The Tale of Beatrix Potter

This year, the works of one of the most successful and universal writers of all time came into the public domain in many countries around the world. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck - in all, thirty-three books bearing the name “Beatrix Potter” have sold close to 200 million copies. Frank Delaney enquires into the more complex woman behind the safe and warm-hearted stories.

July 23, 2014

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A teenage Beatrix Potter with her pet mouse Xarifa, 1885, from Cotsen Children’s Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University — Source.

Her appeal is so powerful that museums hold her in permanent exhibition — and some of them even commemorate her solely. Hollywood has trawled through her life, if somewhat on tiptoe. The great and the good have acknowledged her influence and the affection she inspires. Pottery, apparel, wallpaper — all kinds of domestic accoutrements bear her quaint, unthreatening drawings; her inescapably fluffy image has driven a licensing industry that has been worth millions. Yet Beatrix Potter was a sharp-edged, and reclusive woman, serious and complex, and her “nursery” reputation does her scant justice; she was much more than a “mere” children’s writer. Which, however, is where and how her famed “product” began — with the famous letter from Beatrix aged 27 to Noel Moore, aged 6, the little son of her final governess;

Sep 4th 93

My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were — Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail — and Peter. They lived with their mother in a sand bank under the root of a big fir tree. . .

She called it a “picture letter.” In among the words she had sketched each character in the tale, with Peter unquestionably the perkiest: he’s the only one standing upright. As adults’ novelists do, she had taken him from life — Peter Rabbit was based on a Belgian buck, she’d given him the name “Peter Piper” and described him thus: “Whatever the shortcomings of his fur, and his ears and toes, his disposition was uniformly amiable and his temper unfailingly sweet.”

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Letter from Potter to Noël Moore, dated 4th February 1895, from the Morgan Library and Museum — Source (NB: no indication of license on digital copy).

The daughter of Manchester Unitarians rich out of the cotton trade, Helen Beatrix Potter, born Saturday, 28 July 1866, grew up in a fully-serviced Kensington house. Notwithstanding the butlers, governesses, grooms, nurses and maids she suffered early that writer’s boon, the angst of loneliness. A cold, uninterested mother raised the child at arm’s length, and the warmest early companionship came from pets — lizards, guinea-pigs, newts, birds, mice, bats and rabbits, cats and dogs. And since the coldness of the household bred no sentimentality, Beatrix was happy in time to put down any little creature who fell ill, skin it, and boil the carcass to extract the skeleton for drawing.

Does this — let’s call it “objectivity” rather than “ruthlessness” — does it explain why she gave her stories such raw edges? Benjamin Bunny received a whipping from his father. Amid the “barking, baying, growls and howls, squealing and groans,” did the collie-dog and the foxhound puppies, Jemima Puddle-Duck’s rescuers, actually eat “the foxy-whiskered gentleman” of whom “nothing more was ever seen?” And what about The Tale of Two Bad Mice, vandals who wreck a doll’s house? Legion readers may still find Beatrix Potter rosy and twee: she had no such compromising intent.

We can trace her talent. The gorgeous paintings bubbled up from clear springs (let’s not any more diminish them with the word “illustration:” just look again at the owl in Squirrel Nutkin). To begin with, the dysmaternal mother fobbed off the nursery with picture books: Hans Andersen; the brothers Grimm; an illustrated bible — the usual suspects. But the lonely child savoured the drawings more than the text; for instance, when she got around to Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix, of her own later admission, became much more compelled by the pictures of Sir John Tenniel than the whimsies of Lewis Carroll. By the age of seven, she herself was already drawing with individual line, tone and competence.

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A still life of a vase and pomegranates, painted by Potter in 1881 when she was 15 years old, from the Victoria And Albert Museum — Source (NB: digital copy not openly licensed).

As prime material she made life drawings of her pets. She commented on her hedgehog model, the real Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, “So long as she can go to sleep on my knee she is delighted; but if she is propped up for half an hour she first begins to yawn pathetically, and then she does bite. Nevertheless, she is a dear person.”

Her dear creatures opened a portal into the widest and most powerful arena of all — the natural world. In the year she was born, her Potter grandfather purchased a 300-acre Capability Brown estate at Hatfield in Hertfordshire. How enchanting to a child with a sketch-pad and burgeoning powers of observation; “The oaks moaning and swaying close to the bedroom windows in winter. . . trees in every hedgerow. . . in summer the distant landscapes are intensely blue. . .

