‘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.’
From an early age she drew compulsively and documented her animals living and dead. She was attached to them, but not sentimental. When pets died, or were chloroformed to put an end to their suffering, they were boiled down so that she and Bertie could draw the skeletons. This was still the age of popular amateur science and, despite Darwin, the natural world could be studied safely by the pious with the aid of Philip Gosse’s Evenings at the Microscope. Potter, with her brother’s microscope and the encouragement of her father, developed into an accomplished naturalist and botanical artist.
It was the ideal childhood for a writer, intense, isolated and untrammelled by school. ‘Thank goodness, my education was neglected,’ she later wrote, again somewhat misleadingly, for she was well taught at home, read German fluently and knew much of Shakespeare by heart, but no outside influence clouded the vividness of her own earliest impressions or her memory of them. Late in life she recalled what it felt like to wear the ‘absurdly uncomfortable’ clothes into which the Victorian child was squeezed, the ‘white piqué starched frocks’ and the velvet hair ribbons ‘fastened with a bit of elastic looped over a button behind the ear’ that was so tight it gave her a headache. Difficulties with clothes occur in many of her books. Peter Rabbit’s expression of resigned discomfort as his mother buttons his coat up too tightly under his chin, Tom Kitten’s wide-eyed dismay as the buttons fly off his Sunday suit, and numerous accidents to pinafores are among the details that give the tales their realism. Most of her characters, in their mixture of human and animal attributes, are essentially children, struggling to walk on their hind legs, to control their impulses and keep out of the way of authority. Like Victorian children they often live in the hidden parts of a house and their excursions into forbidden areas, the parlour or the kitchen or the vegetable garden, are fraught with danger, while like all children they are constantly at risk of being suddenly picked up and carried away.
Despite its privations, Potter felt a terrible melancholy as her childhood seemed to be drawing to an end. Her brother went to school, her beloved grandparents died and she felt terribly alone as she embarked on ‘the dark journey of life’. But despite a modest coming-out party the journey was not to begin just yet. She was seriously ill with rheumatic fever, and her parents’ natural concern for her health, combined with their impossible social and religious standards, meant that marriage, the only respectable way to leave home, was a remote possibility. Among her cousins several got away, passing beyond the pale, from the Potters’ point of view, by taking husbands who were in trade or the army or – as a last resort – intermarrying with other cousins. ‘If this is what beauty leads to, I am well content to have a red nose,’ Potter wrote sternly in her journal. Her physical fragility and a certain timidity perhaps, combined with the loyalty and generosity of character that she showed all her life, made rebellion out of the question. Instead, she pursued her interests in geology, palaeontology and fungi, smuggling samples of dry rot into Bolton Gardens to examine them in detail. Lear, who has a particular interest in writers on natural science, makes a strong case for the originality and importance of Potter’s work on symbiosis and hybridisation, research that was overlooked or never fully developed because she was an amateur and a woman.
Symbiosis and hybridisation might also be said to characterise Potter’s own life and work as she approached her mid-twenties and the prospect of almost certain spinsterhood. The last years of the 19th century saw social conventions harden. If there was decadence in the air in Chelsea that was only cause for more anxiety and gathering up of moral skirts in middle-class Kensington. Continuing to live as best she could in the interstices of her parents’ eccentric and suffocating regime, Potter found a complement to her scientific work and an outlet for her imagination in drawings and stories about animal characters, Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher and the Flopsy Bunnies, whose adventures were written out as letters to friends’ children or drawn as place cards for family dinners. It was these, rather than the fungi, which eventually opened up a possibility of some financial independence. With the help of an uncle she got some of her designs published in 1890 as a series of Christmas and New Year cards. The model for them was her beloved Benjamin Bouncer: ‘What an investment that rabbit has been,’ she wrote, ‘in spite of the hutches.’ But there were to be another 12 years of dutifully constrained family life before she signed the contract for Peter Rabbit in 1902.
