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Life After Squirrel Nutkin

Beatrix Potter’s Letters

selected by Judy Taylor
Viking Penguin, 478 pp., $29.95

The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881–1897

transcribed from her code writings by Leslie Linder, foreword by Judy Taylor
Viking Penguin, 468 pp., $29.95

Very winsome are Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Squirrel Nutkin, and other Beatrix Potter creations as they appear on the mugs and porridge plates on sale in National Trust shops. Delightfully quaint were the mice from the Tailor of Gloucester in eighteenth-century costume that last Christmas made the window display at Hamley’s toyshop on Regent Street.

Neither “winsome” nor “quaint” are words to describe the Beatrix Potter who drafted the following letter to a newspaper in 1911 under the heading “Grandmotherly Legislation”:

Under the amended law for the protection of animals it has become illegal for a “child” under 16 years of age to be present at the slaughter and cutting up of carcases. It is unwise to allow little children of 4 or 5 years old to be present at a pig-killing. There have once or twice been serious accidents, where they have tried to imitate the scene in play. But—do our rulers seriously maintain that a farm lad of 15 1/2 years must not assist at the cutting up? One of the interesting reminiscences of my early years is the memory of helping to scrape the smiling countenance of my own grandmother’s deceased pig, with scalding water and the sharp-edged bottom of a brass candle-stick. Pan lids were also in request.

She told the tale of Pigling Bland’s romance with Pig-wig; from her own piglings she sent her friends joints of pork at Christmas. Her liking for animals went far beyond cuddly rabbits and kittens: there are kindly references in her letters to creatures not generally considered lovable: snails, spiders, and rats, whose boldness and ingenuity she admired even as she planned her defenses (“We are putting zinc on the bottoms of the doors—that and cement skirtings will puzzle them”). She considered that her books had succeeded “by being absolutely matter of fact.”

Yet it was not matter-of-factness alone that sent these little books round the world—among the many languages into which they have been translated are Finnish, Icelandic, Bulgarian, Greek, Japanese, and Welsh, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit has been rated the best-selling children’s book of all time in the United States. Beatrix Potter’s down-to-earth realism is laced with fantasy and poetry. Her animals are true to life (she spent hours of her lonely youth drawing her pets) but she delights in the fancy of dressing them appropriately—clogs for the peasant bunnies, print dress for the washerwoman hedgehog, smart green tailcoat for the deceitful fox—and inventing plots to suit their animal nature. And over all she throws a romantic glow that comes from her love of the Lakeland countryside, where nearly all the tales are set.

Now, with the reissue of her Journal (the first edition was reviewed in these pages in 1966) and the publication of the Letters, we are in a better position to understand the author of these far-traveled little books. Judy Taylor introduces the Journal with a tribute to the late Leslie Linder who so passionately devoted himself to deciphering Beatrix Potter’s secret script that “the code had entirely taken over his life.” In her old age Beatrix Potter told a cousin that she had invented the script because she had “an itch to write,” and had been intrigued to learn of Pepys’s private shorthand. It was the resource of a solitary child who never went to school, had no child friends, and lived with remote and unimaginative parents in a gloomy London house without warmth or fun. The code ensured her privacy: she could say what she liked about relations, pictures, books, the news of the day, pet animals, governesses, fungi, flowers, without fear of disapproval or mockery. In her Journal the painfully shy child could talk as much as she liked—to herself.

The Journal starts in 1881, when she was fourteen, and goes up to 1897. The letters, apart from a handful to her father (where the hand may be childish but the signature is a firm “H. B. Potter”) effectively begin in 1892, and go on to her death in 1843. So we can now follow her through her life in her own words and her own pictures, for the text is generously interspersed with her drawings. Many of the picture-letters to children, like the famous one to Noel Moore, where Peter Rabbit made his first appearance, are here in facsimile; there are photographs of people and places, and seventeen color plates, and Judy Taylor has unobtrusively supplied necessary background information. A splendid book, in looks and content.

In the 1890s, letters to the children of her former governess alternate with letters to a retired postman in Perthshire who shared Miss Potter’s interest in fungi. She was expert in agarics and boleti, successfully challenging the pundits at Kew Gardens about hybrid species. After 1901 her correspondence is mainly with the firm of Frederick Warne, which published Peter Rabbit after it had been turned down by several other houses; she had been introduced to Warne by Canon Rawnsley of Keswick, a friend made during the Potter family’s Lake District holidays. From the first, in her letters to the three brothers, Harold, Norman, and Fruing Warne, Miss Potter stood no nonsense. No aspect of the little books that appeared regularly between 1901 and 1913 escaped her scrutiny: color blocks, cloth binding, endpapers, typeface, ink. She was modest about her drawings, but particular about their reproduction; she had some experience of printing and working in lithograph, and knew what she was talking about: “It is useless to do anything in fine pen and ink for half-tone process; it cuts up the line, and there would be the tone all over the paper.” And very particular about her text: “Often the mere position of a word makes all the difference in the balance of a sentence.” When she heard that some children knew her books by heart, she was sure it was because “I took trouble with the words.” She lectured Harold Warne on being

too much afraid of the public for whom I have never cared one tuppeny-button. I am sure that it is that attitude of mind which has enabled me to keep up the series. Most people, after one success, are so cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work.

