potter
GenreChildren's literature
PublisherFrederick Warne & Co
Publication date
July 1908
Media typePrint (hardcover)
Preceded byThe Tale of Tom Kitten 
Followed byThe Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding 
TextThe Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck at Wikisource

Jemima is a domestic duck of the Aylesbury breed, whose eggs are routinely confiscated by the farmer's wife because she believes Jemima to be a poor sitter. Jemima searches for a place away from the farm where she can hatch her eggs without human interference, and naively confides her woes to a suave fox who invites her to nest in a shed at his home. Jemima accepts his invitation, little realising her danger: the fox plans to kill and roast her. Kep, a collie on the farm, discovers Jemima's whereabouts and rescues her just in time. Potter indicated the tale was a revision of "Little Red Riding Hood" with Jemima, the fox, and the dog acting as parallels to the fairy tale's heroine, wolf, and woodcutter. Jemima, Kep, the farmer's wife, and her two children were all modelled on real world individuals at Potter's Hill Top farm.

The book was hugely popular. Spinoff merchandise included a soft Jemima doll in bonnet and shawl, a Jemima painting book in 1925, and illustrated fabric placemats hand-fashioned by Potter and distributed to friends. Critically, the book is considered one of Potter's best.


The book frontispiece depicts Jemima confiding in the fox. Her poke bonnet was not the fashion among farmwomen at the time of the book's publication but its incorporation in the text and illustrations sets the tale in a not-too-distant fairy tale past.

The tale begins in a farmyard which is home to a duck called Jemima Puddle-duck. She wants to hatch her own eggs, but the farmer's wife believes ducks make poor sitters and routinely confiscates their eggs to allow the hens to incubate them. Jemima tries to hide her eggs, but they are always found and carried away. She sets off along the road in her poke bonnet and shawl to find a safe place away from the farm to lay her eggs.

At the top of a hill, she spies a distant wood, flies to it, and waddles about until she discovers an appropriate nesting place among the foxgloves. However, a charming gentleman with "black prick ears and sandy-coloured whiskers" persuades her to nest in a shed at his home. Jemima is led to his "tumble-down shed" (which is curiously filled with feathers), and makes herself a nest with little ado.

Jemima lays her eggs, and the fox suggests a dinner party to mark the event. He asks her to collect the traditional herbs used in stuffing a duck, telling her the seasonings will be used for an omelet. Jemima sets about her errand, but the farm collie, Kep, meets her as she carries onions from the farm kitchen and asks her what she is doing and where she keeps going. She reveals her errand, Kep sees through the fox's plan at once, and finds out from Jemima where the fox lives.

With the help of two fox-hound puppies who are out at walk at the farm, Kep rescues Jemima and the "foxy-whiskered gentleman" (Mr. Tod) is chased away and seen again in The Tale of Mr. Tod. However, the hungry fox-hounds eat Jemima's eggs. Jemima is escorted back to the farm in tears over her lost eggs, but, in time, lays more eggs and successfully hatches four ducklings.[1]

Scholarly commentariesEdit

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck is a tale of pursuit and prey. The theme runs through several of Potter's tales: Mr. McGregor pursues Peter Rabbit, Simpkin lies in wait for the mice in the tailor's shop, and the trout attempts to devour Jeremy Fisher. Potter was following the pattern of fairy tales by dwelling on the theme of pursuit and prey, and often pointed out that the tale of Jemima was a retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood". Perrault's tale ends with the death of the heroine, but Potter understood children will not tolerate tragedy. The prey in her books survive for better or worse (Peter returns home for a dose of chamomile tea, for example) and, though Jemima loses her eggs to her hungry rescuers, she lives to return to the farm to raise a brood of ducklings.[2]

The tale shows Potter at her best in depicting the life of the farm and the village of Near Sawrey, but the tale becomes one of something more than just local colour and interest. The archetypical tale upon which Jemima is based – the foolish and naive are rescued from destruction by the loyal and dependable – is transformed in Potter's hands to one in which self-preservation and shrewdness become admirable virtues. Graham Greene thought the sandy-whiskered gentleman a character of ominous gloom and suggested Potter had suffered some sort of mental breakdown, but it is more likely she was simply coming to terms with life on a farm. Wild animals invade the precincts of the domesticated ones, and death is part of farming.[3]

The victor in the tale is the farmer's wife: she regains her errant duck and is rid of the predatory fox. Ostensibly, she confiscates Jemima's eggs believing Jemima will abandon them, but the eggs are not confiscated for the well-being of Jemima and her kin but for the well-being of the farmer's wife and her family: the eggs (or the ducks hatched from them) will end up on their dinner table. In this respect, the farmer's wife is a predator like the fox, but the fox is condemned for his predation. Human values are at the top of the tale's hierarchy. Potter argues for the well-ordered home and the practicalities of farm life over the fantasy lives of animals. It was the modus vivendi Potter was to incorporate in her own life as she devoted more of her thoughts and hours to the business of farming and less to tales of fantasy animals.[4]

