The Life of Beatrix Potter

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A comfortable chair, a cup of chamomile tea, perhaps a young child to snuggle with, and a stack of classic little books by Beatrix Potter . . . a cozy winter scene.
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Beatrix Potter in 1881, at the age of 15. Photo by Rupert Potter.
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A comfortable chair, a cup of chamomile tea, perhaps a young child to snuggle with, and a stack of classic little books by Beatrix Potter . . . a cozy winter scene.
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This rendering of Hill Top Farm, based on an unfinished drawing by Beatrix Potter, conveys some of the ­tranquility she found there. The drawings and the photograph on page 55 are courtesy of the FrederickWarne Archive.

• Garden Design: Create a Peter Rabbit Garden
• Beatrix Potter’s Herbs and Flowers

I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside; that pleasant, unchanging world of realism and romance.–Beatrix Potter, November 25, 1940

A proper young lady in ­Victorian London, spinning dreams on the pages of her little books, introduced generations of children to a remedy for tired rabbits: chamomile tea at bedtime. Beatrix Potter’s fetching characters and engaging stories reflect her delight in the natural world around her, a world free from the restrictiveness of the society in which she was born in 1866.

Beatrix Potter lived with her parents and brother in a large house in a prosperous part of London. Few amusements were tolerated in her parents’ dark Victorian parlor, but as a little girl, she enjoyed a great deal more freedom in the gardens. There, she entertained herself by collecting and studying toads, bats, hedgehogs, rabbits, and fossils, sketching insects and plants, and writing in the journal that she kept for more than fifteen years in her own secret code. Like most other young women of her time, Beatrix was expected to stay home and take care of her parents until she married, but as the years went on, Beatrix nurtured a daring dream: to live in a cottage of her own, surrounded by flowers and herbs. She kept that dream quietly in her heart until her children’s tales had earned enough money to make it come true.

As she approached thirty, Beatrix Potter’s pleasures in nature matured into a passion for fungi, and she began making detailed watercolor drawings of the mushrooms she observed as she tramped the woods and meadows during family holidays. She hoped for recognition of her work, but Victorian scientists were hardly receptive to women’s efforts, and she eventually abandoned her fungus studies. She continued to sketch her favorite animals, however: her rabbits, Peter and Benjamin; Hunca Munca, her mouse; Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, her beloved hedgehog; and a procession of voles, toads, and newts borrowed from the gardens and woods.

She originally drew these delightful sketches and wrote the accompanying stories for the children of her former governess. They led to the publication in 1902 of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and eventually to almost forty more books. Then in 1905, Beatrix, now nearly forty, and her publisher, Norman Warne, fell in love. Her parents opposed the match, but the couple persisted and planned their wedding. Sadly, Warne, never strong, fell ill with pernicious anemia and died. A bereft Beatrix was left to make what she called a “fresh beginning” without the man she loved. It was a time of great grief, but it opened the door to a magical decade of writing, gardening, and village life in the cool, green Lake District in the north of England.

In the summer of 1905, she bought Hill Top Farm, which stood under the shelter of a small hill behind the village inn in the hamlet of Near Sawrey. She characterized the purchase as an investment–the only excuse a Victorian woman of her class could possibly give for acquiring a dilapidated cottage and small acreage. (“My purchase seems to be regarded as a huge joke,” she wrote wryly to a friend.)

After Norman’s death, Beatrix had the whitewashed, seventeenth-century cottage enlarged and began to create the garden. “The garden is very overgrown and untidy,” she wrote to Millie Warne, Norman’s sister, who had become a good friend. “I have got the quarryman making walks and beds. It will be a great pleasure to show you the result some day.”

By the following spring, Beatrix was able to write to Millie that her fruit trees were flowering well but that the lawn she planned had been done “all wrong” and that the bare wall and wooden railings looked “painfully new”. She set out to find plants and discovered wall-rue fern (probably polypody, a traditional medicinal herb) growing in an old stone bridge that was being pulled down. She transplanted the fern to her new garden wall to soften the bare stones.

The planting went on sporadically, interrupted by lengthy stays in London and holidays with her family. In the fall of 1906, Mrs. Taylor, who lived in the corner cottage, presented her with a large, newspaper-wrapped bundle of saxifrage (another medicinal, supposed to break up bladder stones). Over the next weeks, Beatrix was inundated with offers of plants. “It is very kind of people,” she wrote, “and as it is the right time to thin and replant, I don’t feel such a robber of the village gardens.”

In letters to Millie, she mentioned interplanting some “most splendid phloxes” between the laurels in her garden, and lilies between the azaleas, as well as setting out syringa, rhododendrons, red fuchsia, witch hazel, clematis, Japanese anemones, sweet William, gentians, forget-me-nots, and daffodils. She expected the lilies to do especially well because she had planted them “most carefully” in a mixture of sand, old mortar, and black peat. Later, she remarked that her hollyhocks had also done well, growing 14 feet tall. But every rain brought up a “perfect forest” of groundsel that she had to pull up, and as her garden matured, she found herself spending a great deal of time weeding, pruning, fertilizing, digging, and transplanting. “I am absorbed in gardening,” she wrote happily, illustrating her pleasure with a tiny sketch of herself exuberantly wielding a manure scoop.

Beatrix’s garden included many herbs. One day, she “impudently” took a large basket and trowel and went to see an old lady at Windermere, coming away with large bundles of violets and lavender slips. “If they ‘strike’ they will be enough for a lavender hedge,” she wrote to Millie. (In her stories, she used the folk name “rabbit tobacco” for lavender.)

