Above all, Beatrix Potter is known for her perfect, tiny books for children. There is Peter Rabbit, of course, and Benjamin Bunny, but her talent went beyond rabbits: Jemima Puddle-Duck and Two Bad Mice and Jeremy Fisher and Tom Kitten and dozens of others sprang from her imagination and her pen over the years. The stories strike that difficult balance between pragmatism and whimsy (the animals dress in charming anthropomorphic knickers and bonnets, but they are predators and prey, nonetheless), and the drawings are delightful, living illustrations of real animals, anatomically perfect, in their proper surroundings of English town and countryside. In Linda Lear’s biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, it is explained thoroughly, lovingly, and with great care how each of these books came to be, where Potter gained her skill and experience, and where she observed the surroundings for the illustrations. The biography is not without flaws, but overall it is a thorough, interesting piece of work, and one I both learned a great deal from and enjoyed reading.
Beatrix Potter was a Victorian woman. She was born in 1866, the younger daughter of wealthy merchant parents, and no one could have expected that she would do what she did with her life. She had a sickly childhood (though even then she adored animals, and surrounded herself with mice, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, and rabbits), and her parents did not expect that she would marry. Potter resigned herself to caring for her aging parents and taking what time she could spare for her favorite hobbies: drawing, painting, amateur botany (a very popular hobby in the Victorian era, though less among women — Potter was far ahead of her time in mycology, the study of fungus), and the care of her animals.
Instead, her drawings and the letters she wrote to young children gradually turned into books. With the help of friends, at first, she brought the books to a publisher — F.W. Warne & Co. — and The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, and soon others followed. They were, of course, a phenomenal success. Potter had found a way to make an income for herself in the time she could get away from her parents, and she was a born publicist: she oversaw all the licensing for Peter Rabbit dolls, wallpaper, games, coloring books, and even special bookcases that would hold the tiny books. Year after year, she worked with Harold Warne and his family to create her literary legacy.
And her income did not lie idle. It went toward her true passion, which was farming and the preservation of the wild, beautiful fells in the Lake District. Potter, now in her forties, bought Hill Top Farm and began to raise sheep. She also bought land with the intention of donating it to the National Trust. It was through her purchases of land and her need to manage multiple farms and large flocks of livestock that she met William Heelis, a local solicitor. At the age of fifty, she fell in love, defied her parents’ wishes, and married him. Then began a whole second life for Potter, one of which most of her fans are unaware: for the next thirty years she wrote no books, but farmed with her husband, raised sheep and cattle, and preserved thousands of acres of land from development so that a corner of the north of England could remain wholly unspoiled. Another legacy, this time not literary, but still artistic and still precious.
The biography wasn’t perfect. Lear attributed too many emotions to Potter without being able to support her claims (things like “this must have boosted her mood,” or “this surely would have depressed her,” etc.) I would have liked to see evidence from letters or diaries. There was also a lot too much of “Potter stood on the hill with her hat in her hand, looking at the blue sky, and sighed.” How do you know? Were you there? Give me evidence or give me death! There is a very great deal about Potter’s relationship with her mother (Lear sees it as viciously negative) that seems almost completely unsupported. That drove me a bit crazy. But overlooking the nitpicks, this was a very well-done, well-written, interesting biography of an interesting woman. It was fascinating to me, for instance, that as a farmer, Potter tended to hire women on her farm, as managers and laborers. She offered a “fair wage” (usually double what others were offering) and got extremely high-quality work. It’s clear that her own experiences working as a woman had affected her opinions, and that they affected the farmers in her district, too. Another fascinating aspect was Potter’s correspondence with the children’s book-writing community in America: Bertha Mahony of the Horn Book, for instance. Despite its flaws, I recommend this biography very highly, for lovers of Peter Rabbit and for lovers of human nature.