The publishers seem to have done all they could to meet her criticisms and sometimes imperious demands, and she found in Norman Warne a true friend. In July 1905 he wrote proposing marriage, and she accepted, to the horror of her parents, for he was “in trade” (Mr. Potter’s father had been a calico printer, but he asserted his gentility by not working). Before they could marry, Norman died of pernicious anemia.

Shortly before his death Beatrix had bought a place for herself in the Lake District, between Windermere and Esthwaite, the lake where Wordsworth skated as a boy. Hill Top Farm was in the village of Near Sawrey, “as nearly perfect a little place as I ever lived in.” There she spent all the time that she could get away from her demanding parents—well into her forties she was liable to be sent for whenever they were ill, or when there were “muddles with servants.” After the purchase of the farm the letters—many of them to Norman Warne’s sister Millie—are full of country matters: pigs going to market, sheep sales, visits to the quarry for stone for the flagged path, plans for a “regular old fashioned farm garden, with a box hedge round the flower bed, and moss roses and pansies and black currants and strawberries and peas—and big sage bushes for Jemima.” She complains of a helper who tries to make a genteel tennis lawn when she wants a potato patch. She is delighted when a quarryman gives her some splendid phloxes, and has no shame in pinching plants from an old lady’s overgrown garden: “Mrs. Satterthwaite says stolen plants always grow, I stole some ‘honesty’ yesterday.”

The farmhouse itself was in poor condition—“the first thing I did when I arrived was to go through the back kitchen ceiling”—but in a year or two she had filled it with nice old furniture picked up at local sales, and made it into the house where the Two Bad Mice rampaged and where Samuel Whiskers made Tom Kitten into a roly-poly pudding.

The first success of her books had given her the welcome knowledge that she could earn her own living; now she needed to earn for the farm as well. So she was ready to fall in with Warne’s plans for licensing manufacturers to use her animal characters for dolls, wallpaper, and china: cuddly Peter Rabbits and nursery friezes could pay for more sheep, another field. She prodded the Warnes’ firm—always “sadly behindhand” to pay their royalty cheques more promptly.

In 1913 she married William Heelis, the solicitor in Ambleside who had acted for her in the purchase of Hill Top, and who soon “asserted himself upon the subject of hens and put down Mr. Simpson our new neighbor.” Again her parents disapproved, for a country solicitor was much beneath them, and a few days after the wedding claimed her back because “my mother is changing servants.” Hill Top and marriage turned her life round. Just after Norman Warne died, she confessed that when she’d read his proposal she’d felt, like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, that “my story had come right, with patience and waiting.” Fifteen years after becoming Mrs. Heelis she could say (the letter is not in Judy Taylor’s selection, but can be found in Margaret Lane’s biography* ), “I married very happily…. What are the words in The Tempest? ‘Spring come to you at the farthest, in the very end of harvest.’ ” Willie Heelis was unpunctual, untidy in the house, and dilatory in the office; she acknowledged that she was “the stronger-minded of the pair”; but she loved and cherished him and made excuses when he was slow in repaying what he owed his clients, just as Harold Warne had so often been with her. Though in 1913 nearly all the little books were behind her, the years as Mrs. Heelis can be counted as the most productive as well as the most satisfying of her life.

Their home was Castle Cottage, close to Hill Top, where she had installed a housekeeper to look after the shepherd, dairyman, and ploughman. Her farming was no pastoral hobby. “I have farmed my own land for ten years as a business,” she told a prospective helper in 1916:

I have poultry, orchard, flower garden, vegetables, no glass, help with heavy digging, cooking with the girl’s assistance. Mrs. C., I and this girl all help with hay, and I single turnips when I can find time.

She could be met “sliding down the Kirkstone banks,” or wheeling a barrow with acorns for her pigs, wearing a man’s cap and a sack across her shoulders to keep off the rain. She was delighted when a jolly farmer at the Hawkshead Agricultural Show “likened me—the president—to the first prize cow!”

  1. *

    Margaret Lane, The Tale of Beatrix Potter (Warne, 1946; Penguin, 1986).

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