She rescued some lunaria, also called honesty or moonwort, from a heap of garden refuse: “Stolen plants always grow,” she said. “I stole some honesty yesterday. . . . I have had something out of nearly every garden in the village.”

We can guess that her garden also included the many herbs she wrote about in her children’s stories: ­rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, onions, parsley, chamo­mile, germander, yarrow, nasturtiums, calendula, pansies, pinks, daisies, and foxgloves. She would also have grown the potherbs that were a staple of a country diet and a welcome fresh taste in early spring: rhubarb, radishes, lettuces, mustard, and cress. On her deep windowsill there would have been a row of clay pots containing geraniums, maidenhair fern, ivy, and trailing campanula. We can be confident that she knew a great deal about herbs because on a handy small table, with her great-grandfather’s Bible and a favorite candlestick, she kept a copy of Gerard’s Herball.

In the spring of her first year in the old farmhouse, she found a swarm of bees and caught them herself in a straw skep. ” No one in the village has lost them,” she wrote to Millie, “and I don’t mean to inquire further afield!”

The years after 1905 were filled with the creative energy for Beatrix’ drawings and stories and the delights of rural life. She stayed at Sawrey as often as possible, describing herself to a friend as a “sort of self-contained independent female farmer”. The ­demanding life of farm and garden was interleaved with the books she wrote in that period, usually two a year. Most of her stories are set at Hill Top Farm and on the streets of Sawrey, and they bring the village to vivid life. Tabitha Twitchit and her kittens, Jemima Puddle-Duck, the impeccably mannered Fox, Kep the collie, Cousin Ribby, Mr. Samuel Whiskers, Farmer Potatoes–all are drawn from the animals Beatrix saw around her, living in her garden and the woods, on the village streets, in the village shops. In 1908, when she was working on Ginger and Pickles, she wrote to Millie Warne that the book was causing amusement among the villagers, for it had “a good many views which can be recognized in the village which is what they like, they are all quite jealous of each other’s houses and cats getting into a book”.

In the summer of 1909, Beatrix used the proceeds from her writing to buy Castle Farm, which was adjacent to Hill Top. In addition to her gardens and farms and her work as an artist, she was still her parents’ dutiful daughter, shuttling back and forth to London and the Potters’ rented holiday houses, trying to placate her parents in their querulous demands for attention. “I have kept very well and managed the going backwards and forwards,” she wrote to Millie in August 1912, “but it takes it out of me.”

The solicitor who drew up the contract for her purchase of Castle Farm was Mr. William Heelis, a tall, quiet man. They became “very much attached”, and he proposed marriage. The Potters once again objected to their daughter’s marriage. (He was country solicitor and she a spinster of forty-six! What could they be thinking of?) But Beatrix prevailed, and she and her Willie were married at St. Mary Abbot’s in Kensington, on October 15, 1913.

The couple moved to Castle Cottage, where they lived for the rest of their married life. Beatrix also maintained the nearby gardens at Hill Top Farm, which she kept as her private retreat. In 1924, she wrote this loving description:

I am very fond of my garden, it is a regular old fashioned farm garden, with a box hedge round the flower bed, and moss roses and pansies and black currants and strawberries and peas–and big sage bushes for Jemima, but onions always do badly. I have tall white bell flowers I am fond of, they are just going over, next there will be phlox; and last come the michaelmas daisies and chrysanthemums.

Beatrix’s marriage marked the end of her most creative period as a storyteller and artist. The First World War came, and she felt the desolation of it. “I tried a little drawing in winter,” she wrote in 1915, “but could not stick to it, also could not see, for my eyes are gone so long sighted.”

She wrote a few more books, but her interest in fairy-tale creatures had been transformed into a passion for her farm animals, particularly the native Herdwick sheep that she was learning to love. “Somehow when one is up to the eyes in work with real live animals it makes one despise paper-book-animals,” she wrote in 1918, close to the end of the remarkably fertile years of drawing and writing. “But I mustn’t say that to my publisher!”

She became entirely a “female farmer”, retreating from those who wanted to celebrate her artistic achievements and living in seclusion from the outside world. To a reviewer who compared her art to that of the famous landscape painter John Constable, she snapped: “For goodness sake don’t write any more rubbish about me.” And to many who loved her children’s tales and looked everywhere for her, Bea­trix Potter may seem to have disappeared altogether.

But she continued to participate in the lively life of the village, in the local sheep breeders’ association, and in the National Trust, to which she gave her properties. And those who knew her best knew where she could be found, nearly every fine day until the last year of her life–in her garden.

Further Reading

• Beatrix Potter’s Letters. Selected and introduced by Judy Taylor. London: Frederick Warne, 1989.
• The Journal of Beatrix Potter: 1881-1897. Transcribed by Leslie Linder. London: Frederick Warne, 1966.
• Lane, Margaret. The Magic Years of Bea­trix Potter. London: Frederick Warne, 1978.
• ——. The Tale of Beatrix Potter. London: Frederick Warne, 1946.

There are two newsletters published about the life and work of Beatrix Potter: The Beatrix Potter Society Newsletter (High Banks, 26 Stoneborough Ln., Budleigh Salterton, Devon EX9 6HL England) and Pottergram (141 High Plain Rd., Andover, MA 01810).

Susan Wittig Albert of Bertram, Texas, is the author of the popular China Bayles herbal mystery series. The latest, just out from Berkley Publishing, is Rueful Death. She also writes Victorian mysteries with her husband under the pen name of Robin Paige.

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