by Deborah Straw
Beatrix Potter may be best known as the creator of charming characters like Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle and Hunca Munca, but, as is true in most lives, she was in reality many other things, as well. A product of Victorian times, she far surpassed societal expectations of women of her era and class. She was an accomplished botanical illustrator, a sheep breeder and farmer, a wife, and a conservationist greatly devoted to her home, the Lake District of England.
Born in 1866 in London, to a wealthy Victorian family, (Helen) Beatrix was one of two children (she had a brother, Bertram). She was home schooled by governesses. As Bertram was sent away to private school, Beatrix was often alone. She always loved animals. Whenever possible, she smuggled mice, rabbits and hedgehogs into the house.
The family spent three-month summer holidays in the country, at the Lake District in England, or in Scotland. One spot the family often returned to when Beatrix was in her teens was Wray Castle, on the west shore of Windermere, in the Lake District. It was there that she met Hardwicke Rawnsley, a writer who was, at that time, the Vicar of Wray. This man influenced Potter throughout much of her life. He loved the Lake District and hated any encroachments into it, including railroads. He also took an interest in Beatrix’s animals; she often took them on holiday in hutches or boxes, and he encouraged her early painting. Most people at this time did not think young ladies should consider such artistic occupations.
Another artistic pursuit for the teenage Potter was writing a journal in a code no-one could read. The Journal of Beatrix Potter 1881-1897 (first published by Frederick Warne in 1966) is part of this document, transcribed from code by Potter scholar Leslie Linder. She kept this type of journal until the age of 30.
As a dutiful young woman, Beatrix lived in London with her parents, running their household. In her mid twenties, she illustrated a book of verses for children and wrote about her animals in letters to the children of her former governess. According to Judy Taylor, media specialist for The Beatrix Potter Society and an international Potter expert, in the foreword to the 1989 edition of The Journal, Potter’s first signed illustrations were published in A Happy Pair, verse by Frederick E. Weatherly, when she was twenty-seven. In her mid-thirties, because the recipients enjoyed her works so much, Potter decided to publish a book called The Tale of Peter Rabbit. This was originally written in the form of a letter sent to a five-year-old invalid boy, Noel, in 1893, based on the activities of a real rabbit.
When she decided to publish, Potter turned to her friend, Rawnsley, as she often did, for advice. Although he liked her drawings, he thought his own words should be substituted for hers. But Beatrix preferred her own style, and offered her book to the publishing company of Frederick Warne & Co. in London. They didn’t take it at first, so she published it privately in an edition of 450 copies. Warne bought the first color edition of the book and encouraged her to write more: Squirrel Nutkin, The Tailor of Gloucester and Benjamin Bunny. Norman Warne especially encouraged her.
The royalties Potter made from the sales of these small books, together with a slim inheritance, allowed her to buy Hill Top Farm in Far Sawrey, in the Lake District, 250 miles northwest of London. This homestead is now a popular tourist and literary attraction, open from Easter until the end of October.
After Norman Warne died, Potter still felt an urge to produce new books. In eight years, she wrote thirteen successful volumes, many of which were about Hill Top and the village of Sawrey. Within a decade, her books sold in the millions.
She was still spending three-quarters of the year in London, either by herself, or visiting her mother and father, who were then quite old. Although she finally established her parents in a house nearer her farm, she still could only live at Hill Top four days a week. There, she learned to be a farmer and continued sketching, predominantly her house, her garden, the countryside and small animals. For example, Jemima PuddleDuck and Ginger and Pickles (about a country store) are obviously set in her neighborhood.
In Beatrix Potter’s Americans, Selected Letters edited by Jane Crowell Morse, an American who knew Potter, the artist added a short essay called “‘Roots’ of the Peter Rabbit Tales.” Potter writes she was afraid of disappointing the American public if she gave her reasons for writing children’s books but felt an obligation to do so. Her three reasons were her ancestry, her descent from yeoman and weavers; long periods spent in the Scottish Highlands when she was a child, with a strong belief in fairies, witches and John Calvin’s doctrines; and an exceptionally fine memory. She also admitted to writing to please herself, not an audience.
