“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 manufacturer who figures in Mrs. Gaskell’s novels, but her father showed his gentility by not working. The one occupation which he followed with zeal, and considerable success, was amateur photography. All was rich, dull, and uncomfortable at the Potters’ house in Bolton Gardens, Kensington: lunch sharp at one, with mutton cutlets and rice pudding; the carriage at two; an elaborately laid dinner with indifferently cooked food; no guests, no parties, no fun. Though Mr. Potter knew people of character and charm—Millais, whose sitters he often photographed, John Bright the politician, Mr. Gaskell the widower of the novelist—he himself seems to have depressed everyone and every occasion. Timid in asserting himself in public, at home he played the petty tyrant. Mrs. Potter was dim and dull; between the two of them there seems to have been no spark of imagination. All that can be put to their credit is that they allowed their daughter to keep pets in her room at the top of the house, and to paint as much as she liked. Beatrix had the luck to be taught by intelligent and kindly governesses, but she never mixed with boys and girls of her own age. The only child she knew well was her much younger brother Bertram, and the only other outlets for her affections were her animals—at various times a rabbit, a hedgehog, bats, and mice—and the family of a former governess.
Nothing in this bleak home life, or in her inferior status within it, seems to have changed as she grew up. Yet only about five times in the four hundred pages of the Journal is there a word of irritation or complaint. When she was twenty-eight, and off to spend a week with a cousin, she noted that “I had not been away independently for five years.” “I always thought I was born to be a discredit to my parents,” was the entry after her hat had blown off in public; and when for once the Potters gave a reception, she recorded that contrary to her parents’ expectations, she had behaved well. No wonder that she was gawky and tonguetied in company—“I feel like a cow in a drawing room”—but in her Journal she could be assured, ticking Gladstone off as “an old goose.”
To begin with, her Journal is a ragbag of observation, hearsay, snippets from newspapers, anecdotes about Jews and Scotchmen. As the years go on, two interests predominate: nature and painting. Nature in London meant her own animals, birds in the park, and the Natural History Museum, where she drew beetles, moths, and spiders. But for at least three months of the year the Potters moved to the country, renting houses for spring and summer in the West country, the Lake District, or Scotland. At Wray Castle on Windermere, at Dalguise in the Perthshire Highlands, the senior Potters still kept up the cutlet and carriage-drive routine of Kensington; but for Beatrix all was new and special. She had that feeling for a countryside to which Gerard Manley Hopkins gave the name “inscape”: concerned to know what made it this, and no other. She does not rhapsodize in her Journal, nor seek the picturesque; she notes rock formations, shapes of hills, hedge-flowers, funguses, breeds of cattle and—for her landscape is given its character by man no less than nature—farm-carts, slate chimney-pieces, the way the local lasses do their hair. She looks for the reason behind the appearance. Lambs’ tails are docked because if left long they catch in briars. Newts squeak because their used-up air collects in the throat. In the Highlands strange ridges like wave-marks speak of depopulation, where turf and heather have grown over what once was ploughed land.
HER INTEREST IN PAINTING is on the same cool and observant note, with a touch of professionalism. Gainsborough’s color is very fine but it makes him sacrifice softness and shadows. The pre-Raphaelites have all parts of a picture in focus at once. She pounces on inaccurate observation:
Our English artists, after Landseer’s example, are so absorbed by the grace and suppleness of hoofed animals’ legs, that they rather lose sight of the circumstances that the legs are primarily wooden pegs to support the body, the balanced springs superadded to give ease in motion.
At the Academy in 1885,
there is such a want of originality or interesting detail. When they get an idea in their heads, they put it on the canvas with as little loving detail and elaboration of form or color as possible.
She is shrewd, both about prices and attributions—“some very queer pictures are shown with very good names”—and robust about the supposedly shocking:
I do not see the slightest objection to nude pictures as a class, nor are they necessarily in the least more indecent than clothed ones. Indeed the ostentatious covering of certain parts only, merely showing that the painter considers there is something which should be concealed, is far worse than pure unabashed nudity.
