Beatrix Potter


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Daily Telegraph

Beatrix Potter was not the daughter her Victorian mother expected.

Reticent rather than shy, she was a sharp observer of society but a reluctant participant in it. She commented wryly on people in a journal written in a secret code, and listened intently to conversation, picking up dialect and delighting in the sound of words, like "lippity, lippity" and "soporific." Her Highland nurse had filled her young head with witches, fairies, rebellious wee folk and salty common sense. She was an early and voracious reader, appreciating Sir Walter Scott as much as Edward Lear. She enjoyed a remarkable memory, an ear for language, a precocious imagination and a delicious, often irreverent sense of humor. Taken together, such qualities made Beatrix Potter a masterful teller of tales for children. But Mrs Potter's hope for a more conventional daughter, content to make social calls and able to make an advantageous marriage, meant that she was forever a disappointment to her mother.

Art was her first passion generously providing challenges for her increasingly accomplished paint brush. Nature was her second. The third floor school room in the family's London house, became a menagerie, tolerated by the authorities, since the family, like many Victorians at the time, shared in the enthusiasm for natural history. Rabbits were early pets and favourite subjects, but so was a company of mice. Beatrix preferred common wild ones which she found the most intelligent and amusing. Sometimes she let one loose to run about the rooms until she flapped a pocket handkerchief whereupon it would come out to fight and could be captured. She painted birds, insects, landscapes, and furniture-- almost anything that came to view-- wondering at least once after she caught herself making a fine copy of a swill bucket, "Why cannot one be content to look at [ an object]? I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result." Her pets were substitutes for friends her own age, but her youth was rich in opportunities to read and to explore and investigate the natural world.

Beatrix Potter was always acutely aware of her physical surroundings; the tiniest details of the interiors of houses where she stayed on holidays, the old furniture in her uncle's house in Wales, the arrangement of household spaces, and the shapes and forms of farm buildings in Scotland and the Lake District. This acuity was reinforced by her constant sketching that distilled the essence of rooms, sheds and gardens into mental images which would later distinguish her little books and imprint themselves on generations of memory.

Art lessons were provided but Beatrix found them barely tolerable. She politely rebelled, secretly worried that copying another artist would compromise her own originality, and hoped that she "wouldn't catch it." More to her liking were outings with her father, an sometime amateur photographer, to the great art galleries of London which constituted her real artistic apprenticeship. Her education was limited only by her capacity to observe. Although she experimented with a variety of media, by 19 she had chosen watercolour and was rapidly perfecting her dry-brush technique.

With her younger brother Bertram out of the nursery and off at boarding school, Beatrix appropriated his microscope to draw the details of her insect specimens. She drew the trivial and the extraordinary: a ground beetle under different magnifications; a wonderfully hairy jumping spider, and the colourful segments of a privet hawk moth's wing. She was also unsentimental about her pets. When an animal fell ill, she made certain it had a swift and merciful end. Bertram had left a pair of long-eared bats which she enjoyed sketching but which became difficult to keep. She released one and chloroformed the other, rarer specimen, taking its precise measurements, and then stuffing it. Already there was humour in her art. She painted a fine weasel capturing the sinuous body under a glossy thick coat, observing that it reminded her of an especially tart-tongued aunt.

Beatrix took herself and her passions seriously. Stunning drawings of her pets, of delicately coloured fungi, of fossils and archeological artifacts were all part of her efforts to find something useful to do with her life. She calculated that stuffy drawing rooms and endless teas would never bring her a feeling of self-respect or independence. She had always enjoyed creating a fantasy world around her pets, adorning them with hats, scarfs, and coats, and by 1891 she had even sold some of her drawings as illustrations for a book of rhymes and as greeting cards. When a former governess suggested she might make a book out of a charming picture letter she had written to her son about a disobedient rabbit named Peter, Beatrix sought a publisher willing to take a risk on an unknown author and illustrator.

Beatrix had firm ideas about how she wanted her book to look, insisting it be small enough for little hands to hold, that text and illustrations be on separate pages, and that the price be as low as possible. The firm of Frederick Warne & Co. had already rejected her story, but they acknowledged that there was a market for small picture books and Mr. Norman Warne, the youngest member of the family firm, decided to have another look at Miss Potter's Tale of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix was then 35 years old, a spinster by the standards of the day.

Negotiations dragged on, requiring meetings and extended correspondence with Mr Warne, whom Beatrix reluctantly acknowledged had good judgement about the publishing business. But so did Beatrix Potter. She happily distributed copies of her private edition to enthusiastic readers, passing along the interest of shop-keepers and repeated requests for multiple copies. She had agreed to coloured illustrations, so that when a contract was finally signed in 1902, she went to work redrawing the illustrations, using a new young rabbit, as the original Peter had died the previous year. She participated in all the negotiations for publication, commenting on colour, hue, margin, and especially language and pace, always dealing with Norman Warne.

Beatrix worked tirelessly, as happy as she had ever been. "I hope the little book will be a success [as] there seems to be a great deal of trouble being taken with it.". It was of course. The first printing sold out even before publication, and by the sixth even Beatrix was surprised that the public seemed so very fond of rabbits. She had achieved her goal of having some money of her own, even a bit of independence. But she had also created a new form of animal fable: one in which admittedly anthropomorphic animals behave always as real animals with true animal instinct and were accurately drawn by a scientific illustrator.

Frederick Warne & Company had a new bestselling author, and Beatrix Potter had a seemingly endless supply of ideas. The happy collaboration between author and editor produced four additional little books by June 1905: The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin; The Tailor of Gloucester, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and The Tale of Two Bad Mice. A fifth, The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, was nearly finished when Norman Warne boldly wrote Miss Potter asking her to marry him. Although Beatrix never visited the Warne offices in Covent Garden without a chaperone, their happiness together, their creative synergy, and their respect for each other had deepened into love. Beatrix saw herself as one of Jane Austen's heroines whose story had "finally come right".

But such a romance was not what Mrs. Potter had expected. She had been suspicious of the increasing number of letters, then alarmed at how often Beatrix visited the publishing house. Norman Warne came from a family in trade, a horrifying prospect as a son-in-law for a family that had worked so hard to vanish the taint of their own manufacturing backgrounds. Mr Potter agreed: Beatrix would not marry Mr Norman Warne. But they had not reckoned on their daughter's determination, courage, or character. A quiet but desperate struggle of wills ensued. Beatrix would wear Norman's ring but no engagement would be mentioned -even to family.

Beatrix dutifully left for the summer in Wales. She would never see Norman Warne again or have another letter from him. His death from a virulent form of leukemia occurred only a month after she had received and accepted his proposal of marriage. She lost her own love story, but she preserved Norman's memory in every subsequent little book she wrote.

And write she did, until at last in 1913, her grief was assuaged by the beauty of the Lake District, her rigorous life as a sheep farmer, and finally the acceptance of another gentle, quiet man who shared not her love of fantasy, but her real love of the land. Her mother had been right of course. Beatrix was not the daughter she expected. (1464) (c) Linda Lear (Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, Penguin, Allen Lane,2007)