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.
Potter loved drawing from nature and from the microscope. At home, she was a close student of her pets, and a great dissector, boiler, and sketcher of dead animals—and she spent a lot of time in the country, too.
There is controversy among Potterologists over just how idle Edmund Potter actually was, but there is no doubting that the family took several months’ holiday in the country every year. These times were crucially important to Potter’s growth as a naturalist. She came under the influence of Charlie McIntosh, a brilliant self-taught naturalist who worked as a postman in Perthshire and discovered thirteen species new to Britain. McIntosh had a particular interest in fungi, one which Potter came to share. In her first summer after meeting him, in 1893, she drew sixty specimens while on holiday in Perthshire, and sent drawings to her mentor, who greatly admired the precision and close observation of the pictures.
McIntosh identified one of the mushrooms as an extremely rare pinecone fungus known as “old man of the woods.” Potter found a second example later that summer, and painted it for McIntosh on September 3, along with a map marked x on the spot where she had found the rare fungus. The next day, she wrote a letter with pictures to Noel Moore, the six-year-old son of a friend, describing the adventures of “a disobedient young rabbit called Peter,” who raids the garden of Mr. McGregor, a skinny, white-bearded, bespectacled man clearly based on Charlie McIntosh. The detailed observation of nature and the creation of children’s stories were close companions right from the start.
Her mycology, which was Potter’s first concerted attempt at doing something productive with her life, went nowhere. She had a theory about the germination of fungi which was opposed by the professionals at Kew Gardens and elsewhere, and her experiences were to leave her frustrated with the flat sexism of her male opponents—though it turned out, many years later, that her ideas were correct. The experience of being rejected by men who would not take her seriously was depressing for Potter, but it was also what turned her definitively toward art as a way “to find something useful to do with her talents.” The close observation she learned from her early training as a naturalist was crucially important to her work. If the darkness of Potter’s stories is part of their appeal, the other part has to do with this accuracy of detail.
It is tempting to make a cheap shot here, and to point out that animals in real life tend not to wear clothes, have jobs, and speak English. But Potter’s anthropomorphism is subtly blended with a deep attention to the way animals actually behave. The owl Old Brown in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin behaves with a terrifying blank cruelty, but he is also just being an owl; Potter, by observing animal nature so closely, manages to retain its otherness and at the same time to let us see the animal as a quasi-human character. The key thing, Lear writes, is that her animals
behave always as real animals with true animal instincts and are accurately drawn by a scientific illustrator…. Beatrix had been observing rabbits, both their anatomy and their behaviour, for many years. She knew how they moved, how they slept, how they used their mouths and paws, and how they cleaned themselves. She had drawn their postures of attack and submission. She knew they were both curious and easily startled, bold and cowardly in turn, but more often than not put a good face on any inadvertent mishap. Peter Rabbit’s nature is instantly recognizable to anyone who has been around a rabbit….
It took her some time to find her way to making books, and she was thirty-six by the time Warne brought out her first one—but the effect was that of a plug popping out of a dam. Following Peter Rabbit, she brought out twenty more books in nineteen years. They had an immediate and lasting success; so lasting that she is by now the best-selling children’s author of all time. Part of that success is due to the dinky format of the books, about whose small size and low price Potter was insistent from the outset—her books are nice objects, and that has always been part of their appeal. Potter was also quick to latch on to the manufacturing opportunities attendant on their success, and before long the shelves were straining under the weight of Peter Rabbit wallpaper, Jemima Puddle-Duck dolls, wooden rabbits, branded bookshelves, and so on. Nothing about the current mania for tie-ins, spin-offs, toys, logos, and branding would have surprised her in the least.
The success brought to Potter by her stories enabled her to give full rein to her interest in nature. By 1905 she had accumulated over £1,000 in royalties; she used the money to buy Hill Top Farm. From this point on, it is as if her life were split into three parts. In one of them, Potter was a hugely successful and highly productive children’s author: in the eight years after she bought Hill Top she published thirteen books, including some of her very best work. In the second life, Potter was a dutiful daughter, living with her increasingly frail parents at 2 Bolton Gardens in London, taking on the burden of running their lives, and particularly the grueling annual caravanserai of their summer holidays. (She would rent her parents a house somewhere close to Sawrey, so that she could visit them while staying at her beloved Hill Top.) And then Potter had a third life, as the owner of Hill Top, with for the first time a place to fully engage her fascination with nature, the practical side of her personality, and a way of expressing both her independence and her distance from her parents. As Lear notes, her choice of life as a working northern hill-farmer was a sharp implied critique of their snobbish London lives.
