Beatrix Potter


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"The Rest of the Story."...

Beatrix Potter : A Life in Nature
by Linda Lear

Helen Beatrix Potter, a 39-year-old spinster from London became the unlikely owner of Hill Top, a seventeenth-century farm on the edge of Near Sawrey in Lancashire, in the autumn of 1905. With a small legacy from an aunt and the royalties from her little books, she had bravely purchased the thirty-four-acre working farm. She assured her father it was a safe investment in property, but Norman Warne must have known and approved her plan. They had shared a dream of owning a small farm in the English Lakes. Now Norman was dead, but Beatrix refused to abandon her `story'. As long as she lived, Hill Top would be a memorial to that hoped-for storybook ending, and also the place where she could begin an unusual third act to her life.

As she walked the boundaries of her fields in early October, she was aware of the irony in her owning a north-country farm. It had come about because she had dared a few small rebellions as an otherwise dutiful Victorian daughter and in doing so she had returned to the countryside her ancestors had once embraced. Most ironic of all, Hill Top Farm was to have been shared with a husband in trade, a man whom her parents had scorned, and whose unexpected death made her more determined than ever to control at least this aspect of her life and to make a success at farming.

The happy challenge provided by Hill Top Farm - the need to overcome her grief and get on with her life - inspired a remarkable outburst of creativity. She produced thirteen stories over the next eight years, including some of her best work. In the course of this creative effort, Beatrix Potter was transformed as well into a countrywoman.

Beatrix arrived in Sawrey, which she knew from previous holidays, just as the morning air took on an edge of autumn crispness and as the hillsides gleamed gold in the twilight. Up at dawn, Beatrix studied her property inside and out, sorry when she was driven inside by the early dusk. She copied out her deeds, checking their accuracy, fully educated as to the minutest details for boundary fence and property line. It was a task, like so many others on a farm, that appealed to her sense of realism and to her nascent understanding of stewardship of the land.

Beatrix was anxious to begin physical improvements to the farmhouse and to recover neglected areas of the farm. But first she had to arrange proper living quarters for herself and her farm tenants, the Cannon family, as the farmhouse was too small for them all. She decided to enlarge the house to make two separate living spaces, the Cannons in the new wing, she with the old house to herself. Her design sketches show how closely she observed Lake District architecture and how sensitively she altered her old structure.

During the Christmas holidays in London, Beatrix she walked around Bedford Square where Norman Warne and his family had lived, wishing she were back in Sawrey. Its physical beauty, as well as the hard physical work and mental concentration it required, made her grief bearable. Hill Top Farm and the quaint village of Near Sawrey had become an integral part both of her life and her imagination. Her gardens, her house and her animals - even the rats - were to figure in the books she produced over the next several years, each a celebration of her joy in ownership.

The real farm stock at Hill Top, including ducks and hens, increased rapidly and demanded much of Beatrix's attention. By the summer of 1907, in addition to the sixteen Herdwick sheep and Kep the collie - the first and favourite of Beatrix's farm collies - there were six dairy cows. The following year eight new pigs arrived, bringing the herd at Hill Top to fourteen. She arranged her small personal treasures, as well as some of the old oak furniture she had begun to collect, and some old-fashioned chairs, in the front kitchen. The centre piece was an old oak dresser on which she set out some favourite china plates. Slowly but surely creating the new patterns of her life, she unconsciously became as attuned to the seasons and rhythms of the farm year as she had become to those of the publishing world.

By 1909 Beatrix had published fourteen books, already considered `nursery classics.' which paid her substantial royalties. She also received additional income from liscensing merchandise based on her books. A naturally canny and imaginative businesswoman, Beatrix used her royalty income not only for physical improvements to the farm, but to increase her herds of livestock, native Herdwick sheep, dairy cows and beef cattle, including hornless Galloway, and to buy additional land. (But this income did not provide her any other measure of independence. In fact her devotion to her farm, to being a successful farmer, and her desire to be at Hill Top whenever she could, was a source of irritation to her parents. They considered farming a distraction from her filial duties and each new purchase brought increased friction within the family.)

When Beatrix bought Hill Top, her father's barristers had acted as her agents. Only after the fact did she discover that she had been poorly represented. In 1908 she sought the advice of W. H. Heelis & Son, a local firm of solicitors when she wanted to buy more property in Near Sawrey. One of the partners at the Hawkshead office where she went was William Heelis of Appleby. Heelis was then 38 years old, five years younger than she, and highly regarded in the community. He was a tall, quiet, rather handsome man with an athletic build and an easy manner. He first advised her on some closes of pasture and woodland that she bought at a good price. When Castle Farm and its farmhouse, known locally as Castle Cottage, and nearly opposite the Hill Top farm house, came on the market a short time later, Heelis acted as her solicitor. ( Buying Castle Farm was a significant event. It protected and expanded her existing farm boundaries, provided increased grazing and pasture lands for her sheep and cattle, and gave her an added presence as a significant landowner in the village of Near Sawrey.) A farm of just over twenty acres, she got it at a good price, but its buildings needed improvements. William Heelis advised her on these, and soon became Beatrix's principal legal adviser and unofficial property manager when she was back in London. Beatrix and William found themselves in agreeable association on other occasions whether it was working on her tax papers or at a meeting of the local landowners' association to which Beatrix had been elected and Heelis was legal advisor.