Potter began to buy other properties around Sawrey, to increase her holdings and to save old buildings and small farms from demolition or what she considered to be unsuitable uses. Once again, she was influenced by Canon Rawnsley (Canon of Carlisle since 1909), who was the Honorable Secretary of the National Trust, the holding company for land and historic houses. Her involvement in the Trust’s acquisitions in the Lake District, to preserve the integrity of the English countryside, became a life-long commitment.
By the age of forty-seven, still single and caring for her parents, Potter had hired a nurse for her ailing father but still found it difficult to stay at Hill Top overnight. In 1909, she had bought a nearby, larger property, Castle Farm, to add to Hill Top’s farming acreage. The solicitors with whom she made the transaction were W. Heelis & Co., including one partner named William Heelis. He kept his eye on her various farms and buildings and eventually on her. However, Potter’s parents, still trying to wield power over their middle-aged daughter, thought a mere country solicitor was beneath Beatrix’s station.
She wasn’t without support, however. As her brother, Bertram, had married successfully, he encouraged Beatrix to do what she wanted. Beatrix and William married in Kensington in 1913 and spent their honeymoon in Sawrey. Thereafter, Beatrix Potter was known to her neighbors and other farmers as Mrs. Heelis.
The couple farmed Herdwick sheep and Beatrix worked in the fields with the men. In the 30s and 40s, her Herdwick Sheep won many prizes at national shows. Mrs. Heelis learned to train sheep dogs, and she loved folk dancing. She bred prize pigs, too, which helped in the creation of her character, Pigling Bland. According to “The Real World of Beatrix Potter,” published by the National Trust, she kept rabbits so children who visited wouldn’t be disappointed. Her father and brother died, the latter, suddenly in 1918, and Beatrix moved her mother yet closer to her, to Windermere.
Throughout the remaining years of her life, Mrs. Heelis remained involved in the National Trust. As William always knew in advance what cottages or parcels of land were up for sale, she kept acquiring properties to protect them from development. Mrs. Heelis believed, as her friend Canon Rawnsley had, that the Trust was critical for the protection of the beautiful land of the Lake District.
When she died at her home in 1943, Beatrix Potter bequeathed more than 4,000 acres of farms and her cottages and her flocks of Herdwick sheep to the National Trust. The Lake District continues to be one of the most rural, untouched corners of England. There is little industry, lots of stone walls and sheep, and, for the most part, its old villages look untouched.
Aside from writing and illustrating children’s books, Beatrix Potter created precise, realistic botanical drawings and paintings, which she wished to be used to illustrate scientific books on flora and fauna. She drew and made watercolor paintings of lizards, newts, fungi, mosses, lichen and spiders, and is now considered to be first-rate naturalist. However, because she was female, her more scholarly work was not exhibited nor published during her lifetime. Now we can also see some of this work. Potter bequeathed her botanical paintings and tiny drawings to the Armitt Trust in Ambleside (near Sawrey), a library and museum centre with collections of British writers and painters; Beatrix Potter, Ruskin and Wordsworth, among them. A Victorian Naturalist – Beatrix Potter’s Drawings from the Armitt Collection was written by Eileen Jay, Mary Noble and Anne Stevenson Hobbs, published by Frederick Warne & Co. Warne has also published several volumes about her country life, her stories and her art. The Linnean Society, an academic society, published a FLORA-for-FAUNA booklet, illustrated with Potter’s drawings, in October 1995.
Finally, Beatrix Potter’s intellectual life as well as her charming children’s stories and illustrations are being brought into the public eye. Her bunnies, pigs and kittens do abide. Who doesn’t know her work? Yet, Beatrix Potter was extraordinary in so many other ways. A strong woman, she rose above her Victorian roots and acted from her heart. Beatrix Potter/ Mrs. Heelis is also to be remembered for her illustrations, her fine herds of Herdwick sheep (the breed, found nowhere else, still exists on farms throughout the Lake District) and her abiding love and preservation of her corner of northwestern England.