In 1912, by which time Beatrix Potter, the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was a hugely successful forty-six-year-old writer and illustrator, she sent her publisher Harold Warne a new story, her darkest yet, called The Tale of Mr. Tod. The story is about an argument between a fox and a badger, and features the abduction and near death of a sackful of baby rabbits. The story had a particularly good opening sentence: “I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people.” But the candor and acerbity of that were too much for Warne, and he fussed until Potter agreed to change the opening to something inarguably less punchy: “I have made many books about well-behaved people.” Before she succumbed to this bad editorial advice, Potter relieved herself of her feelings in a letter to Warne:
If it were not impertinent to lecture one’s publisher, you are a great deal too much afraid of the public for whom I have never cared one tuppeny-button. I am sure that it is this 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 world’s most popular children’s author had a low opinion of both books and children: “I never have cared tuppence either for popularity or for the modern child; they are pampered & spoilt with too many toys & books.”
Potter was telling the truth, both in the sentence about being tired and in the remark about her attitude toward children. As far as one can tell, Potter always told the truth. Her stories had begun as letters to young friends, and that gave them their vividness and intimacy, and also prevented her from having a disablingly strong sense of a collective public whose tastes needed to be appeased. This was one of the things that allowed her to keep the tone of her work tart and crisp.
Warne was right about the darkness of Mr. Tod—the story is so grim that years later it prompted Graham Greene, in a famous essay in the London Mercury, to speculate that Potter “must have passed through an emotional ordeal which changed the character of her genius.” But the darkness of Mr. Tod is a question of degree and not of kind. Potter’s work was always tinged with a bleak realism about death, right from the opening of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in which we learn that Peter’s father has had “an accident” and ended up in one of Mrs. McGregor’s pies. In the story Peter panics, gets lost, and nearly dies; as does Squirrel Nutkin in Potter’s second story, picked up by an owl who is, as the devastatingly flat narration tells us, “intending to skin him.” In The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, we again encounter Peter in Mr. McGregor’s garden, a clear victim of post-traumatic stress disorder (“Peter did not seem to be enjoying himself”), and he again nearly dies. Even in the lighter stories, such as Two Bad Mice, the main characters experience “no end of rage and disappointment,” and that is before we encounter the outright evil of the fox in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, who encourages Jemima to pick the flavorings and seasonings in which she is to be cooked—a gesture of macabre cruelty which would give pause to Hannibal Lecter.
This darkness and violence is a central reason to why children like Beatrix Potter. Her bright, brisk, no-nonsense sentences, her sharply observed and beautifully tinted images, and her strong feeling of coziness and domesticity are all underpinned and made real by underlying intimations of darkness, cruelty, and sudden death. Children have to believe in a person’s “no” in order to believe in their “yes,” and Potter was good at “no.” One wouldn’t expect this side of Beatrix Potter’s art—the tain of the mirror, the dark backing which allows the front to reflect—to be present in the Hollywood version of her life, and indeed it is absent from Chris Noonan’s movie Miss Potter. In fact, the version of her work given by this otherwise engaging film is close to the opposite of her real strengths. We see her chatting with her little imaginary friends, as the winsome animations wriggle about on the page. This makes her art seem far too cute, and also makes Potter seem slightly nuts, she who had her feet planted as firmly on the ground as any artist ever has.
Apart from that, the movie isn’t bad. It tells the story of the most externally dramatic part of Potter’s life, beginning in 1901 with the acceptance for publication of her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. At that point, Potter was a thirty-five-year-old spinster living at home in London with her parents. Impersonating her, Renée Zellweger is willing to be plain, and she lets a gleam in her eye and the hamsterish clenching of her cheeks hint at Potter’s formidable strength of will.
Potter’s family on both sides were Lancashire Unitarians, prominent in trade and politics. Her paternal grandfather founded a company that became the world’s largest printer of calico cotton, was a fellow of the Royal Society, and served as a Liberal member of Parliament for twelve years. Her maternal grandfather was also a Unitarian merchant prince, and his long-lived widow was to be an important influence on Beatrix, who saw herself as a throwback to these practical-minded, unpretentious, and unashamedly northern industrialists. “I am descended from generations of Lancashire yeomen and weavers; obstinate, hard headed, matter of fact folk,” she wrote to an American friend. “As far back as I can go, they were Puritans, Nonjurors, Nonconformists, Dissenters. Your Mayflower ancestors sailed to America; mine at the same date were sticking it out at home, probably rather enjoying persecution.”