The turn of the 20th century was a momentous period for children’s literature. In 1865, the year before Potter’s birth, Alice in Wonderland appeared, igniting what Harvey Darton called ‘a volcano’ under the idea of childhood itself; now the children of Alice effected another great eruption, throwing off the constraints of the previous 35 years. Potter’s own tales, once begun, flowed in a constant stream. Peter Rabbit was followed by the Tailor of Gloucester, Squirrel Nutkin and the rest, 15 books in seven years. E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It was published in 1902, Peter Pan was performed for the first time in 1904, The Railway Children appeared in 1906 and Wind in the Willows in 1908. The Edwardians made childhood their own and in so far as the age is still thought of as a time of innocence and safety that must be because so many people first encounter it as the age of Tinkerbell, Mole and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
Not, of course, that these are entirely comfortable books any more than they were comfortable times. There is nothing in Potter so menacing as the stoats and weasels who take over Toad Hall or as sinister as most of Peter Pan, but her books have their share of danger and bad behaviour. ‘Bang, bang, smash, smash,’ go the two bad mice as they break up the doll’s house furniture with energetic glee, and the chilling single-sentence paragraph in the Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit, ‘This is a man with a gun,’ is followed by a vivid depiction of rabbit ears and tail flying off in opposite directions. Potter’s favourite authors were Jane Austen and Fanny Burney, writers who have also sometimes been underestimated as purveyors of mere prettiness. Like them Potter achieved her comic and dramatic effects through precise, restrained observation. Her gardens and landscapes are all drawn from nature. Her animals are zoologically correct, their houses, or those they inhabit, are replete with the accurately rendered old oak furniture, patchwork quilts, willow pattern and lustreware that appealed to the country taste of Edwardian aesthetes. There is a little joke in Peter Rabbit at the expense of Anna Lea Merritt’s popular painting Love Locked Out, when Peter is, in fact, locked in. Potter argued against any attempt by her editors to prettify or simplify her stories, insisting that ‘children like a fine word occasionally’: ‘soporific’, ‘paduasoy’, ‘retail business’.
In these and the other great children’s books of the early 20th century it is the child’s point of view and the child’s imaginative experience that triumphs over the adult. The underlying story is the one told directly in Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, published in 1907, the tale of ‘a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs’. Potter’s experience had been very much like Gosse’s, a childhood dominated by Nonconformist rigidity and by demanding and controlling parents. Even when she was enjoying entirely respectable success as a children’s writer her mother and father were more embarrassed and anxious than pleased. Yet her response could not be more different from Gosse’s. Personally and intellectually she disliked confrontation. It may be that she had suffered so much from one theoretical view of life that she could never countenance another. Darwinism and its implications, the rock on which Gosse’s father, the author of Evenings at the Microscope, wrecked his scientific career, was a matter that Potter, even as a naturalist, was prepared to leave unresolved. To her cousin Caroline Hutton, a convinced Darwinian, she would admit that ‘truth is truth’ but she preferred not to pursue the implications of such ideas and their unsettling consequences. On the religious side she was equally undogmatic: ‘What possible difference does it make to anyone today,’ she wrote, ‘whether the doctrine of the resurrection is correct or incorrect … Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest.’ She believed in what her books portray: a relationship between humans and other animals that is evident but unexplained.
Peter Rabbit was an immediate success and soon the public was eagerly awaiting each new volume. But the halfway point in her most productive years was marked by a crisis, the moment when the long-delayed end of childhood came at last in the form of personal tragedy. Among her few permissible solo expeditions were visits to her publishers, Frederick Warne & Co, in Bedford Street, where Norman Warne was her editor. They became increasingly fond of each other, but when Norman, two years her junior and socially quite out of the question, invited her for lunch to his brother’s house in Surbiton, Mrs Potter put her foot down. Norman gallantly persisted, however, and in 1905 proposed to the 39-year-old Potter, who accepted. It was her first truly independent action and it provoked the first explicit rift in the family. Eventually, after terrible scenes, her parents consented to a secret engagement with no definite prospect of a marriage. A month later, Norman died of leukaemia. Potter’s grief seems to have been remarkably free of bitterness or self-pity, though she wrote poignantly to his sister that she had been rereading Persuasion the day after she received his last letter and had hoped that ‘my story had come right with patience & waiting like Anne Eliott’s [sic] did.’
Into the books that followed over the next five years she poured an even greater intensity of effort and visual imagination than before, finding comfort in drawing and writing the tales of Tom Kitten, Jeremy Fisher and Jemima Puddleduck. She also bought, with her royalties and a legacy, Hill Top Farm at Near Sawrey in Lancashire, where she contrived to spend as much of her time as possible, away from hated Kensington and her ‘exacting’ mama. Eventually her story did come right. In October 1913, at the age of 47, and in the teeth of opposition from her horribly long-lived parents, she married a local solicitor, William Heelis.
It is at this point that Renee Zellweger’s endearing if somewhat simple-minded film, Miss Potter, lets the credits roll over a happy ending. Biography, however, is obliged to continue and Linda Lear gives us a thorough account of the Heelis’ subsequent life as sheep farmers and pioneers of conservation in the Lake District. Despite constant appeals from her publishers, Potter wrote only two more tales. She and William campaigned to preserve fell farming as a way of life and cultivated rare breeds of sheep. Although characteristically opposed to women’s suffrage, Potter became an effective behind-the-scenes influence with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the recently established National Trust, to whom she bequeathed a considerable amount of land. ‘I am not “on” things,’ as she put it, ‘but I pull strings.’ She was largely uninterested in her fame and at times resented the ‘d___d little books’ and the attention they attracted. Even so she was not above bribing a difficult council inspector with a signed copy of Benjamin Bunny. ‘I begin to assert myself at 70,’ she told her cousin Caroline in 1937, adding that she was rather enjoying the experience of growing old, if never entirely growing up.
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