I enjoy Beatrix Potter’s children’s tales with their detailed and charming illustrations, but after reading a biography of her a few years ago (Linda Lear’s excellent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, see links below), my respect and admiration for her grew until she became one of my heroes. In honor of her birthday yesterday, I want to share with you a little of what could be called “The Tale of Beatrix Potter.”
Once upon a time...Helen Beatrix Potter was born 150 years ago on July 28, 1866 in London. She was educated at home by governesses, as was the custom for girls of her social class. She and her younger brother, Bertram, kept a number of pets in the schoolroom, including rabbits, a hedgehog, mice, and bats. She observed these pets closely, sketched them, and wrote stories about them. During family holidays in Scotland and the English Lake District, she explored freely, spending hours observing and sketching what she saw. From 1881 to 1897 she kept a journal (in a code that wasn’t cracked until 1958) where she wrote down her observations.
She loved the study of natural history: archaeology, geology, entomology, and especially mycology, the study of fungi. Scottish Naturalist Charles McIntosh encouraged her to make her fungi drawings more technically accurate, and her studies resulted in a scientific paper on how fungi spores reproduce. Fungi expert George Massee delivered that paper on her behalf at a meeting of the Linnean Society, where women couldn’t even attend the meetings, let alone read papers. (Though I’m not enamored of mushrooms myself, I always think of her when an interesting one pops up in my yard.)
Her earliest published works included greeting card designs and illustrations for the publisher Hildesheimer & Faulkner. Her work on other people’s stories made her long to publish her own, so she adapted one of her earliest stories she’d created for a picture letter sent to the son of one of her old governesses. In 1901, Beatrix published The Tale of Peter Rabbit herself after several publishers turned her down. After seeing the success of the book, in 1902, the publishing firm of Frederick Warne & Co. decided they would publish it after all, if Beatrix would redo her black and white illustrations in color. After that, she wrote two or three little books a year, until 1930 when the last one, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, came out.
Beatrix was also a smart marketer, and created the first licensed literary character, a Peter Rabbit doll. She invented other toys, a Peter Rabbit game, and painting books for Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck.
In 1905, Beatrix became engaged to her editor, Norman Warne, but sadly he died of leukemia before they could be married.
After Norman’s death, Beatrix used income from her books and a small inheritance to buy Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey in the Lake District. Hill Top became a sanctuary for her, and she wrote and painted some of her most popular tales there, including The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. If I ever get back to England, I’d love to visit Hill Top Farm, which is part of the National Trust and open to visitors.
|Potter and Heelis on their wedding day|
In 1909, she bought Castle Farm, the property across the road from Hill Top. Beatrix wanted to preserve the Lake District from development, and this was one practical way to do that. During this time, she met solicitor William Heelis who helped her with her property purchases. They married in 1913, when Beatrix was 47, and moved to Castle Cottage on Castle Farm. Happily married for 30 years, the Heelises were deeply involved in the community. In addition to her writing and art, Beatrix grew fascinated with raising Herdwick sheep, becoming a respected breeder and winning prizes at local shows. When she died in 1943, she left 15 farms and more than 4,000 acres to the National Trust.
Beatrix Potter’s work and life inspire me. I’m amazed by what she was able to accomplish at a time when not many options were open to women. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about this remarkable woman, and that you’ll check out some of the links below.
Do you have a favorite Beatrix Potter story?
“I have just made stories to please myself, because I never grew up.”
More Fun Stuff:
The Beatrix Potter Society
Many Beatrix Potter stories are available on Project Gutenberg.
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature
Beatrix Potter with Patricia Routledge
The Journal of Beatrix Potter: 1881-1897
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s TalesMiss Potter (fictionalized movie version of her life)
Stamps released by the Royal Mail