Why the real Beatrix Potter was more than her children’s tales
As a new exhibition at the V&A Museum in London celebrates the life and inspirations of the beloved children’s author, Sarah Gristwood considers how the much-forgotten elements of Beatrix’s Potter’s work make her so extraordinary…
Everyone – surely – knows Beatrix Potter? The creator of characters such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Tom Kitten and Pigling Bland?
Her creations are familiar, but as is often the case the real person behind them is rather surprising. This month, a new exhibition at the V&A, ‘Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature’, is celebrating the beauty and accuracy of those countless, eponymous, drawings. But it also pays tribute to her whole, wider, legacy.
Beatrix Potter’s life fell into three distinct phases, and the ‘little books’ that made her famous occupied only the shortest of them. Born in 1866, she spent more than 30 years in education, as a Victorian young lady dominated by her family. Perhaps unexpectedly, as she was later famous for her stories of the countryside, she was forced to spend much of her life in city streets.
“My brother and I were born in London because my father was a lawyer there,” she wrote in her later life, “but our descent – our interest and our joy was in the north country.” Her salvation was the long summer holidays her family spent first in Scotland, then in the Lake District.
A sheltered childhood
She and her brother Bertram would travel north and back with a menagerie of pets – a jay and an owl, a hedgehog (called Mrs Tiggy), rats and bats, and a whole succession of rabbits, which Beatrix used to take out on a dog lead.
“Even the usually idiotic hutch rabbit is capable of developing strong character, if taken in hand when quite young,” she wrote. But though devoted to her pets she was quite unsentimental, even boiling the skeleton when an animal died to study bone structure for her drawings. As a 15-year-old, she wrote in her journal: “The chestnut horse is disposed of at last. Papa sent Reynolds to the Zoological Gardens to enquire the price of cat’s meat: £2 for a very fat horse, 30/-[shillings] for a middling one, thin ones not taken as the lions are particular.”
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That coded diary, which Potter kept from her mid-teens until the age of 30, often recorded feelings of despair. (The code was not cracked until the 1950s, years after her death.) As she grew up in the restricted world of an unmarried daughter at home, she wrote of how she feared the future, how she longed to be “underground”. “Only a year,” she once wrote, “but if it’s like the last it will be a lifetime… There is nothing to be done, I must watch things pass.” She wrote of how only painting could help “when I have had a bad time come over me”.
In the 1890s, Potter’s interest in the natural world turned to serious research in mycology – though, she wrote, “of all hopeless things to draw, I should think the very worst is a fine fat fungus”. She tackled the vexed question of how fungi reproduce themselves, formulating the theory that they spread through an underground form, a mould. On 1 April 1897, the prestigious Linnean Society of London recorded a paper being read: ‘On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae’ by Miss Helen B Potter (Beatrix’s full name).
The paper was sponsored by George Massee of Kew Gardens since, as a woman, Potter could not present it herself; though well received it was not then published. Her accurate drawings, however, are still admired by scientists. Though some of her conclusions, inevitably, have now been superseded, in 1997 the Linnean Society acknowledged that she was “treated scurvily”. But Potter’s real problem was that life in the family home was still a constrained one. She was in her mid-thirties before, in 1901, she paid for The Tale of Peter Rabbit to be printed privately.
The birth of the famous Tales
The Tale had begun life as a picture letter, sent to the son of her old governess. Though the mischievous Peter has always been the public’s favourite character, he was no favourite of Potter. “At one time I almost loathed Peter Rabbit, I was so sick of him”, she later wrote. Soon, however, a publisher brought out a commercial version of Peter’s Tale. It had to be reprinted six times within the space of a year, and other books quickly followed: The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, of the hedgehog Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, of Two Bad Mice and Mr Jeremy Fisher. The vast majority of her famous ‘little books’ would be written over a comparatively short period – the next dozen years.
Potter would be passionately involved in every aspect of her stories, from the layout of the books to the materials used for the merchandise. They were accompanied by everything from rabbit dolls to wallpaper, slippers to stationery; “sideshows’, as she called them, that were as successful as the books themselves. Her flow of stories had brought her increasingly close to her publisher Norman Warne, and in July 1905, despite her parents’ disapproval, they agreed to marry. But it was not to be. Just a month after the engagement, Warne died, leaving Potter once more a ‘spinster daughter’ at home – facing “painful unpleasantness” from her parents about her work – although she was almost 40.
