The Life of Beatrix Potter

| December/January 1996

  • 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.
    Tea accessories courtesy of The Cupboard, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • Beatrix Potter in 1881, at the age of 15. Photo by Rupert Potter.
  • 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.
  • 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.



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