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Beatrix Potter Biography And Visits


Natural History Museum - close to Beatrix Potter's house in London


The nineteenth century was a time of unprecedented change. Beliefs which had endured for centuries were in retreat, superceded by an increasingly scientific world view. There was an inevitable reaction. The nineteenth century was a time of scientific revolution, but also a time when activities such as spiritualism and table turning went through crazes of popularity. Nature was idealised, becoming a kind of lost Eden. One of the most powerful manifestations of this reaction was an idealisation of childhood, and the advent of an imaginative literature for children. Writing for children has its origins in the late 1850s and early 1860s, with the work of authors such as Charles Kingsley. Beatrix Potter, whose most creative period spanned the years 1901 to 1913, provides an interesting twist in the story of children's literature. This writer famous for imagining hedgehogs as washer women, was in reality a frustrated scientist. Indeed if it hadn't been for the narrow minded attitudes of the scientific establishment of her day, she would have worked as a scientist, probably specialising in the study of fungi. In many ways the keen observation of a scientist, denied an official outlet, was then put into writing, where accurate detail of animal behaviour was dramatised in human terms. Beatrix Potter is a fascinating meeting of scientific revolution and imaginative reaction against it.

Beatrix Potter's parents, Rupert and Helen Potter were moderately wealthy, thanks to inheritance from family on both sides who had made fortunes in the Lancashire cotton industry. Rupert, a dour man of regular habits had chambers at Lincoln's Inn law school, but he never practiced law. Instead he passed his days at the Athenaeum and Reform Clubs, going on regular holidays, and pursuing his hobby of photography - in which he developed considerable skill. The Potters' home at 2, Bolton Gardens, West Brompton, west London, was a somber place, dominated by the sound a a large grandfather clock in the hall. It was here on 29th July 1866 that Helen Beatrix Potter was born. Beatrix then had a solitary childhood, only briefly relieved by the birth of a brother when she was aged five. But Bertram was sent away to school as soon as he was old enough, and his sister was left alone again. She wasn't sent to school, as her parents believed it wasn't the done thing for people of their station to educate girls. Beatrix, however, had a kind of obsessive intelligence, which could not help developing. Indeed she felt that being kept at home with governesses helped her educate herself in her own way. She quickly began to show an interest in close observation of the natural world. She loved trips to the prosperous farm at Camfield Place in Hertfordshire, the home of Rupert's father. She would also make the most of long family summer holidays, which for the first seventeen years of her life were taken at Dalguise in Scotland. Here the budding naturalist had plenty of scope. She and Bertram would, largely in secret, collect all kinds of animal and plant specimens. Some they kept as live pets. Any animals they found dead would be regularly skinned and boiled so that their skeletons could be studied. Careful drawings would be made of specimens, drawings in which accurate observation was already combined with imaginative visions of animals wearing bonnets and mufflers. Attempts were even made to print home made books, using an old printing press found in a store room. Remarkably the Potter children cooked up improvised ink, made from soot and colza oil, but the results made such a mess that their tidy minded parents confiscated their press.


The Lake District.

In 1882 the Potters moved their holiday location from Scotland to the Lake District. They started renting a fanciful building called Wray Castle on the shores of Lake Windermere. The local vicar, Canon Rawnsley, met Beatrix and as a keen naturalist himself, became interested in her work. He suggested that her drawings were good enough to sell professionally, and suggested the birthday card and nursery rhyme illustration market. In December 1890 the firm of Hildesheimer and Faulkner paid £6 for a drawing of Beatrix's pet rabbit Benjamin. Meanwhile Beatrix was also writing letters to the children of her former governess Annie Carter, who was now married as Mrs Moore. By 1893 the letters were telling illustrated stories based on the lives of Beatrix's pets. A story about Peter Rabbit, addressed to young Noel Moore was the first of these little stories. But at the time it was by no means clear that these stories would lead to anything. Beatrix was still putting her effort and hopes into her scientific work. When not in the Lake District Beatrix would satisfy her hunger for natural history at the British Museum for Natural History - now the Natural History Museum - which was close to her home. Visits to the Natural History Museum had begun years before with governesses. She then started going alone, spending many hours looking at the exhibits and studying any available literature. The scientific discipline she was most interested in was mycology - the study of fungi. She harboured an ambition to write an illustrated book of fungi, and in 1896 a scientific uncle, the chemist Sir Henry Roscoe, decided to try and help. Seeing that his niece had talent Roscoe arranged for her to meet with senior scientists at Kew Gardens. Unfortunately the men at Kew were very dismissive of amateurs, especially amateurs who were women. They did not approve of such people having their own ideas. This young amateur, for example, suggested to the luminaries at Kew Gardens that lichens are actually dual organisms, fungi living in close association with algae. As it turned out she was completely correct in this, as a German researcher, unknown to Beatrix, had already found out. Instead of being impressed with her insight, the Kew scientists dismissed her, much to the annoyance of Uncle Roscoe. To get his own back, Roscoe encouraged his niece to write a paper based on her research, which led to The Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae. This paper was presented at the Linnaean Society - not that Beatrix could present it herself, as being a woman she was barred from the society.

