Beatrix Potter Facts
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) wrote and illustrated some two dozen children's books that are now considered classics, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Although Beatrix Potter's name may not be a household word, that of her first artistic creation, Peter Rabbit, certainly is. An entire industry has sprung up around this beloved character; one can find his image on everything from tea towels to toys. In 1993, when The Tale of Peter Rabbit marked the one-hundredth anniversary of its official publication, people around the world commemorated the event with parties and other celebrations. Given their enduring appeal, he and Potter's other memorable animal characters will likely live on for many generations to come.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866, in Bolton Gardens, Kensington, England. Her father, Rupert, was a wealthy barrister who derived his most of his fortune (as did his wife's family) from the Lancashire cotton industry. Even though Potter's parents left her mostly in the care of governesses and servants, they nevertheless exerted tight control over her life. She was educated at home and had virtually no contact with other children until her brother, Bertram, was born when she about five. But even he was soon sent to boarding school, which meant that their time together was limited mostly to the summer holidays, which the family typically spent in Scotland or the English Lake District.
Other than her brother, Potter's only friends were her animals. She had a deep interest in and love for all creatures and kept several as pets, including mice, frogs, bats, rabbits, and even a hedgehog. Her strong affinity for animals was not merely sentimental, however; she was a naturalist at heart, with a sharp eye for scientific detail. She enjoyed exploring the outdoors, especially during the summer when she and Bertram had the rare opportunity to roam around in relative freedom.
Artistic Bent Revealed in Childhood
Potter also displayed an early talent for drawing. Her own pets as well as the animals she discovered while on vacation were often the subjects of her illustrations. Her governesses encouraged her to practice her drawing, as did her parents, who harbored an interest in art and sometimes allowed their daughter to accompany them to exhibitions.
Another interest of Potter's was science, especially mycology, the study of fungi. The British Museum of Natural History was near Potter's house in London, and she spent many hours there learning about various fungi and sketching them. (Fungus-hunting was also one of her favorite summertime activities.) When she was in her late twenties, Potter decided to illustrate a book on fungi and made hundreds of precise drawings based on her observations. Her uncle presented them to the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens on her behalf, but no one took them seriously.
Potter even made an actual scientific discovery and wrote a paper about it entitled "The Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae" for the Linnaean Society of London. Since women were not allowed to attend the society's meetings, her uncle appeared before the members and read her paper. The fact that she was a woman and a novice in the field put her at a distinct disadvantage, however, and eventually she gave up any serious attempts to draw or write about fungi.
From the time she was 14 until she was 31, Potter kept a journal that she wrote in secret code. (It was finally decoded by Leslie Linder and published for the first time in 1966 and again in 1989.) The entries show her reluctant acceptance of her parents' dominance over her life during her teens and a gradual build-up of resentment as she moved through her twenties. Bouts of depression and occasionally poor physical health plagued her as well. Despite these obstacles, she was determined to make something of her life, noting in her journal, "I must draw, however poor the result….I will do something sooner or later."
The year 1890 marked Potter's debut as a published illustrator. Her animal drawings accompanied verses written by Frederic Weatherley in a book entitled A Happy Pair. Potter remained virtually anonymous, however, by virtue of the fact that she signed her name simply as "H.B.P."
Peter Rabbit Launched Writing Career
Three years later Potter wrote a letter to five-year-old Noël Moore, the seriously ill son of one of her former governesses. To help cheer him up, Potter included in her letter the story of Peter Rabbit in words and pictures. Friends who saw what she had done encouraged her to turn her ideas into a book.
Unable to find a publisher who would accept her work, Potter had the first version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit privately printed in 1900. She had it reprinted in 1902, the same year she arranged for the first private printing of her second book, The Tailor of Gloucester.
By this time, Potter had begun to attract some attention in publishing circles. Frederick Warne & Co. offered to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit on the condition that she supply color illustrations. Potter complied, and the book proved to be very successful. As she produced additional titles, her popularity as a children's author grew. Potter maintained her relationship with Frederick Warne & Co. for many years, turning out around two dozen books in all.
Potter's association with Frederick Warne & Co. became personal as well as professional when she became romantically involved with Norman Warne, whose father operated the firm. Much to the chagrin of her domineering parents, she accepted Warne's proposal of marriage in 1905. Sadly, her fiance died of leukemia only a month or so after they announced their wedding plans.
