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to Beatrix Potter Biography
Beatrix Potter was not the daughter her Victorian mother expected.
Reticent rather than shy, she was a sharp observer of society but a reluctant participant
in it. She commented wryly on people in a journal written in a secret code, and
listened intently to conversation, picking up dialect and delighting in the sound
of words, like "lippity, lippity" and "soporific." Her Highland nurse had filled
her young head with witches, fairies, rebellious wee folk and salty common sense.
She was an early and voracious reader, appreciating Sir Walter Scott as much as
Edward Lear. She enjoyed a remarkable memory, an ear for language, a precocious
imagination and a delicious, often irreverent sense of humor. Taken together, such
qualities made Beatrix Potter a masterful teller of tales for children. But Mrs
Potter's hope for a more conventional daughter, content to make social calls and
able to make an advantageous marriage, meant that she was forever a disappointment
to her mother.
Art was her first passion generously providing challenges for her increasingly accomplished
paint brush. Nature was her second. The third floor school room in the family's
London house, became a menagerie, tolerated by the authorities, since the family,
like many Victorians at the time, shared in the enthusiasm for natural history.
Rabbits were early pets and favourite subjects, but so was a company of mice. Beatrix
preferred common wild ones which she found the most intelligent and amusing. Sometimes
she let one loose to run about the rooms until she flapped a pocket handkerchief
whereupon it would come out to fight and could be captured. She painted birds, insects,
landscapes, and furniture-- almost anything that came to view-- wondering at least
once after she caught herself making a fine copy of a swill bucket, "Why cannot
one be content to look at [ an object]? I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor
the result." Her pets were substitutes for friends her own age, but her youth was
rich in opportunities to read and to explore and investigate the natural world.
Beatrix Potter was always acutely aware of her physical surroundings; the tiniest
details of the interiors of houses where she stayed on holidays, the old furniture
in her uncle's house in Wales, the arrangement of household spaces, and the shapes
and forms of farm buildings in Scotland and the Lake District. This acuity was reinforced
by her constant sketching that distilled the essence of rooms, sheds and gardens
into mental images which would later distinguish her little books and imprint themselves
on generations of memory.
Art lessons were provided but Beatrix found them barely tolerable. She politely
rebelled, secretly worried that copying another artist would compromise her own
originality, and hoped that she "wouldn't catch it." More to her liking were outings
with her father, an sometime amateur photographer, to the great art galleries of
London which constituted her real artistic apprenticeship. Her education was limited
only by her capacity to observe. Although she experimented with a variety of media,
by 19 she had chosen watercolour and was rapidly perfecting her dry-brush technique.
With her younger brother Bertram out of the nursery and off at boarding school,
Beatrix appropriated his microscope to draw the details of her insect specimens.
She drew the trivial and the extraordinary: a ground beetle under different magnifications;
a wonderfully hairy jumping spider, and the colourful segments of a privet hawk
moth's wing. She was also unsentimental about her pets. When an animal fell ill,
she made certain it had a swift and merciful end. Bertram had left a pair of long-eared
bats which she enjoyed sketching but which became difficult to keep. She released
one and chloroformed the other, rarer specimen, taking its precise measurements,
and then stuffing it. Already there was humour in her art. She painted a fine weasel
capturing the sinuous body under a glossy thick coat, observing that it reminded
her of an especially tart-tongued aunt.
Beatrix took herself and her passions seriously. Stunning drawings of her pets,
of delicately coloured fungi, of fossils and archeological artifacts were all part
of her efforts to find something useful to do with her life. She calculated that
stuffy drawing rooms and endless teas would never bring her a feeling of self-respect
or independence. She had always enjoyed creating a fantasy world around her pets,
adorning them with hats, scarfs, and coats, and by 1891 she had even sold some of
her drawings as illustrations for a book of rhymes and as greeting cards. When a
former governess suggested she might make a book out of a charming picture letter
she had written to her son about a disobedient rabbit named Peter, Beatrix sought
a publisher willing to take a risk on an unknown author and illustrator.
Beatrix had firm ideas about how she wanted her book to look, insisting it be small
enough for little hands to hold, that text and illustrations be on separate pages,
and that the price be as low as possible. The firm of Frederick Warne & Co. had
already rejected her story, but they acknowledged that there was a market for small
picture books and Mr. Norman Warne, the youngest member of the family firm, decided
to have another look at Miss Potter's Tale of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix was then 35
years old, a spinster by the standards of the day.
Negotiations dragged on, requiring meetings and extended correspondence with Mr
Warne, whom Beatrix reluctantly acknowledged had good judgement about the publishing
business. But so did Beatrix Potter. She happily distributed copies of her private
edition to enthusiastic readers, passing along the interest of shop-keepers and
repeated requests for multiple copies. She had agreed to coloured illustrations,
so that when a contract was finally signed in 1902, she went to work redrawing the
illustrations, using a new young rabbit, as the original Peter had died the previous
year. She participated in all the negotiations for publication, commenting on colour,
hue, margin, and especially language and pace, always dealing with Norman Warne.
Beatrix worked tirelessly, as happy as she had ever been. "I hope the little book
will be a success [as] there seems to be a great deal of trouble being taken with
it.". It was of course. The first printing sold out even before publication, and
by the sixth even Beatrix was surprised that the public seemed so very fond of rabbits.
She had achieved her goal of having some money of her own, even a bit of independence.
But she had also created a new form of animal fable: one in which admittedly anthropomorphic
animals behave always as real animals with true animal instinct and were accurately
drawn by a scientific illustrator.
Frederick Warne & Company had a new bestselling author, and Beatrix Potter had a
seemingly endless supply of ideas. The happy collaboration between author and editor
produced four additional little books by June 1905: The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin;
The Tailor of Gloucester, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and The Tale of Two Bad Mice.
A fifth, The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, was nearly finished when Norman Warne boldly
wrote Miss Potter asking her to marry him. Although Beatrix never visited the Warne
offices in Covent Garden without a chaperone, their happiness together, their creative
synergy, and their respect for each other had deepened into love. Beatrix saw herself
as one of Jane Austen's heroines whose story had "finally come right".
But such a romance was not what Mrs. Potter had expected. She had been suspicious
of the increasing number of letters, then alarmed at how often Beatrix visited the
publishing house. Norman Warne came from a family in trade, a horrifying prospect
as a son-in-law for a family that had worked so hard to vanish the taint of their
own manufacturing backgrounds. Mr Potter agreed: Beatrix would not marry Mr Norman
Warne. But they had not reckoned on their daughter's determination, courage, or
character. A quiet but desperate struggle of wills ensued. Beatrix would wear Norman's
ring but no engagement would be mentioned -even to family.
Beatrix dutifully left for the summer in Wales. She would never see Norman Warne
again or have another letter from him. His death from a virulent form of leukemia
occurred only a month after she had received and accepted his proposal of marriage.
She lost her own love story, but she preserved Norman's memory in every subsequent
little book she wrote.
And write she did, until at last in 1913, her grief was assuaged by the beauty of
the Lake District, her rigorous life as a sheep farmer, and finally the acceptance
of another gentle, quiet man who shared not her love of fantasy, but her real love
of the land. Her mother had been right of course. Beatrix was not the daughter she
expected. (1464) (c) Linda Lear (Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, Penguin, Allen
Copyright (c) Frederick Warne & Co., 2007
Images reproduced by kind permission of Frederick Warne & Co.
© copyright 2006 -
All Rights Reserved
Frederick Warne & Co. is the owner of all rights,
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