Drawing of Old Benjamin BunnyBeatrix Potter and the Lake District

by Carol J. Fox

 

 

Beatrix Potter, Age 26

 

Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated a series of small books for children, left a diary of her youth in code, and created a fictional character, Peter Rabbit , that stands alongside Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan as one of the most memorable and enduring characters in all of children's literature.

She is credited with having written the first picture story book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, blending words and illustrations  into an inseparable whole and starting a tradition that includes Make Way for Ducklings and Where the Wild Things Are.

Beatrix Potter was born July 28, 1866 into  a well-to do London family and spent a considerable part of her life as an unmarried daughter dutifully bound to her demanding parents.

 

 

It was not until she was nearly forty years old, after she had written and published Peter Rabbit that she began to achieve her independence. Her life as an author and illustrator is tied directly to her years as a property owner in the exquisite Lake District in England.

Her love for the Lake District had been growing since her childhood. Her family regularly spent their summers there where her love of art and science combined and flourished. Her early drawings show a fascination with plants and animals.

When Beatrix Potter was in her early twenties, she made a minor scientific discovery regarding the "spores of moulds." Because she was self-taught, her work was highly suspect by botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens. She persisted and, with the encouragement of her uncle, wrote a paper on the subject. It was read before the Linnean Society of London, but not by Beatrix. Women were not allowed to attend meetings. Her discovery and theories eventually proved accurate.

Her life as a young adult was plagued with illness and tragedy. During her twenties and thirties, she suffered from fatiguing headaches and fainting spells. She was lonely, always tired and had "odious fits of ill spirits" which today we would recognize as depression.

 

In her late thirties, she began her publishing adventures. Through them she met Norman Warne, a shy, kind-hearted bachelor from the famous publishing family. She corresponded and spoke with him frequently for several years during which they found their relationship deepening. Although Beatrix was nearly forty when Norman Warne sent her proposal of marriage, her parents felt the Warne family was beneath her station and strongly opposed the marriage. Beatrix, though a dutiful daughter in every respect, defied her parents and accepted Norman's proposal. The marriage was not to be, however, for Warne died of an advanced case of leukemia shortly after the proposal.


 

Her first story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was conceived as a letter to the children of her friend and former teacher, Annie Carter Moore. It was so popular with them, that Ms. Potter was urged to create a book which she self-published. It sold. With the proceeds from it and several to follow, she bought two properties in the Lake District: Hill Top , a rolling farm near Sawrey, England in Lancashire and lovely Castle Cottage in the same area. During this time, she met and married a solicitor, William Heelis.

Hill Top House, 1976.
The more time she spent in the Lake District, the happier she became and for nearly ten years she pursued her love affair with the people, plants, animals and gentle rolling hills of the magnificent Lake District.

She blossomed in spirit, independence and creativity. Her best books were written during this period of her life. She produced book after little book for the very young blending pictures and words into lyrical works of beauty. Each book captures in miniature her delight in nature and her love of language. She said herself she "copied nature"-- the gentle, amiable nature of an English village.

Visiting the town of Sawrey in the Lake District and Ms. Potter's home at Hill Top is to stroll through her books. Rhubarb patches, flower gardens, low meandering stone walls, doorways, and garden gates are mirrored so precisely that a her readers are at home there immediately.
Rhubard patch in the garden at Hill Top. 1976.  
The Tower Arms Inn which sits on the edge of the tiny community of Sawrey is  captured in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck. The doorway to Hill Top was made famous in the same book. Roly Poly Pudding and The Pie in the Patty-Pan recorded the garden in full bloom.
  Beatrix Potter in the doorway at HillTop.

Ms. Potter is even said to have drawn the people of the community as animal characters in her books. Mrs. Tiggy Winkle bears a striking resemblance to Ms. Potter herself in her later years.
Illustration of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle
Photograph of Beatrix Potter, 1943

Beatrix Potter was in love with her life in Sawrey and with the whole of HillTop. Her lyrical delight is captured in her language as well as her illustrations. When Peter  Rabbit was caught in the gooseberry net, he was not asked to simple free himself. Instead, "Some friendly sparrows flew to him in great excitement and implored him to exert himself." Although the words are larger than the normal vocabulary for the age child who will hear the story, the meaning is clear in the urgency of the situation and  the tugging rhythm that the choice of words naturally produces.

The Lake District is as lovely today as when Miss Potter captured it in her books. The two are bound to immortality, for they will both bring delight forever. In The Tale of Tom Kitten, "Tom was quite unable to jump when walking upon his hind legs in trousers." Anyone who has ever tried to dress a kitten for a tea-party can see the humor. Tom's descendants still wander in the lush green of the Lake District, intrepid, unclothed, and unaware of their connection to some of the finest literature for children ever written.


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   1995

References:

Lane, Margaret. The Tale of Beatrix Potter, New edition. New York:  

                    Frederick Warne, 1985.

 When Beatrix Potter died in 1943, few knew the full story of her life. Originally   published only three years after Beatrix Potter's death, this book tells her story. It was extensively revised in 1985 to include new material that had come to light.

It is a full biography of Beatrix's life from her childhood in London to her years in the Lake District.

Jay, Eileen, et al. A Victoria Naturalist: Beatrix Potter's Drawings from the Armitt

                         Collection.  New York: Frederick Warne Publishers, 1992.

Shortly after her marriage in 1913 Beatrix Potter became a member of the Armitt Library in Ambleside, Cumbria. This subscription library had been founded a year earlier by three sisters "to create a collection of books of scientific, literary and antiquarian value" that was intended eventually to become a small museum.

 

Beatrix Potter strongly approved of the aims and ideals of the Armitt sisters, particularly their concern for the study of natural history and their active interest in safeguarding the Lake District countryside. She became a benefactor. Donating many valuable books and, most importantly, a large number of her own watercolour drawings. These pictures date from the years before she became a children's book author, while she was at the height of her artistic powers and concentrating on scientific illustration. They include studies of fossils, archaeological finds, mosses, lichens and many microscopic drawings. This book contains a number of her illustrations.