( But Beatrix managed only occasional visits to her Sawrey farm during most of the year, her time being fully occupied looking after her parents' needs and managing their London household. Most of these were snatched during the long summer holidays when her parents took a house either in nearby Keswick or around Windermere, allowing Beatrix to stay at her farm for several days or weeks at a time. Even so, the balance of her creative energy was imperceptibly shifting.) By 1911, she was more happily focused on her life as a countrywoman in the village of Sawrey than on meeting the seemingly insatiable demands from her publisher for books. She made an unusual visit to Hill Top that winter When Heelis learned that two other small pieces of land bordering her farm would soon come on the market. Beatrix and William tramped through the snow in the cold, making certain of the property lines and fences. Once again he acted as her agent. In June of the following year, after she had exhausted herself caring for her aging parents while finishing The Tale of Mr. Tod, William Heelis asked Beatrix to marry him.

Beatrix had fallen in love with William in much the same way as she had with Norman Warne: slowly and companionably. But she knew her parents would not approve of a country solicitor for the same reasons they had rejected a publisher. She had loved Norman for his imagination and his humour, and she similarly delighted in William's love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside and his zest for being out in it. (By the autumn of 1912 Beatrix felt burdened by the secret of her engagement to William and conflicted about her obligations, her health and emotional well-being forced her to make a decision.) Should she strike out for her own happiness or bow to expectation and filial duty? Finally she took courage. She was 47 when she married in August 1913 and proudly returned to Castle Cottage as "Mrs Heelis", beginning a happy partnership of thirty-years.

At last her own person, she settled into the relationships that shaped the rest of her life. Her activities centred around her country solicitor husband and his extended family, her farms, the Sawrey community and the predictable rounds of country life which she embraced more ardently each year. But her father's death in 1914, the necessity of looking after her demanding mother, and the outbreak of war brought unexpected changes.

Hill Top Farm now boasted a sizeable flock of chickens, turkeys and some ducks which produced income but also provided food on the farm. Rationing and wartime shortages meant that even rabbits were raised as farm stock, although Beatrix once confessed unsentimentally, `I don't half like having them killed." She was generally quite philosophical about the inevitability of animal death but the loss of her collie Kep at this time was particularly hard and added to the gloomy mood of winter, and wartime. Labour on the farm was unpredictable. Beatrix had firm opinions about women's ability to do farm work, thinking that they could have a better life in the fresh air than toiling in the munitions factories. She wrote a letter on the subject that was published in the Times under the pseudonym `A Woman Farmer.' Her employment philosophy was put to practical test when an educated woman with farming experience answered her letter and came to work. Louie Choyce proved herself a capable farm worker and companionable friend. Beatrix also bravely but anonymously protested the government's attempts at a horse census, realizing that such information could lead to the conscription of farm transport in an emergency.

Outwardly life for Beatrix and William at Castle Cottage and Hill Top Farm after the war continued much as it had before, moving within the accustomed rhythms of farm and family. Real animals kept Beatrix much too busy to produce many new stories for Warne. The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse appeared in 1918, but she found even painting-books and books of rhyme too time-consuming, and her eyesight was "wearing out." "You don't suppose I shall be able to continue these d...d little books when I am dead and buried!!!", she scolded her publisher a year later.

But changes to rural life in the Lake District were visible everywhere. Tourism returned with a vengeance, and electricity was widely available, though Beatrix permitted it only in her barns and not in the farmhouses. "Maybe the cows will like it," she once suggested to her astonished farm tenant. She wrote by candlelight until William arrived home in the evening and only then lit the gas lamps - there were no exceptions- and housekeepers who complained did not remain long.

The post-war years also brought unexpected opportunity. Although Beatrix never wholeheartedly welcomed change, she was extraordinarily resilient. Deeply involved in the community, in district nursing, in the Girl Guides who came camping, and in conservation efforts, she felt satisfaction in contributing to the larger good. The most compelling challenges flowed from the pervasive influence of her long-time mentor and friend Hardwicke Rawnsley, a founder and the secretary of the National Trust. His death in 1920 pushed Beatrix to take a more public role in carrying on his legacy and making it her own.