Comments on her own painting are mainly technical: how to make oils look creamy, how to make the second coat stick. The motive that drove her through the days and years of solitary work comes out in one of the rare introspective passages in the Journal:
It is all the same, drawing, painting, modelling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye. Why cannot one be content to look at it? I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever, and settles on the queerest things, worse than queer sometimes. Last time, in the middle of September, I caught myself in the back yard making a careful and admiring copy of the swill bucket, and the laugh it gave me brought me round.
Even in nature, she prefers to look down than up:
I do not often consider the stars, they give me a tissick. It is more than enough that there should be forty thousand named and classified funguses.
The funguses she drew and studied to such purpose that in 1897 she was invited to read a paper to the Linnaean Society. By this time the prison doors had opened a little. In 1890 some Christmas cards with drawings of rabbits brought her first earnings; in 1895 Mr. Potter, worried about some American railroad bonds, unexpectedly made over £ 5000 worth of them to his daughter. who was soon happily calculating percentages and appreciations. A few days after this gift, when she was again in a fit of the dumps, she cheered herself up with Matthew Arnold, Wordsworth, and “a less elevated source, the comfort of having money…and to look forward to being independent, though forlorn.”
THESE WORDS come near the end of her Journal. By this time she knew the objects that she loved—rabbits, cats, field mice, slate porches, stone walls, farmyards, cottage gardens, village shops—and her patiently won skill in words and paint had given her the power to depict them. Then in 1902 she made a little book out of one of the picture-letters about her animals which she was in the habit of writing to her governess’s children. It was a success, and was soon followed up by a second. In these apparently artless fantasies about animals she had found the medium in which she could express her observations of nature and country life, and her delight in them. Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Squirrel Nutkin, quickly became nursery familiars in Britain and America, and enabled her to buy Hill Top Farm. The backgrounds to these early stories are drawn from a number of Potter holiday places, but nearly all the tales after 1906 are set in and about Sawrey. During the next seven years, when she owned the farm but could only escape to it for odd weeks, she produced fourteen books, which include her best pictures; many of the original watercolors are in the Tate Gallery in London. The landscapes have the fresh charm of Samuel Palmer; the animals, drawn with the loving precision of Bewick, are the genii loci of farmyard, hillside, and riverbank. Sawrey is only about three miles from Hawkshead where Wordsworth went to school and skated on Esthwaite. For him, the mysterious presences of stars and crags; for her, the minutiae of coppice and farmyard. He majestically in poetry, she humbly in children’s tales, are both true to nature in the lakes and fells.
In 1913 Beatrix Potter married her Lakeland solicitor William Heelis, settled down to live in Sawrey the whole year round, and the flow of books dried up. Mrs. Heelis the farmer was inclined to turn her back on Beatrix Potter, and be tart with British admirers—she was gentler with Americans. She did not cease to create, but what she created now was her own life and not, as when prisoned in Bolton Gardens, an escape from it. She hoed turnips and lifted sheaves; she appeared at country sales and hiring fairs: she grew learned in Herdwick sheep, and trudged out to the lambing in metal-shod clogs and an old sack thrown round her shoulders; with her dear William she salted pigs’ legs and made bramble jelly; she added shrewdly to her property; she wandered over the fells with an old sheepdog, caring nothing for snow or ice; she ordered her visitors to close the gate. “I began to assert myself at seventy” she told a cousin. She was independent, and not at all forlorn. Small, stumpy, blue-eyed, given to wearing a white cap, she looked like Mrs. Tiggywinkle the hedgehog washerwoman of her own tale, and was as snugly settled on her own hill top. When she died in 1943, there were two legacies. From Beatrix Potter to all her readers, the incomparable little books. From Mrs. Heelis to the National Trust, four thousand acres of farm and fell, where the life she had so lovingly depicted in her tales, and then herself experienced, could still go on. By Wordsworth’s Esthwaite there is today a vast trailer park; in Beatrix Potter’s Sawrey, little has changed.
December 15, 1966