Clearly there was little real hope of a scientific career for a woman in the 1890s. Beatrix went back to her life of observation, drawing, keeping a diary written in a secret code, and writing picture letters to the Moore children. All sorts of experiences went into these picture letters. Staying with her cousin, Caroline Hutton, she was told a story about a tailor in Gloucester who was working on a waistcoat for a local dignitary to wear at a special occasion. Despairing of finishing it on time he had gone to bed, only to find that the waistcoat was finished in the morning, except for a button hole which had a note attached to it saying "no more twist". This apparent miracle was in reality the result of the tailors' assistants deciding to help their boss by working into the night, but Beatrix thought that helpful mice would be a more interesting explanation. She drove into Gloucester to do sketches of old streets around the cathedral. Later she sketched Cotswold cottage interiors, and persuaded a coachman's boy to sit cross legged on a table in the traditional pose of a tailor at work. Rawnsley was shown some of Beatrix's illustrated stories in the Lake District in 1896, and encouraged extending her picture letters into story books for publication. Getting the Peter Rabbit letter back from Noel, now aged twelve, Beatrix turned the letter into a book, which was ready by December 1901. Finding that no publisher would take it, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published privately in a run of 250 copies. With the printed book in her hands, Beatrix thought she might as well send it once again to one of the publishers she had previously approached. She chose Frederick Warne and Co. who at least had shown some interest before rejecting the manuscript. Company owner Frederick Warne had a second look at The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, and decided he had made a mistake. In February 1902 he offered to publish the book. The Tale of Peter Rabbit published by Warne and Co. was an immediate success.


Hill Top - this image is by Chris Brown and is copyright free

The books then kept on coming, with Frederick Warne's son Norman working closely with Beatrix Potter. Norman was warm, friendly, good with children, and unmarried. As Norman and Beatrix grew closer they had to put up with the sour disapproval of Mr and Mrs Potter, who didn't think a book publisher was a fitting match for their daughter. During the summer of 1905 Norman Warne proposed marriage, and was accepted, inspite of the Potters' disapproval. But tragically within a few weeks Norman suddenly became ill, and was diagnosed with leukemia. He died in late August, after an engagement lasting less than a month. Beatrix, hopefully, found some consolation in her work, and in the great success of her story about a fastidious hedgehog called Mrs Tiggywinkle, which she had worked on with Norman. According to biographer Margaret Lane, 36,000 copies of Mrs Tiggywinkle were sold in the first few weeks after publication (see The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter P138). Sadly the real Mrs Tiggywinkle, Beatrix's pet hedgehog, died soon after the book about her was published. She was buried in the garden at Number 2 Bolton Gardens, which now lies beneath the playground of Bousfield Primary School. The engagement to Norman Warne may have been a false dawn, but the success of the book she had worked on with him, gave the promise of a real new beginning. Using some of her new wealth Beatrix purchased a farm called Hill Top in the Lake District village of Near Sawrey, presenting the purchase to her parents as an investment. Hill Top really was a turning point in the life of Beatrix Potter. The farm could not yet be a home, but it was a valued bolt hole, maintained by the former tenants when its new owner wasn't there. The Pie and the Patty Pan written at the time of the Hill Top purchase has the farm as a backdrop.



Herdwick sheep in the Lake District

Beatrix began to spend more time at Hill Top looking after her "investment" and working on her books, which were appearing at the average rate of two a year. In the summer of 1909 Beatrix bought Castle Farm adjoining Hill Top. During negotiations for the purchase, William Heelis of Ambleside solicitors W. Heelis and Sons became friendly with his client. In the autumn of 1912 William Heelis asked Beatrix to marry him. Beatrix's parents were by now in old age and perhaps didn't have the energy to put up much of a fight. This marriage really marked the end of Beatrix Potter's career as a writer. Her last sucessful story was The Tale Of Pigling Bland written not long before her wedding. The story describes the adventures of two pigs who eventually escape to Westmoreland. Beatrix Potter made the same escape. She became a successful, hard working farmer, her new life lasting over thirty years. She also became rather crusty and formidable, which gave a nasty shock to one or two biographers who tried to meet with what they assumed would be the charming person behind the charming stories. Beatrix Potter had left the building, choosing a very private and traditional kind of life working the land and living in a quaint cottage. Her new life was in many ways a version of the rural idyll which became popular in the wake of the industrial revolution. But for thirteen years Beatrix Potter had held together two contrasting currents of the new age, the advance of science, and the imaginative reaction it threw up.


Books By Beatrix Potter