Beatrix had embraced his ideas on open footpaths, campaigned with him against hydroplanes on the Lakes, and contributed faithfully, but mostly anonymously, to various appeals from the Trust. She and William embraced its work, not uncritically, but with the conviction that the Trust was the best way to preserve the culture of fell farming, the valuable flocks of pure-bred Herdwick sheep, and a unique and fragile landscape. Rawnsley and his son had lent their public support to the earliest efforts to promote the Herdwick. Beatrix became one of the few female members of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association shortly after she made the remarkable decision to buy Troutbeck Park Farm in 1923.

Like the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her purchase of this magnificent 2000 acre property at the head of the Troutbeck Valley began an equally momentous entrepreneurial adventure. Both were creative endeavours, and in both cases her love of the natural world, her delight in country life, and her willingness to work hard, along with her instinctive business acumen, were essential to success. The restoration of Troutbeck Park Farm, the land, and especially its large herds of sheep, were a joint business venture by two people, Beatrix and William, who shared a love of countryside and a passion for its preservation. From the beginning Beatrix intended that the Trust would be a partner at Troutbeck, but her love of this particular valley was such that she could not part with it during her lifetime any more than she could give up Hill Top Farm.

In 1929 her skill at managing Lakeland farms was tested when she seized the opportunity to buy and preserve Monk Coniston Park. A 4,000-acre property, its many component farms, straddled the Coniston and Tilberthwaite valleys, and included not only Tarn Hows, the large teardrop-shaped lake long famous for its scenic beauty, but also Holme Ground, a farm that had once belonged to Beatrix's great grandfather. The piecemeal purchase of Monk Coniston would have meant the disintegration of traditional hill-county farms, the loss of livelihood to farmers, tenants and cottagers, and the scattering of livestock, particularly of Herdwick sheep. With William negotiating the sale, and the National Trust a silent partner in the enterprise, Beatrix used much of her income with the understanding that the Trust would buy half the property back from her as soon as they could raise the money. Beatrix's wise management of the vast tract was so successful that in 1931 Trust officials asked her to continue managing their half of Monk Coniston as well as her own.

At age 65, Beatrix Heelis was both surprised and pleased to have her stewardship so acknowledged. With William's assistance at taxes, book-keeping, and his knowledge of the local community, Beatrix took over the management of Monk Coniston along with Troutbeck Park and her other farms for the next six years. After Bruce Thompson, the first land agent for the northern district, was appointed in 1936, Beatrix turned over to the Trust an financially and environmentally restored estate. She continued her daily inspection and the supervision of the farms on her half of the property, and advised as well as criticized the Trust on such matters as the harvesting of forests, construction of fences and drains, and the repair of vernacular structures until her final illness in December 1943. With William's death eighteen months later, all of the remaining Heelises' properties, over 4,000 acres, including the farmhouse at Hill Top, along with her personal possessions arranged just as she wanted them, came to the National Trust as the largest gift to that time of farms, animals, and indigenous structures.

Beatrix Potter Heelis understood only too well that `times change', but with her bequest she attempted to ensure that the unique culture of hill farming and the breeding of Herdwick sheep would continue. As a far-sighted benefactor, she tried her best to protect a vulnerable landscape. Balancing the demands of fell farmers, tourists, wildlife and forests has become increasingly difficult as Beatrix knew it would. Her imaginative stewardship in the Lake District continues to be a challenging obligation today.

Beatrix Potter brought nature back into the English imagination with her books and illustrations. She wrote most of them at a time when nature was often viewed as something of little value, when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation. After her happy marriage in 1913, the emphasis of her imaginative work shifted more and more away from literature towards the land and the animals it sustained. She became a conservationist in order to preserve the landscape that had inspired her art. Her generosity left an indelible imprint on the countryside.

Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something. Imagination allowed Beatrix Potter to value the natural world and to share the treasures she found in the Lake District and its culture. Beatrix Heelis's stewardship created a singular moment in the recovery of nature in the twentieth century. With her early desire to do something useful with her life, she had written books and drawn pictures that will forever conjure nature for millions of big and little children. She challenged others to think about preservation, not just of a few farms or fells, but of a whole regional ecology, of a distinct farming culture, and of a particular breed of nimble-footed grey sheep.

** Note for Gill Morgan: Thank you for your very insightful queries. In regard to your question about her income providing additional freedom, I think it needs to be qualified in that while the source of income, eg liscencing merchandise, was unusual for a Victorian woman, it did not provide her any particular independence from her parents OTHER than the psychically, and fact that she used it to sensibly to invest in land and make capital improvements. ( In the early period, this income wasn't significant) I want to make clear that with every additional land purchase in the LD, her parents were more irritated not because her income was increasing, but because her farms provided further diversion from he attention to them. I hope I have made this clear.