Like many fairy tales, Jemima Puddle-Duck belongs in a remote, but not-too-distant, past. Jemima's shawl reflects the typical farm dress of the Lake District at the time of the tale's composition, but the poke bonnet does not, and the fox's long tail coat and exquisite manners also suggest another time. Jemima is a more interesting character when humanised with the clothing; without it, she is just a farmyard duck. As Potter pointed out, the tale is a revision of a fairy tale and belongs in the indefinite period of "once upon a time".[1]

The story is one of Potter's more ominous and is fraught with tension. Jemima is a headstrong innocent distracted by her overwhelming desire to nest, and thus unable to penetrate the fox's designs and comprehend her dangerous situation. The tension rises in increments from the mysterious feather-filled shed (the place of slaughter), to the fox's plan for an omelette (of Jemima's eggs), to the ultimate horror and crowning irony, Jemima's errand to fetch the herbs that will be used to season herself.[5]

The fox is the first male villain in Potter's work, saving Samuel Whiskers in The Roly Poly Pudding, the companion piece to Jemima, and, like all villains in Potter, the "gentleman with sandy whiskers" presents a false social front that conceals his bestial nature. He dresses and behaves as a country gentleman of leisure, idling with a newspaper and living off the labor of others by luring their fowl to his feather-filled shed. Potter had little tolerance for indolence and lack of industry, but, as a country woman, she knew foxes were clever and managed to escape more times than they were caught. From the first encounter between Jemima and the fox, the reader realises the fox is more clever than Jemima and is forced to extend him a grudging admiration.[6]


Beatrix Potter and Kep (1913)

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28 July 1866 to barrister Rupert William Potter and his wife Helen (Leech) Potter in London. She was educated by governesses and tutors, and passed a quiet childhood reading, painting, drawing, visiting museums and art exhibitions, and tending a nursery menagerie of small animals. Her interests in the natural world and country life were nurtured with holidays in Scotland, the Lake District, and Camfield Place, the Hertfordshire home of her paternal grandparents.[7]

Potter's adolescence was as quiet as her childhood. She grew into a spinsterish young woman whose parents groomed her to be a permanent resident and housekeeper in their home.[8] She continued to paint and draw, and experienced her first professional artistic success in 1890 when she sold six designs of humanised animals to a greeting card publisher.[9] She hoped to lead a useful life independent of her parents, and tentatively considered a career in mycology, but the all-male scientific community regarded her as an amateur and she abandoned fungi.[10][11]

Potter had maintained contact with her last governess Annie Carter Moore and had grown fond of her children. Through the 1890s, she sent illustrated story letters to the children. Mrs. Moore recognised the literary and artistic value of the letters and urged her former charge to publish.[12] Potter liked the suggestion, and, in 1900, revised a tale she had written for five-year-old Noel Moore in 1893, and fashioned a dummy book of it in imitation of Helen Bannerman's 1899 bestseller The Story of Little Black Sambo.[13] Unable to find a buyer for the tale, she published it for family and friends at her own expense in December 1901.[14]

House at Hill Top

Frederick Warne & Co. had once rejected the tale but, eager to compete in the booming small format children's book market, reconsidered and accepted the "bunny book" (as the firm called it) following the recommendation of their prominent children's book artist L. Leslie Brooke.[15] Potter agreed to colour her pen and ink illustrations, chose the then-new Hentschel three-colour process for reproducing her watercolours,[16] and on 2 October 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit was released.[17]

Potter continued to publish with Warnes. Early in July 1905 she bought Hill Top, a working farm of 34 acres (14 ha) at Sawrey in the Lake District with profits from her books and a small legacy from an aunt. On 25 August 1905 Potter's editor and fiancé, Norman Warne died suddenly and unexpectedly. Potter became deeply depressed and was ill for many weeks,[18] but rallied to complete the last few tales she had planned and discussed with Warne.[19]


In 1900 Beatrix Potter revised a tale about a humanised rabbit she had written in 1893, worked up a dummy book in imitation of the small format bestseller Little Black Sambo (1899), and, after multiple rejections from London publishers, privately published her tale in December 1901. Frederick Warne & Co. was eager to compete in the burgeoning and lucrative small format children's book market, and accepted the "bunny book" (as the firm called it) after their prominent children's book artist L. Leslie Brooke gave it his enthusiastic endorsement.[20] Potter agreed to colour her pen and ink illustrations, chose the then-new Hentschel three-colour process for reproducing her watercolours,[16] and in October 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit was released.[21]

The Tower Bank Arms, Near Sawrey is just a few hundred yards from Hill Top and was used as a subject for one of Potter's illustrations for the book