Hill Top came to consume Potter. There was so much to do: not just the planting, and the renovation and extension of the main farm house, and the care of the sheep, pigs, ducks, cows, hens, and collies, but the construction of the new barn, the new milking parlor, the new kitchen, the new field drains, the new farm track, the purchase of adjoining land, the purchase of a new property, Castle Farm, and her determination to be fully involved in every possible aspect of village life. Bearing in mind that Potter was well into Victorian middle age when she began this new life, her eagerness for it is impressive, and moving too; it shows just how much she wanted to live her own life on her own terms.
In the course of her property-buying activities, Potter met and fell in love with a local solicitor, William Heelis. He was a well-liked, quiet local man from a well-established family of solidly middle-class professionals—clergymen, land agents, doctors—which of course meant that he was nowhere near grand enough for Potter’s parents. She ignored them, and the two were married, the forty-seven-year-old Beatrix Potter becoming Mrs. Heelis on October 15, 1913. It seems to have been a happy marriage, based on a deep foundation of communal interests—though these excluded Potter’s writings; Lear speculates, convincingly, that she and Heelis never discussed her work or her past. The marriage did not cause Potter’s drift away from writing; it was already clear, from about 1911, that the focus of her life was increasingly on Hill Top rather than on her books. Being Mrs. Heelis did nothing to deter that shift of focus, and it would be true to say that from her marriage onward her books were less engrossing to her than many other things, ranking behind, for instance, Herdwick sheep. Potter grew more and more interested in this distinctive dirty-gray Lakeland animal, adapted to wet weather and hillside foraging, and became a successful breeder of them. She won many sheep competitions and eventually became the first woman to be elected president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.
This might sound charmingly goofy, but Potter was never goofy. With British hill farming under more pressure than it has ever been, Herdwick sheep are to this day a subject of passionate interest to conservationists, rare-breed enthusiasts, foodies, and defenders of the Lake District. (In a happy paradox, the best way to ensure the survival of rare breeds is to eat them. Herdwicks are relatively uninteresting as lamb but they make good mutton.) Lear, whose previous book was a biography of Rachel Carson, is right at home with this side of Potter’s life. Her emphasis on Potter the countrywoman and naturalist is bracing, even revolutionary, because she makes it clear that what had been seen as a form of (admittedly very active) retirement was in its way a creative choice, and one which was at least as close to the roots of Potter’s personality and interests as her writing had been.
The key theme is that of conservation. It is possible to imagine a counterfactual history in which the Lake District, instead of being largely preserved as a place of natural beauty, instead disappeared under a huge tide of developers’ houses in the early twentieth century. The fact that that didn’t happen owed a considerable amount to Potter. She in turn was deeply influenced by Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, a charismatic Anglican priest and cousin of the Potters, whom Beatrix had known since childhood. Rawnsley was a passionate advocate of nature and conservation. He founded a pressure group called the Lake District Defence Society, one of whose goals was to buy land to preserve it; the model for this was taken up by the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, which he co-founded in 1895 and which is today the dominant body in English conservation, owning hundreds of important buildings and thousands of acres of land. It was “based on the radical legal premise that a non-profit entity could hold title to land or buildings as trustee in perpetuity for the use and enjoyment of the entire nation.”
On the death of her father in 1914, Potter inherited £35,000, and set about using it to buy land. The intention from the start was to conserve the beauty of the lakes, and Potter became more and more committed to the National Trust. Together with the trust, in 1930 she bought a nearly-four-thousand-acre farm called Monk Coniston Park, 2,600 acres of which were then acquired by the trust, which asked her to manage it for them. The level of energy and detail involved in this work is boggling to read: the woman who had come to fame and fortune by telling stories about animals was now spending her life inspecting drains, supervising the perennial problem of ragged and absent fences, fretting over accounts, making judgments about which planted timber to cut down, and in general involving herself in every aspect of farming and property management. This would not be everyone’s idea of a happy life, but it was for Potter, who had spent so much of her early years wondering if she was ever going to find something to do.
On her death in 1943, Potter left more than four thousand acres of Lake District land to the National Trust. It is the achievement of Lear’s book that she makes this seem a central fact of Potter’s life, rather than a footnote to her career as a children’s writer. Indeed, Potter’s biography comes close to being the opposite of a familiar writer’s life. In the standard model, a ton of irrelevant detail adds hardly anything to our understanding of the writer’s work and (usually) leaves us with a deep sense of her personal unsatisfactoriness. In Potter’s case, it comes to seem that those extraliterary details—the years from 1911 to 1943—were her real life, and the books were, to her, a kind of footnote. I am struggling to think of a writer who comes across as more humanly admirable than the energetic, blunt, determined, and always truthful Beatrix Potter.
March 15, 2007