Beatrix Potter: The lady and the lakes

Children's author Beatrix Potter overcame tragedy to become a tough businesswoman and environmentalist. But, says Mark Bostridge, you won't learn that from a new film of her life
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In 1933, the novelist Graham Greene published an article about Beatrix Potter. He came partly to praise her, not so much for her exquisite illustrations, which dovetail so perfectly with the simplicity of the storytelling, as for the truthful and unemotional power of Potter's narrative voice. Greene had read Beatrix Potter's books in childhood, and, like his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, believed that her style of "gentle detachment" had exerted a formative influence on the development of his own writing.

But Greene discerned something else in Potter's work. With his tongue only slightly in cheek, he observed that her great comedies - Two Bad Mice, Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Tom Kitten, Mrs Tiggy Winkle, and Mr Jeremy Fisher - had been followed by the darker tragedies, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mr Tod, and Pigling Bland. This pessimism reached its climax with The Tale of Mr Tod. Between 1907 and 1909, he wrote, "Miss Potter must have passed through an emotional ordeal which changed the character of her genius", though Greene acknowledged that it would be "impertinent" to enquire into its precise nature.

Impertinent indeed. From the Lake District farm to which she had retreated at the height of her productivity and success as a writer, Beatrix Potter took the rare step of issuing Greene with a stern rebuke. She had been suffering from flu, not emotional disturbance, while writing Mr Tod, and in any case she sharply deprecated "the Freudian school" of criticism.

A little under a decade later, Beatrix Potter, by now in her late seventies, saw off another attempt to invade her personal privacy. This time the threat came from the writer Margaret Lane, who contacted Potter for permission to write about her. Potter's reply was not only discouraging, it was also, Lane remembered, the rudest letter she had ever received. "My books have always sold without advertisement", Potter told her crustily, "and I do not propose to go in for that sort of thing now."

After Beatrix Potter's death in 1943, Lane pursued the case for a biography with William Heelis, Potter's widower, and made progress after she discovered that Heelis responded best to the hectoring tone that he had become accustomed to from his wife. Sixty years ago, Margaret Lane's pioneering biography of Beatrix Potter was published, and the gap of silence about one of the world's most successful children's writers began to be filled.

Secrecy, about herself and the life of her imagination, was always of utmost importance to Beatrix Potter. As the dutiful daughter of a wealthy family, born in 1866, Beatrix used her private world of drawing and painting as an escape from the suffocatingly formal and restrictive routine of her parents, an existence in which summer holidays in the Lake District provided the only outward respite. From the age of 14 to 30, she also kept a journal, written in code, to voice her frustration and fears for the future (the journal was eventually decrypted, two decades after Beatrix's death, by Potter collector and obsessive, Leslie Linder).

Beatrix Potter was already 47 years old when, in 1913, she at last won her freedom from her family by marrying William Heelis, the solicitor who had assisted her with the purchase of her portfolio of Lake District farms. Although by then financially independent, the author of 19 bestsellers, Beatrix nevertheless felt forced to ask her parents' permission for the marriage (in contrast to her younger brother Bertram, who completely bypassed the question of his parents' consent, marrying and living in secret with his wife).

Yet although the union was a mutually satisfying and happy one, Heelis was not Beatrix Potter's first love. Graham Greene's dates don't exactly tally, but he may have been closer to the truth about the role of emotional disturbance in Potter's life than he realised. The engagement ring that Beatrix wore on her right hand, and the umbrella she invariably carried throughout the latter part of her life, were gifts not from Heelis, but from Norman Warne, youngest partner in the publishing firm that produced the first commercial edition of Peter Rabbit in the autumn of 1902, and succeeded in selling over 50,000 copies of the book by the end of the following year.

It was Warne, with his inspired taste for book production, who encouraged and shaped Beatrix's ideas as, one after another, she produced a stream of nursery classics. Exchanging letters every day, publisher and author became close, and in the summer of 1905, Warne asked her to marry him. Despite her parents' opposition to the match, based on their prejudiced reaction to Warne as "in trade" - and despite the strict chaperonage rules that never permitted the couple to be alone together - Beatrix accepted his proposal. Then tragedy struck. Four weeks after their engagement, Warne was dead from leukaemia. From that point onwards, the centre of Beatrix Potter's life began to shift, devolving away from her writing and on to the working farm she had bought at Hill Top in Near Sawrey.

The story of Beatrix Potter's doomed romance first caught the imagination of Richard Maltby 15 years ago. Maltby has a background in musical theatre, as lyricist of Miss Saigon and Tony award-winning director of the Broadway hit Ain't Misbehavin'. But he became intrigued by Potter's life, determining to bring it to the screen, after reading her stories to his young children, and coming across a sparse paragraph of biography which described how Potter had moved to the Lake District following Warne's death, married another man, and then produced virtually no more stories.