In the next few years, Potter published books similar in concept, style, or format to Peter Rabbit: The Tailor of Gloucester and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin in 1903, and the tales of Benjamin Bunny and Two Bad Mice in 1904.[21] In August 1905, sales profits and a small legacy from an aunt enabled Potter to buy Hill Top, a working farm of 34 acres and 36 perches (13.85 ha) in the Lake District.[22] In the years immediately following its purchase, she produced tales and illustrations inspired by the farm, its woodland surroundings, and nearby villages.[23] Potter worked on sketches for Jemima Puddle-Duck during the winter of 1907 while recuperating from respiratory infections. She accompanied her parents on a holiday to Sidmouth in April 1908, and continued to work on Jemima Puddle-Duck.[24] Potter's cousin Caroline Hutton Clark was at Hill Top during the composition of Jemima Puddle-Duck and joined Potter as she searched the farmstead for a suitable place in which to situate Jemima's nest for the illustrations.[25] Kep was a real dog,[26] and Mrs. Clark was given one of Kep's sons. She later described the puppy as "the dearest and cleverest dog I ever had."[25]

Two versions of the opening paragraph were written. The slightly cynical, "What a gratifying thing it is in these days to meet with a female devoted to family life" was revised to read, "What a funny sight it is to see a brood of ducklings with a hen."[27] The tale is complicated with irony (the feather-filled shed and the herbs for roasting a duck) and the co-existence of two time sequences or two different points of view: Kep's as he seeks the assistance of the fox-hounds in rescuing Jemima, and the sandy-whiskered gentleman's as he waits nervously for Jemima to return with the herbs.[28]

The "farmyard tale" was dedicated to Betsy and Ralph Cannon, the children of Potter's farm manager, John Cannon. The children appear in one of the illustrations collecting Jemima's eggs from the rhubarb patch, and their mother is depicted in the opening picture feeding the barnyard fowl.[26] Jemima was based upon a real world duck at Hill Top Farm who evaded Mrs. Cannon and her children in their attempts to locate her eggs before she mismanaged their incubation. Mrs. Cannon believed ducks made poor sitters, and routinely confiscated the ducks' eggs to allow the hens to incubate them.[1] Potter may have taken inspiration from a drawing in her father's 1853 sketchbook of a flying duck wearing a bonnet.[29] Potter almost certainly chose the name "Jemima" in honour of Jemima Blackburn, an ornithological painter and illustrator whose Birds from Nature she had received as a gift on her tenth birthday and whom she met in 1891.[24]

The illustrations depict the new barn and outbuildings at Hill Top, the wrought-iron gate Potter installed at the kitchen garden, the rhubarb patch, the entrance porch at the farmhouse, the exterior of the Tower Bank Arms in the village, and imagined aerial views of the countryside around Near Sawrey.[30] In 1940, Potter remarked upon the illustration of Jemima rushing downhill with her bonnet and shawl askew, "That is what I used to look like to the Sawrey people. I rushed about quacking industriously."[31]

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck was published in July 1908 after heated discussions with publisher Harold Warne about the dialogues and cover illustration. The book was an immediate success.[24]

In later years, Ernest Aris would blatantly plagiarise not only the Peter Rabbit character in his The Treasure Seekers but Jemima in his Mrs. Beak Duck. Potter was restrained when alerted to the imitations: she praised his technical artistry but chastised him for a lack of originality. At the time, her eyesight was deteriorating and her days were heavily invested in operating her farm; her restraint with Aris may be attributed to her desire to enlist him as a collaborator.[32]

Similarities to "Little Red Riding Hood"Edit

"Little Red Riding Hood" illustration by Walter Crane, 1875. Crane, Randolph Caldecott, and Kate Greenaway were Potter's childhood favourites.

Potter indicated Jemima was a revision of "Little Red Riding Hood", and the similarities between the two are numerous: Jemima and her eggs are substitutes for Red Riding Hood and her grandmother; the farmer's wife and Jemima's sister-in-law Rebeccah are substitutes for Red Riding Hood's mother; the fox and the wolf both conceal their bestial natures beneath the polite behaviour of gentlemen, and the dogs are substitutes for the woodcutters. Both tales touch upon physical appetite, temptation, and foolish behaviour.[33]

Though the tale has a happy ending, tearful Jemima is led back to the farm in public humiliation after losing her eggs to her hungry rescuers. She is allowed to hatch a brood on the farm, but it only produces four ducklings. Potter's revision of "Little Red Riding Hood" more nearly resembles Perrault's tragic tale than the happily-ever-after Grimm version where the heroine is rescued by woodcutters. The author knew her young audience would sympathise with the unhatched ducklings and would not tolerate having Jemima, a mother figure, suffer a bloody end in the fox's shed. The loss of the eggs is sad for the reader, but Potter ended the tale as happily as possible – not only for her audience but for the sake of the real world children of her farm manager, Ralph and Betsy Cannon, to whom the tale was dedicated. Jemima is punished for her headstrong foolishness and must relinquish her hope of finding a nesting spot away from the farm, but the punishment is mitigated when she is allowed to hatch one brood herself.[34]


