Mischief in the cabbage patch -- plus Nye's novel
When Beatrix Potter was a little girl, she wore stockings that were striped like zebra legs, had a mother who looked like Queen Victoria, and owned one doll and a menagerie of rabbits, hedgehogs, and mice. Shy, gifted, and solitary, with an eye for the tiniest detail, she would have fitted nicely into one of her own storybooks.
Her idea of fun was to copy meticulous drawings of small animals, birds, and flowers from botanical textbooks. Once in a while fantasy took over, and a perfectly correct bird would sprout a hat, or a mouse would sport a scarf.
When she was a little older and was no longer copying from books, her work (including a study of fungi) impressed the experts. But fantasy won out (Hooray!) and gave birth to that entrancing bookshelf of tiny, child-hand-size stories - ''The Tale of Peter Rabbit'' being the most famous, of course.
It was a strange ill wind that blew me back to the Potter tales and to Margaret Lane's splendid biography, The Tale of Beatrix Potter ( published by Frederick Warne). The ill wind is a new edition of some favorites, The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Other Stories by Beatrix Potter (Knopf, $16.95). I can hardly bring myself to tell you, but in this edition Beatrix Potter the artist has been banished, replaced by illustrator Allen Atkinson.
It reminds me of an artist who, when asked if he would like to re-illustrate ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,'' insisted he would rather rewrite the Lewis Carroll text than lose the Tenniel drawings.
Allen Atkinson's illustrations are colorful and imaginative enough, and if I try hard I can overlook his transforming the round robin in Mr. McGregor's garden into the large American variety. Yet he really shouldn't have left out the important detail Miss Potter included in her drawings but not in the text of ''The Tailor of Gloucester.'' Now readers of the new edition will never know how the mice happened to be under the teacups.
Of course one of the delights of rereading the Potter stories is knowing that every pot, pan, chair, and kitchen stove is authentic, so that when I pick up ''The Pie and the Patty Pan,'' for instance, I am holding a social history footnote in my hand. Potter uses recognizable corners of England - in fact one of the Gloucester houses shown in ''The Tailor'' has been made into a Beatrix Potter museum. And did you know that the mouse-worked embroidery in the tailor's shop was painstakingly copied from specimens in London's Victoria and Albert Museum?
If you feel that giving us Potter without Potter is tantamount to offering Gilbert without Sullivan or Alice without Tenniel, don't despair. The firm that has been publishing all the tales from the very beginning (friendship between writer and publisher ripened into marriage) has recently issued an edition embracing the four rabbit stories The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit (Frederick Warne, $9.95) in a larger 8-by-10-inch format. And the tiny original versions of the tales are still in print, eight of them in paperback.
Robert Nye has complete mastery over words. He can make them do exactly what he wants, and what he wants is to build fantastic epics set in superb dreamlike worlds. Unfortunately he also uses this gift to convey extreme degradation with extraordinary vividness. The Voyage of the Destiny (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $15.95) does not make me wince nearly half as much as his prizewinning novel ''Falstaff'' did, but, despite all the poetry that lurks in Mr. Nye's prose, I feel as if I had been taken into a frowsty room where everyone suffers, mentally and physically, from ''ring around the collar'' - or worse.
The fact that all this skill is poured into the portrait of the aged Sir Walter Raleigh, surrounded by cowards, traitors, and failure, doesn't help matters. I am disappointed - I wanted to like this book, because I think Robert Nye has the ability to write a great - not merely a prizewinning - novel.