"It was that last part that caught my eye. I thought, why? Why, when a writer finally marries happily does she give up writing?" Originally he conceived the film as a musical, but subsequently refashioned it as a drama. The script of Miss Potter was quickly snapped up by Jim Henson's company, but disliking the changes that Henson proposed, Maltby later bought it back. It remained on the back burner for a decade while interested directors and actresses, including at one stage, Cate Blanchett, came and went. Finally, last spring, Miss Potter went before the cameras, at various locations in London and the Lake District, and in studios on the Isle of Man. The director is Chris Noonan, who made his debut 10 years ago, with the barnyard fantasy Babe, while the leading players are Renée Zellweger in the title role and Ewan McGregor as Warne.

The film focuses on Beatrix Potter's first successes, her burgeoning relationship with Norman Warne, and includes flashbacks to Potter's childhood, together with a final reel set in the Lake District where she meets her future husband William Heelis, portrayed by Lloyd Owen. Maltby admits that the "contours of the facts" about the Potter-Warne relationship are "very sketchy" so that he has gone "beyond them to imagine what might have happened".

Zellweger should be saluted as perhaps the only major Hollywood star prepared to submit to the process of deglamorisation necessary to play a character such as Beatrix Potter. Beatrix was stout, favoured sensible tweeds, and increasingly covered her head to hide the bald patch that was a consequence of the rheumatic fever she had suffered in her late teens. Ultimately, though, Zellweger's Beatrix persists in reminding one of her earlier role as a middle-aged spinster, so that at times the film feels like Bridget Jones Goes to the Lakes, with a hint of Zellweger's southern hick from Cold Mountain thrown in for good measure. McGregor labours under a heavy Edwardian moustache, a bit like a loo brush, but manages to establish Warne as a sympathetic presence with a twinkle in his eye.

Miss Potter suffers from its failure of tone, particularly in relation to Potter's work. Zellweger strains so hard to be winsome that she twitches more than the rabbits, which may be one reason why she was included among the musical-comedy performances in this month's Golden Globe nominations, even though the film fits neither category. Miss Potter's cardinal sin, though, lies in its sentimental portrayal of a writer whose writing proclaims her absolute unsentimentality. Cinemagoers who find the idea of Beatrix Potter talking to, and emoting over, imaginary animals, in brief animated sections, too much to stomach should turn away now. (Walt Disney did in fact approach Potter, in 1936, to ask if he could film Peter Rabbit, but she turned him down).

Part of the attraction of her tales for children has always derived from the hard edge she gives to the natural world (they also relish their messages of subversion). She never shied away from depicting its ruthlessness and violence. Potter's realism applies similarly to her depiction of place. She was never a painter of idealised landscapes, but utilized real locations as the settings for her stories. According to Linda Lear, Potter's latest biographer, what sets Beatrix Potter apart is her "attention to what is true in nature". Her drawings of animals are always correct in every detail - she once arrived at the Warne office with a frog in a jar to settle a dispute about the colour she'd used in an illustration - and her unique quality lies in the triumphant way in which her fantasy is rooted in fact.

Lear's book, published this week to coincide with the release of the film, is the fullest and most authoritative biography of Potter to date, and its early chapters, which describe the young Beatrix's attempts to get her scientific investigations into the germination of fungi recognised by the botanical establishment of her day, underline the disjunction between the real-life Beatrix Potter and the cinematic version. It's certainly difficult to imagine Zellweger's Beatrix peering through the lens of a microscope.

Although Lear has little that is new to add to earlier accounts of the engagement to Warne, she does persuasively reveal Beatrix Potter as an astute and independent-minded businesswoman from the beginning. The first edition of Peter Rabbit, she reminds us, was privately printed - and reprinted - by Potter herself, while Potter continued throughout her life to exploit, with extreme canniness, the merchandise connected to her creations. The original Peter Rabbit doll was assiduously researched by Beatrix. She insisted that the dolls be made in Britain, even though toys were manufactured more cheaply at that time in Germany, and carefully inspected prototypes for workmanship and colour in shops near her parents' South Kensington home. By the end of her life, she was approving all manner of tie-ins, from board games to baby blankets and bibs. Within three years of her death, the National Trust was welcoming a constant flood of visitors to the Potter shrine at Hill Top.

Linda Lear is a Professor of Environmental History, and it comes as no surprise, therefore, that her book's greatest value lies in its portrayal of Beatrix Potter, post-1913, as a farmer, a prizewinning breeder of Herdwick sheep and, most significantly, as one of the greatest benefactors in the history of the National Trust. Through her "passionate and imaginative stewardship" of the extensive tracts of land that she had bought up, to save them from development by builders, Potter, or Mrs Heelis, as she was locally known, "challenged others to think about preservation", not just of farms or fells, but of a regional ecology, and a distinct farming culture. This culture, now threatened with collapse, remains, as Lear says, one of the most challenging obligations the National Trust faces this century.

As for Beatrix Potter's decision gradually to abandon her writing, Lear emphasises that this was more connected to failing eyesight and an all-consuming passion for the Lake District, than to matters of personal tragedy and romance. Lear's Potter, with her intrusive penetrating gaze, and the solidity which, as one friend put it, formed the basis of her freedom from sentimentality, may be rougher and more down-to-earth than Maltby's and Zellweger's prettified portrayal, but as a tale it rings a lot truer.

'Miss Potter' is on release from Friday. 'Beatrix Potter - A Life in Nature' by Linda Lear is published by Allen Lane, £25