Jemima Puddle-Duck was popular, almost as popular as Peter Rabbit, and became the subject of ancillary merchandise. She is depicted in one of the four well known endpapers of the Potter books, and was featured on a Christmas card for the Invalid Children's Aid Association. She became the principal character in an unpublished painting book describing the livestock at Hill Top, and appeared in Peter Rabbit's Painting Book and Tom Kitten's Painting Book before being given her own painting book, Jemima Puddle-Duck's Painting Book in 1925, composed grudgingly in response to public demand for yet another book.[35]

Potter waited for ducklings to hatch at the farm to be used as models for the painting book, but in the end, the eggs were rotten. The instructions in Jemima's painting book were similar to those in Tom Kitten's painting book, but the kittens with crayons in Tom's book accompanying the instructions were replaced by six ducklings splashing about in paint water for the similar page in Jemima's book. In the original tale, Jemima's eggs are eaten by her rescuers but in the painting book, a new design was executed for "They took Jemima home"; in the painting book, Kep and the fox hound puppies lead Jemima away from her broken but uneaten eggs. The same theme was depicted on Crabtree & Evelyn chocolate Easter eggs.[35]

The painting book displays Potter's willingness to exploit the commercial possibilities of her characters and tales. The purchaser was alerted to the existence of other Potter books on the inside front cover and directed to a list of books on the back cover.[36] Other merchandise included sets of linen or silk placemats painted by Potter for friends with an abridged text and 12 of the illustrations. In 1910, Potter patented a design for a soft toy duck based on her model of Jemima in a Paisley handkerchief shawl and bonnet.[35] A soft Jemima doll was manufactured by J. I. Farnell of Acton.[37]



  1. ^ a b c MacDonald 1986, p. 111
  2. ^ Lane 2001, pp. 126-8
  3. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 114
  4. ^ Kutzer 2003, pp. 105-6, 111
  5. ^ MacDonald 1986, pp. 111-2
  6. ^ Kutzer 2003, p. 109
  7. ^ MacDonald 1986, pp. 1–4
  8. ^ MacDonald 1986, pp. 6–7
  9. ^ Taylor 1996, pp. 51–2
  10. ^ Taylor 1996, p. 60,67
  11. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 13
  12. ^ Lear 2007, p. 142
  13. ^ Lear 2007, p. 144
  14. ^ Lear 2007, p. 145
  15. ^ Lear 2007, pp. 144–7
  16. ^ a b Hobbs 1989, p. 15
  17. ^ Taylor 1996, p. 76
  18. ^ Lane 1978, p. 140
  19. ^ Lear 2007, p. 206
  20. ^ Lear 2007, pp. 144-7
  21. ^ a b MacDonald 1986, Chronology
  22. ^ Lear 2007, p. 237
  23. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 75
  24. ^ a b c Lear 2008, p. 222
  25. ^ a b Lane 2001, pp. 98-9
  26. ^ a b Taylor 1987, p. 133
  27. ^ Taylor 1987, p. 135
  28. ^ Taylor 1987, p. 134
  29. ^ Taylor 1987, p. 37
  30. ^ Lear 2008, p. 223
  31. ^ Lear 2008, p. 428
  32. ^ Lear 2008, p. 281
  33. ^ Kutzer 2003, pp. 107-8
  34. ^ MacDonald 1986, pp. 112-3
  35. ^ a b c Taylor 1987, p. 136
  36. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 129
  37. ^ Lear 2008, p. 288
  38. ^ Taylor 1996, p. 217
Works cited
  • Denyer, Susan (2009) [2000]. At Home with Beatrix Potter: The creator of Peter Rabbit. Frances Lincoln Limited in association with the National Trust. ISBN 978-0-7112-3018-7.
  • Kutzer, M. Daphne (2003). Beatrix Potter: Writing in Code. New York & London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-94352-3.
  • Lane, Margaret (1985) [1946]. The Tale of Beatrix Potter. London: Frederick Warne. ISBN 978-0-7232-4676-3.
  • Lear, Linda (2008) [2007]. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-37796-0.
  • MacDonald, Ruth K. (1986). Beatrix Potter. Boston: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-6917-X.
  • Taylor, Judy; Whalley, Joyce Irene; Hobbs, Anne Stevenson; Battrick, Elizabeth M. (1987). Beatrix Potter 1866–1943: The Artist and Her World. London: F. Warne & Co. and The National Trust. ISBN 0-7232-3561-9.
  • Taylor, Judy (1996) [1986]. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. Frederick Warne. ISBN 0-7232-4175-9.

External linksEdit