Found Happiness at Hill Top Farm
That same year, Potter bought a farm near the village of Sawrey in the English Lake District, home to some of her fondest childhood memories. She visited the property, which she named "Hill Top, " as often as she could given the fact that she still lived with her parents and was subject to their control. Gradually, she was able to spend more and more time there. As a result, the years from 1906 until 1913 marked an especially productive phase of Potter's career.
Among the many classic works she wrote during this period are The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, The Story of Miss Moppet, The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, The Tale of Tom Kitten, and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. These charming animal stories were typically written in an unpretentious and often witty style. Sometimes they would take the reader to the edge of something a bit scary or dark, but Potter would always retreat to safety and a happy ending.
In addition to writing and illustrating her books, Potter directed their production and design. She insisted that they be kept small to fit comfortably into a child's hands and that only a few words appear on each page. She also liked to challenge her readers now and then with a surprisingly sophisticated vocabulary in the belief that children delighted in learning new words. Potter took an active interest in the merchandising possibilities of her books as well, pointing out to her publisher the need to copyright her characters and suggesting games and other items that could be based on them.
Gave Up Writing for Farming
During the course of business transactions related to her farm, Potter met a lawyer named William Heelis, whom she married in 1913. Able at last to leave her parents' house, she moved with her new husband to Hill Top, where they lived for several years before buying a large sheep farm in 1923.
Potter's writing career basically ended when she married Heelis and began devoting her time to being a wife and a farmer. As she had noted years before in her journal entry for June 12, 1894, "I hold an old-fashioned notion that a happy marriage is the crown of a woman's life." Although she published a few more books, including Johnny Town-Mouse, for which she created new illustrations, her output slowed considerably, especially after she started losing her eyesight in 1918.
By 1930 Potter had given up writing entirely. She was not interested in fame and regarded people who praised her work with suspicion. According to Brian Alderson in his Times Educational Supplement review of the book Beatrix Potter's Letters, she told journalist John Stone in 1939, "I hate publicity, and I have contrived to survive to be an old woman without it, except in the homey atmosphere of Agricultural Shows."
Indeed, farming took second place only to her marriage once Potter reached her fifties. By the time she was in her sixties, she had become an accomplished sheep breeder, held in high enough esteem by her peers that she was elected president of the Herdwick Sheep-Breeders' Association shortly before her death. Potter was also active with the National Trust and worked to preserve open land for future generations.
Potter died of complications from uterine cancer on December 22, 1943, in Sawrey, England. She bequeathed several thousand acres of land, including Hill Top farm, to the National Trust; her previous Lake District home became a museum. But her true legacy consists of the wonderful stories and illustrations that live on in innumerable ways. In 1988, for example, the Pierpont Morgan Library held an exhibition entitled "Beatrix Potter: Artist and Storyteller." Two years later, she was the subject of the British Broadcasting Company television show "Beatrix." And in 1994, the Royal Ballet performed "The Tales of Beatrix Potter." Her stature and influence in the world of children's literature thus remains considerable.
It is her books, of course, that continue to captivate children around the world. Writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Sophia Vinogradov reflected on what she and undoubtedly many others remember about favorite characters such as Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Squirrel Nutkin. "Even now those names evoke for me the set of tiny hardback books from my childhood, " she wrote. "I can still recall the smell and feel of the smooth papierglace pages, with their delicate, exquisite drawings: rabbits, frogs, mice, cats, ducks-all fully developed personages, with serious, thoughtful faces, old-fashioned waistcoats, bonnets, shoes with buckles." In short, declared Vinogradov, "Beatrix Potter was a remarkable woman who triumphed over life's adversities…. [She] transformed her struggles into stories that have fascinated readers of many different cultures for the entire twentieth century."
Further Reading on Beatrix Potter
Grinstein, Alexander, The Remarkable Beatrix Potter, International Universities Press, 1995.
Lane, Margaret, The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter, Frederick Warne, 1978.
MacDonald, Ruth K., Beatrix Potter, Twayne, 1986.
Potter, Beatrix, Beatrix Potter's Letters, selected and introduced by Judy Taylor, Frederick Warne, 1989.
Potter, Beatrix, The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881-1897, transcribed from her coded writings by Leslie Linder, Frederick Warne, 1989.
Wilson, Katharina M., Paul Schlueter, and June Schlueter, editors, Women Writers of Great Britain and Europe: An Encyclopedia, Garland, 1997.
American Journal of Psychiatry, December 1996.
Times Educational Supplement, November 17, 1989.
Washington Post, October 5, 1997.