Her parents, on the other hand, weren’t like that. In the movie, her father and mother are played by Bill Paterson and Barbara Flynn, two fundamentally likable actors whose twinkly bearing combine with the soft-edged script to make Edmund and Helen Potter seem stuffy and snobbish, rather than the outright monsters of Victorian prejudice they seem to have been. Edmund was a barrister who collected art (he was a close friend of John Everett Millais) and was an early and serious pioneer of photography, but he was also suffocatingly preoccupied with respectability. He wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and the family’s origins in trade. He was obsessed with the idea that Beatrix should marry someone who would, in the words of Linda Lear’s new biography, “offer the one thing that Potter wealth could not buy: family name and inherited land.” But Edmund insisted on living in London, cut off from the family’s Nonconformist network in the North. The combination of isolation and social pickiness made it highly unlikely that the Potters would find a husband they considered acceptable for Beatrix, and indeed they didn’t—and it is at this point that Miss Potter begins, when our heroine encounters Norman Warne, the younger brother of Harold Warne and new junior partner of his publishing firm. He is played by—and this is a subtle clue to where the love interest is going to come from—Ewan McGregor.
Potter and Norman Warne grew close. It might seem a Hollywood twist that in Miss Potter they fall in love and become engaged to be married without ever being alone together, but that is what happened. Her parents were predictably opposed to the match, and insisted on a period of delay. Potter agreed, and went away with them for the summer holidays in 1905; and while she was away Norman Warne suddenly died of lymphatic leukemia at the age of thirty-seven. Greene was right about the “emotional ordeal.” On Warne’s death, Potter used the money she had accumulated from her books to buy Hill Top Farm, a small property by the village of Near Sawrey in the Lake District in northwestern England, an area she knew and loved from childhood holidays. It was a strong gesture of independence, and showed that she did not want to spend the rest of her life in subservience to her parents—and that is where the film leaves us.
Linda Lear rather plays down the drama of that central passage of Potter’s life, and is more interested in the before and the after. She has a tendency to glide past the intimate human experiences in Potter’s story, without quite meaning to, and she moves too briskly over things of real importance. Harold Warne, Potter’s shifty and semi-competent publisher, caused a crisis in her finances in 1917 by being sent to prison for fraud—and then we hear no more of him; it would have been interesting to learn how this man in late middle age got on with his eighteen months’ hard labor. Elsewhere, we learn that Potter “disapproved of the women’s suffrage campaign” and no further details are given—which is surely not enough, given how much direct experience Potter had of male obstructiveness and incompetence. But Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is a good book nonetheless, because the matters on which Lear chooses to focus her work are so genuinely interesting. She concentrates on Potter’s lifelong fascination and engagement with nature, a concern which was in no sense abstract or philosophical but involved detailed, hardworking, and practical-minded activity for most of her adult life.
“Thank goodness, my education was neglected,” Potter said later. She did not go to school, but she was not uneducated, and she was tutored at home to a high standard, being, for instance, fluent in German. From an early point she seems to have been very aware of her own originality of mind, and keen to preserve it. When her early talent for art caused her parents to buy her some oil-painting lessons, she began to worry. She wrote in her journal:
It is a risky thing to copy, shall I catch it? I think and hope my self-will which brings me into so many scrapes will guard me here—but it is tiresome, when you do get some lessons, to be taught in a way you dislike and to have to swallow your feelings out of consideration and home and there.
The thing that is so remarkable about that is that Potter was only seventeen. She knew early on that she wanted to do things her own way, a determination which was accompanied by the pressing psychological need to find something worthwhile to do. From early youth, she was fascinated by nature, and was a prime example of what Lear calls
the Victorian craze for natural history which, beginning earlier in the century, affected everyone from aristocrat to artisan. Women in particular were drawn to the study of insects, shells, ferns, fossils and fungi, and to their naming, classification, collection and frequently their illustration.