Bang, Bang, Smash, Smash

Rosemary Hill

  • Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear
    Allen Lane, 584 pp, £25.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9560 2

‘How amusing Aunt Harriet is, she is more like a weasel than ever.’ From an early age Beatrix Potter, a pretty, if disconcertingly observant child, saw the similarities between humans and other species: the childlike bravado of rabbits, the self-interest of certain cats and the unmistakeable resemblance of a middle-aged woman in a panic to a duck in a bonnet and shawl. Her family, friends and the innumerable pets she kept all her life were the objects of her study and became, eventually, the material of her art. She published nothing until she was in her thirties and even then, though she took immense trouble over her ‘little books’, she was modestly dismissive of them. The year before her death in 1943, when she was world-famous, she wrote to a friend that really she had done nothing: ‘I have just made stories to please myself because I never grew up.’ That was not entirely true. In time she did grow up into a strong-minded, effective and happily married woman. But circumstances prolonged her childhood to the point where she could bring an adult’s perception to bear on its experiences. It was this, perhaps, that enabled her to articulate the child’s view of life so well.

The daughter of wealthy Unitarians, she was born in London in 1866. Her father, who was a lawyer, inherited a share of the Potter family fortune, which came from a calico works at Dinting Vale in Derbyshire. As Nonconformists still rather too close to their roots in trade, the Potters were awkwardly placed in mid-Victorian Kensington. Their friends included the ageing Radical John Bright and Elizabeth Gaskell’s widower, William. But smart society was closed to them and this was something that Beatrix’s mother, Helen, seems to have minded deeply. A grim-faced little woman, she apparently occupied herself entirely with a round of calls and with ordering and re-ordering her carriage at whatever time would make it most difficult for her daughter to go out. As Beatrix grew up she chafed ever more against her mother’s whim of iron and came to refer to her as ‘the enemy’. She remembered the family home in Bolton Gardens, her ‘unloved birthplace’, with so little affection that when it was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War she was ‘rather pleased’.

Linda Lear suggests, plausibly, that the grimness of Potter’s childhood was exaggerated by her earlier biographers. Certainly it was materially comfortable but it was strikingly austere. The older Potters were affectionate in their way but their social insecurity meant that Beatrix and her brother, Bertie, nearly six years her junior, had few friends of their own age. Nor were they allowed, as Unitarians, to celebrate Christmas. It was the pets they bought or more often caught, during holidays in the country, that provided most of their social and imaginative life. Rabbits, frogs, snakes, a lizard called Judy and the Bills, a family of snails who showed ‘a surprising difference of character’, were among those who shared the children’s nursery. They also made occasional impromptu excursions from it of the sort that were later to feature in the Tale of Two Bad Mice. ‘Sally [a snake] and four black newts escaped overnight,’ Beatrix recorded in her journal. ‘Caught one black newt in school room and another in larder, but nothing seen of poor Sally.’

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