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The delightful tale of Beatrix Potter, who was born 151 years ago this month

July 30, 2017

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The little girl, born 151 years ago in London in July of 1866, had her Scottish nanny, her long view of the city and the gathered bits and snatches of a life she created for herself: leaves and insects, plants and flowers, rabbits and mice — her beloved drawing pads and pencils — and, above all, her books.

Beatrix Potter. Even her name carries a sense of enchantment and an underlying sensation of delight. From the age of 14 through 30 she kept a secret code journal that was impossibly difficult to decode, even after nine years of intense, dedicated labor on the part of Leslie Linder who, more than 20 years after her death, achieved the unexpected satisfaction of success as noted in “Beatrix Potters’ Journal." (I've used her journal along with “The Tale of Beatrix Potter,” by Margaret Lane, published by in 1946, and Linda Lear's “Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature,” published by St. Martin’s Press in 2007, for the information about Beatrix's life in this column.)

For most of the year, she was a solitary child, but she was not lonely. She had her pets, from field mice to rabbits to hedge hogs. When she was 5 years old, a brother, Bertram, was born, and grew to share many of the natural delights of small beasties and rare insects, and these things created a world of wonder for the two children that was constantly shifting and expanding.

This unique beginning blossomed into a precious way of life, enhanced by Scotland, the Lake District in England, visits to the old home of her grandmother, which she loved, her father's interesting friends, such as the famous painter John Everett Millais, and the many London museums where a young girl, struggling with her shyness, might wander and dream.

What of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and the others? The accident of circumstance that brought Peter to life was the long illness of little 5-year-old Noel, son of Beatrix’s beloved governess Miss Carter, now Mrs. Moore. Beatrix wrote Noel a letter, telling of the antics of her rabbit friends, and writing and illustrating a simple, delightful story of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, who were good little bunnies, and Peter, their brother, who insisted on going into the forbidden garden of Mr. McGregor.

She printed the little book privately and was surprised by the enthusiastic response. When the Warne Brothers wrote and offered to publish it properly, the miracle of Miss Potter’s creative gifts found its way to a broader audience.

In 1902, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” was published. In 1903, “Squirrel Nutkin” and “The Tailor of Gloucester” followed. By 1930, 23 “Tales” had found their way into the bookshops and into the hearts of children and parents alike.

Beatrix understood animals; she had also observed them in their natural habitats and interacted naturally with them there. She also possessed an innate gift for understanding children. She did not talk down to them — she did not hide or even alter the truths of life and nature. Her love of life, her delight in the world around her awakened such sentiments in the spirits of her little readers.

Beatrix also turned her attention to what she considered her true home, to the Lake District, and purchased Hill Top, the old farm that had captured her heart during the time she spent with her parents year after year in their Lake District retreats.

As I've studied her life, I see how symbolically and literally she was walking into her life, consciously using her money, talents and attention on things that mattered deeply to her.

The little books continued for a season, and a few others sporadically followed. But Miss Potter was a farmer and serious land owner now. She learned all she could about crops and animal husbandry. While "Peter Rabbit" was being translated into French, German, Spanish and Welsh, Beatrix was learning how to care for and propagate the Herdwick sheep, a breed unique to the high lake country fells. She became an expert breeder and Beatrix rose up opposition to the developers who were attempting to ruin the unique beauty and ancient purposes of the land.

In a slow, natural, companionable way, Beatrix fell in love with William Heelis, the local lawyer who shared her love of the Lake District, and her concern for its safety. He was five years younger than she and had never married. When they became engaged in the summer of 1913, Beatrix was 47 years old.

Beatrix loved marriage and preferred being called Mrs. Heelis, rather than Miss Potter, however famous that name was getting to be. The two shared country tastes, and a gentle appreciation of life. They gave freely — from supporting the Girl Guides (much like the Girl Scout program in America) to assisting Willie’s host of nieces and nephews and to helping to found and support a local branch of the Nursing Association.

Beatrix loved the past, and she hated change, but her practical mind urged her to do all she could to combine and strengthen the present, that the past might maintain its vitality and live on into the future.

She had supported and helped to establish the National Trust, whose purpose was to restore and preserve places of national and historical importance in Britain.

As her health failed and her age advanced (she had lived through one world war and was now surviving another), she organized her trusts to be watertight, and began to provide for the time when she would be gone.

Her bequest to the National Trust was over 4,000 acres of land and money for improving and keeping up the properties, which included “fifteen farms, scores of cottages, several houses and more than 500 acres of woods” (see Lear's “Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature”). Nothing like it had ever been heard of, before or since.

“Beatrix Potter," observed her biographer Lane in the introduction of "Beatrix Potter's Journal," possessed ‘that rare kind of commonplace temperament which is more or less impervious to vanity.’”

Yet she knew who she was — and that she was something unique. “I will do something sooner or later,” she had vowed and Lear noted in “Beatrix Potter, A Life in Nature.” And so she did.

Through her books, and through the life she lived, she filled the world with truth, beauty and unending delight.


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