Annual family trips to the Lake District and Scotland clinched the deal. She recorded “the night-jar’s eerie cry, the hooting of the owls, the bat [that] flitted around the house the roe-deer’s bark. . .” Back in London, she used the solitude of the playroom to recollect in tranquility the cool woods of summer, and in a very short time the universe of wild nature, whence, after all, her pets had originated, became the permanent home of her spirit.

Another influence grew alongside. Her father, a barrister and club gentleman, had always longed to paint but could scarcely draw a straight line. So he indulged, as did many excited Victorians, in the new art form of photography; he bought all the latest equipment, and hired a servant to hawk it about for him. Naturally he photographed his family without ceasing, and no matter what her age or pose, his daughter always looks as serious as a century.

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Left: Beatrix in about 1874, aged 7 or 8 — Source. Right: Beatrix, aged 9 or 10, and her mother Helen in a photograph taken by Beatrix’s father Rupert in 1876 — Source.

He also rendered her an even greater service than keeping her record. His friend, the painter John Everett Millais, deputed Rupert Potter to photograph landscapes that Millais could use as backgrounds in canvases. He also asked him to take, for reference, “likenesses” of the more important sitters (Gladstone, for example), to save them having to sit so often and long. On some of these forays Beatrix went along with her father. She met Millais in his studio, he perceived her talent and interest, and he bared to her the very soul of working in oils — how to mix paint.

The creatures, the countryside and its enchanting details, the smell of the palette — by and large, this jigsaw of childhood experiences pieces together Beatrix Potter’s early adult portrait. That same leaning toward science that she practised in dissections and anatomical drawings, also led her into botany; look at the rich and accurate flora alongside her rabbits and pigs and foxes.

Several years ago, an Irish agricultural scientist, Fionnbhar O’Riordain, alerted me to the game of finding where mushrooms appear in Beatrix Potter, because she had served a self-taught but distinguished apprenticeship to mycology. He described her botanical work as “brilliant,” and authenticated his faith in her by making slides of her drawings.

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A study of Hygrophorus puniceus, one of the many watercolours of mushrooms created by Potter and now residing at the Armitt Musuem — Source (NB: no indication of license on digital copy)

At 31 years of age, she had submitted a scientific paper to the respected Linnean Society in London. The Society’s practice was to have its papers read aloud by other than the authors, even if it were Darwin. One April night in 1897, “Miss H.B. Potter’s paper, On the Germination of Spores of Agaricineae [Mushrooms],” was presented to the Society by a principal of Kew Gardens. Later, in her development of her research, she mounted arguments connecting spores to lichens. Dismissed at the time, she had the pleasure of eventual vindications, and by 1901 she had produced almost 300 water-colours of mushrooms, fungii, the world of spores. Through her donation they now reside in the Armitt Museum in Cumbria.

Being, though, a dilettante, however serious and well-founded, was never going to settle her. She had always had earnings in mind, had been drawing greeting cards for art publishers — to earn money for microscopes and slides, for perhaps a printing press, and unquestionably for ways of escape. Pressed by Noel Moore’s mother (once a governess always a teacher), Beatrix now turned to the “picture letters.”

For The Tale of Peter Rabbit she created extra drawings, added the mouse with the “large pea in her mouth,” the white cat “staring at some goldfish,” and printed Peter as a Christmas gift in 1901. The warmth of its reception from friends and family astounded her, so she then made an edition for sale, price one shilling, plus tuppence postage. All who received it enthused; Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle had “a good opinion of the story and the words.”

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A rare unfinished version of a scene depicting rabbits dancing at a christmas party, one of a series of six that Potter created in 1892, a year before her letter to Noel mentioning the characters of "Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail — and Peter" — Source.

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Last watercolour from the rabbit’s christmas party series, depicting the rabbits’ departure — Source.

This modest repute reached a publisher, Frederick Warne in London, who said he would take it on provided that Miss Potter’s drawings could be in colour. She refused: “I did not colour the whole book for two reasons: the great expense of good colour printing; and also the rather uninteresting colour of a good many of the subjects which are most of them rabbit-brown and green.”

Her practical sense supervened. She provided colour, worked with the publishers on proofs and emendations — and then a great deal more. As The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published on 2 October 1902, she already had in the hopper The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (look out for mushrooms) and The Tailor of Gloucester (her own all-time favourite). She was 36 years old, and so began the universal author.

