The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897
“Please Close this GATE” orders the notice. You do, and you walk up the flagged path between the phlox and the heliotrope, the spreading rhubarb, and the old-fashioned roses, and gaze at the porch and the stone walls, and you almost expect to see Tom Kitten bursting out of the house, or a policeman coming up the path with a despondent little pig who has lost his licence to go to market. For the “H.B.P. 1906” carved on the wall affirms that this Hill Top Farm in the village of Sawrey in the English Lake District was bought by Helen Beatrix Potter, out of her first earnings from her children’s tales; and if you loved these tales as a child, or as you read them to your children, all seems familiar about the farm, even at a first visit. You have seen it all before in the pictures to Jemima Puddleduck, Tom Kitten, The Roly Poly Pudding, Pigling Bland. No children’s books are more firmly rooted in a real place and the life lived in it. “I do not remember a time,” Beatrix Potter told a friend who had asked about the origin of her animal stories,
When I did not try to invent pictures and make fairy tales—amongst the wild flowers, the animals, trees and fungi and moss—all the thousand common objects of the countryside; that pleasant unchanging world of realism and romance, which in our northern clime is stiffened by hard weather, a tough ancestry, and the strength that comes from the hills.
Marianne Moore has said that the poet should create imaginary gardens with real toads in them; Beatrix Potter believed in real toads and real gardens.
The path which led Beatrix Potter to Hill Top Farm in 1906 was outlined by Margaret Lane in her excellent biography twenty years ago. Now we can trace it in much greater detail through the Journal which Beatrix Potter kept from her fifteenth to her thirtieth year (1881-1897). She wrote it in code, and the bundles of sheets covered with tiny hieroglyphics remained a puzzle till in 1958 Mr. Leslie Linder, editor of a book of her drawings, broke the cipher. It turned out to be a simple and childish one; many children have invented such a secret code, but usually as a game shared with others. Only an unusual and solitary child would have written so much and so persistently in this laborious way, only one who had the itch to write, and who was determined that no alien eye should look over her shoulder. The Journal, together with her paintings, became the private enclosure in which she could try out her ideas and capacities and discover what sort of person she was.
BEATRIX POTTER was descended, she told an American correspondent, “from generations of Lancashire yeomen and weavers; obstinate, hard-headed, matter-of-fact folk.” Both her parents had inherited cotton fortunes; her grandfather and great-grandfather had been vigorous, earthy characters, the type of enlightened …