Finding solace in the Lake District
Potter had, before Warne’s death, begun negotiating to buy Hill Top farm in the Lake District, in the village of Near Sawrey where she had spent family holidays. The weeks she was able to snatch up to spend there, away from her parents, became a lifeline as, for the next eight years, she continued to produce her twice-yearly books. The house and village – and the animals she knew there – featured regularly in her stories. “It is in here I go to be quiet and still with myself”, she once told a young relative. And it was in the Lakes that the next great phase of her life would begin.
In October 1913 Potter married the Lake District solicitor William Heelis, who had helped with her continuing purchases of property in the area. “He is 42 (I am 47) very quiet – dreadfully shy, but I’m sure he will be more comfortable married,” she wrote in a letter to her cousin Fanny. “We have every prospect of happiness – if it pleases Heaven.” Happily, it did – despite Potter’s evident qualms. A relative described Beatrix and William as two horses in front of the same plough. They settled into Castle Cottage, just across a meadow from Hill Top, which was kept as a writing retreat, a repository for all Potter’s treasures – and it remains a place of pilgrimage for Potter fans today.
By this time in her life, she had already begun to produce books less frequently, and more reluctantly. Now the flow dwindled to a trickle, as other interests evidently came to the fore. The recently-released 1921 census lists ‘Helen Beatrix Heelis’ under the profession of ‘farmer’.
“Somehow when one is up to the eyes in work with real live animals it makes one despise paper-book-animals,” she wrote. She was immersed in the practical business of farming; the “horrid slaughter” of the turkeys; crops and cost; knowing her sheep and the fells on which they grazed “like a shepherd”. She became a breeder, judge, and conservator of the tough Herdwick sheep, and a famous local figure in her well-worn tweeds.
She also, in the 1920s and 30s, became a passionate defender of the Lake District, which was threatened with extensive development for holiday homes. Working together with the National Trust, which had been founded in 1895, she was able to buy and to preserve some of Britain’s most spectacular scenery, from the dramatic beauty of Tarn Hows to the brooding mystery of Troutbeck. “It seems that we have done a big thing”, she wrote, after purchasing the huge Monk Coniston estate to leave to the Trust in her will, on the understanding they would give her half the cost once they could raise the money. She bequeathed the Trust, in the end, more than 4,000 acres – some 15 farms, forests and houses. It is a vital part of her legacy.
An enduring legacy
But interest in her other world, the world she created, never died away. More than 150 million copies of Beatrix Potter’s books have been sold; they’ve been translated into more than 35 languages, from Latin to Lowland Scots; while screen versions of Peter Rabbit keep on coming. And she herself, though she may have stepped back from the books’ production line, never ceased to inhabit the world of her characters, often writing to young fans with the continuation of their stories. In the 1920s (as we know from the 2020 TV film Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of a Curious Mouse) a young Roald Dahl was just one of the admirers who travelled to meet her at her Lakeland retreat.
A hitherto unseen letter in the V&A exhibition, to another child, has Squirrel Nutkin writing to Old Brown Owl requesting his tail back… only to be told crossly that Owl has eaten it, and it nearly choked him. That letter displays not only the way in which her characters continued to live for Potter, but the lack of sentimentality that came from her observations of the natural world.
Alongside the sheer naturalism of the animal drawings, the ‘little books’ breathe another kind of almost brutal reality. Think of Peter Rabbit, told not to go into Mr McGregor’s garden: “Your father had an accident there – he was put into a pie.” Jemima Puddle-Duck is rescued from the fox, but the dog rescuers themselves gobble up her eggs. Little Pig Robinson sobs with terror on a ship’s deck when he realises just why the cook brought him on board. Beatrix Potter’s work takes us into the terrors and harsh realities of that world of childhood. Perhaps that’s why it still feels fresh and urgent.
Beatrix Potter often described herself as a child who never grew up – who never ceased listening to the fairy voices she heard coming from the hills and fells. When she died in 1943, she left instructions that her ashes should be scattered in a secret location, on the slope above Hill Top where her creation Jemima Puddle-Duck had managed to take flight. (She’d been, she said, like Jemima, flapping around the village of Sawrey.)
The V&A exhibition, ‘Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature’, aims to celebrate all the many ways in which she related to the natural world – as artist and naturalist, farmer and conservationist, humourist and dreamer. At a time when we are all – individually and as a society – exploring that relationship, perhaps the multi-faceted nature of her approach is what still makes her so fascinating even today.
A new exhibition, Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, opens at the V&A on 12 February 2022