In the intensity of the publishing experience over the next two years, she and her editor, the youngest Mr. Warne, began to take notice of one another; Norman was tall, thin and kind, with a benign mustache. The relationship flowered and in July 1905 — she was 39 — an engagement materialised, but marriage plans could not be discussed with any openness because to the Potters Norman Warne counted as “trade.” The two families agreed to keep it secret: there had been precedent: Beatrix’s brother was married eleven years before his parents were informed. A few days after this new happiness, however, Norman fell ill. Beatrix had just left for Wales to summer with her parents, where within three weeks she was to hear that, on the 25th of August, Norman Warne had died of pernicious anemia.

To contain — and hide — her grief, Beatrix quit London and went to Cumbria, where she had already been arranging to buy a small farm, Hill Top, near Sawrey, in the fells. It was to have been the summer home of Mr and Mrs Norman Warne, and despite all the poignancy, she yet completed the purchase. At Hill Top she gave birth to a host of later characters; Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck and Samuel Whiskers and Pigling Bland, because even with — or perhaps because of — a heart breaking off at the edges, and even though writing into the void left by her loving, admiring editor at Warne, she continued to produce. In time, having already devised a Peter Rabbit doll, and a board game, she would develop further merchandise and help make herself a rich woman.

She steeped herself in her new northern world; she made herself a significant figure in these steep fells that climb so close to the floor of Heaven. Farming took her into its deep embrace, and she became a champion of causes — Herdwick sheep, for instance, a local breed, had been dying out; she founded a breeders’ association to bring them back. She also began to buy tranches of this beloved land, assembling in time as much as four thousand acres, which she left to the National Trust.

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Certificate of registration for a Peter Rabbit doll, 1903, from the Victoria and Albert Museum — Source (NB: digital copy not openly licensed).

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Early design for ‘The Game of Peter Rabbit’, December 1904, from the Victoria and Albert Museum — Source (NB: digital copy not openly licensed).

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‘Peter Rabbit’s Race Game’ showing the top of the lid, made by Frederick Warne & Co Ltd., c.1930, from the Victoria and Albert Museum — Source (NB: digital copy not openly licensed).

In 1913, eight years after Norman Warne’s death, she married the country solicitor who had been conveyancing the fells for her. His name was William Heelis, at 42 five years younger than Beatrix; “Dreadfully shy,” she said of him, “but I am sure he will be more comfortable married. . . he is in every way satisfactory, well known in the district and respected.” As with Norman Warne her parents objected again, and as with Norman Warne her new swain was also tall, thin and kind, with a benign mustache.

In Ambleside, I met an old man who had known Beatrix Potter, and who told me the “tramp story.” One rainy winter’s day, dressed as she liked to, in the opposite of high fashion, Beatrix encountered a tramp on a high road near Hill Top. He assumed her to be of his tribe, and greeted her with, “Brave hard weather for the likes of thee’n me, missus.” She had done the thing she’d always wanted — merged with her countryside.

Some years ago, when I was presenting Radio Four’s Poetry Please, a listener left a message at the BBC with a question for James Fenton as to the meaning of one of his poems. I telephoned Mr. Fenton and he answered, “Don’t ask the poet, ask the poem.” Therefore — go thou and do likewise with Beatrix Potter, and you will find — to take some examples — a self-containment brought on by nursery loneliness; see the inner space in her work: note the predominance of interiors. Her gallantly perfect language demonstrates the unwavering control with which she presented herself; “In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets — when gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta — there lived a tailor in Gloucester.” (In respectful observance of her constant mission to explain let’s note that “paduasoy” comes from peau de soie, literally “skin of silk,” and is a French medieval grosgrain fabric.) Hail her superb drawing of flora and fauna; note, however, that she had lesser skill drawing humans.

But she rendered landscape with the true love of someone who understands the way the countryside stretches out under the sun, and who will one day want some for herself. In the work after 1905 you will find exquisite views of the Lake District.

In 1940, she was asked by a publisher “to tell again how Peter Rabbit came to be written.” Having first mentioned that Noel Moore, the Peter Rabbit boy, had grown up lame, and was now “an air warden in a bombed London parish,” Beatrix, not writing books any more — “My eyes are too weak” — offered, in effect, a thumbnail autobiography.

“I do not remember a time,” she answered, “when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand 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.”

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Beatrix aged 25 with her rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, 1891, from the Victoria and Albert Museum — Source (NB: digital copy not openly licensed).

Frank Delaney, writer and broadcaster, lives in the United States, where he deconstructs Ulysses in brief weekly podcasts on his website:

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.