The tale of Beatrix Pot­ter

A fas­ci­nat­ing new biog­ra­phy shows Beatrix Pot­ter to have been a pi­o­neer of much else be­sides pub­lish­ing best-sell­ing books about bun­nies, says Caro­line Jack­son

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Read no history: noth­ing but biog­ra­phy, for that is life without the­ory.’ So said Ben­jamin dis­raeli, twice Prime Min­is­ter and Leader of the Op­po­si­tion be­tween 1868 and 1881 and him­self a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist. It’s apt rec­om­men­da­tion for this fresh and in­ci­sive ren­di­tion of Beatrix Pot­ter’s defini­tively mid-vic­to­rian child­hood and her in­trigu­ing evo­lu­tion into both a pi­o­neer con­ser­va­tion­ist and one of the na­tion’s most cel­e­brated au­thors and il­lus­tra­tors. Hers is a tale of earned suc­cess and so­ci­ety at a tip­ping point. As told by Matthew den­ni­son, it is also a rivet­ing ex­em­plar of fe­male eman­ci­pa­tion.

Pot­ter was born in Lon­don in 1866 and grew up in a large Kens­ing­ton townhouse of ‘lugubri­ous re­spectabil­ity’. An only child un­til the birth of her brother Ber­tram when she was nearly six, the writer’s up­bring­ing was one of ma­te­rial com­fort and so­cial pro­pri­ety, al­beit built on non-con­form­ist Uni­tar­ian—hence no­tably ra­tio­nal­ist—foun­da­tions.

each of her par­ents had in­her­ited sub­stan­tial wealth from for­tunes made in the coun­try’s north­ern tex­tile in­dus­try. For her fa­ther, Ru­pert, it ab­solved him from gain­ful em­ploy­ment and funded his keen am­a­teur in­ter­est in draw­ing, paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy, that mod­ish new hy­brid of art and science. For his wife, He­len, it al­lowed ‘in­fi­nite leisure’ in which to pur­sue so­cial ad­vance­ment. Their daugh­ter, avowedly ‘mat­terof-fact’ and ‘old-fash­ioned’, but an in­nate ‘believer in breed’, deemed both par­ents ‘try­ing’.

Few baulk at the prof­itable ap­pel­la­tion ‘Beatrix Pot­ter’s Lake district’. She is for­ever as­so­ci­ated with the land­scape de­picted so exquisitely in her 23 ‘lit­tle books’ for chil­dren, the land­scape in which she would even­tu­ally set­tle. It’s as­ton­ish­ing, there­fore, to learn that Pot­ter spent more than half her life in the cap­i­tal and the ma­jor­ity of that time con­fined to a third-floor nurs­ery. Her first Scot­tish nanny was a firm, and for­ma­tive, believer in fairies. When Nurse Mcken­zie was re­placed by gov­ernesses, her sto­ries and rhymes ceded to nov­els—walter Scott was a favourite—just as the girl’s only ap­par­ent friend and play­mate, Ber­tram, was sent away to school.

Soli­tude is not, of course, syn­ony­mous with lone­li­ness and can yield a handsome imag­i­na­tive div­i­dend. Mr den­ni­son ad­mits both pos­si­bil­i­ties and ac­knowl­edges that Ru­pert Pot­ter un­doubt­edly cul­ti­vated his daugh­ter’s artis­tic tal­ent. de­spite an­nual ex­tended hol­i­days na­tion­wide, Pot­ter was 19 be­fore she first saw White­hall, the Strand or Mon­u­ment.

Her di­aries, writ­ten in code be­tween the ages of 14 and 30, re­veal an imag­i­nary friend and de­tail, with what we now recog­nise as her inim­itable blend of an­thro­po­mor­phic fancy and un­sen­ti­men­tal re­al­ism, an ex­ten­sive me­nagerie of small crea­tures. Most were drawn, many were dis­sected. Among the frogs, mice, rats and hedge­hogs was a rab­bit named Peter.

How she man­aged to be­come an ex­pert my­col­o­gist is re­mark­able: in 1897, her novel ob­ser­va­tions on the process of fun­gal ger­mi­na­tion were pre­sented, nec­es­sar­ily by proxy, to the all-male mem­bers of The Lin­nean So­ci­ety. That Pot­ter then pro­pelled her­self from self­pub­lished to best-sell­ing within a sin­gle year is con­found­ing. By the end of 1903, Fred­er­ick Warne & Co had sold 50,000 copies of the first ‘bunny book’; to date, The Tale of Peter Rab­bit is es­ti­mated to have sold more than 40 mil­lion.

The rev­e­la­tion is not so much what came next as that any­thing did. de­spite the sud­den loss of her fi­ancé and pub­lisher, Nor­man Warne, in 1905, she es­tab­lished an un­prece­dented ca­reer as a hill farmer and cham­pion of the Herd­wick sheep and, aged 47, be­gan an­other, par­al­lel life as Mrs Wil­liam Heelis of Hawk­shead. Thirty years later, she was to be­queath 14 farms and 4,000 acres of land to the Na­tional Trust.

One suspects that Pot­ter would ap­prove of the el­e­gant sub­jec­tiv­ity of Mr den­ni­son’s ac­count as he re­casts the con­straints of her era and mi­lieu as price­less fuel for per­sonal rein­ven­tion. Cap­tur­ing ‘the par­tic­u­lar tip-tilt of her prose’ and win­ningly struc­tured around those 23 ‘tales’, this beau­ti­fully pro­duced biog­ra­phy un­veils Pot­ter as ahead of her time.

Above: Beatrix Pot­ter was 14 when her fa­ther pho­tographed her with Spot dur­ing a hol­i­day in Scot­land. Right: In her il­lus­tra­tions

for The Tai­lor of Glouces­ter, Pot­ter com­bined her love of old china and his­toric tex­tiles with her fond­ness for mice

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