The tale of Beatrix Potter

Barred from the Royal Botanic Gardens, the mother of Peter Rabbit contented herself with telling stories about her pets - and sheep farming. So, asks Paul Vallely, what will Renée Zellweger make of the 20th century's most celebrated children's author in the film of her life?
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The Independent Culture

Here's a prediction about Miss Potter, the film of the life of the 20th century's most celebrated children's writer and illustrator, Beatrix Potter, which is due to start filming in the Lake District next month. It is based on Renée Zellweger's dress size, which, last time I heard, was UK size 6, making her look like a cross between a starvation victim and a Thunderbirds puppet, all spindly limbs and huge head.

The redoubtable Beatrix Potter, who died more recently than you might suppose, in 1943, looked more like a size 18. Of course, Ms Z may put on some weight, but is she enough of a method actor to get near Potter's stature in later life when the illustrator was living as a Cumbrian sheep farmer and had come to look like, well, a Cumbrian sheep farmer, with a big wide face and a round bottom?

The blurb for the film, which is to be made by Chris Noonan, who directed the 1995 talking-pig movie Babe, says Miss Potter will be about the artist's "struggle for independence in Victorian England". Oh dear. I can see it now: Lonely, sexually repressed London girl - whose mother is so neurotic about germs that she won't send the child to school but keeps her at home with a succession of governesses - finds inspiration beside a lake and becomes a successful artist and writer. Meets the love of her life, her publisher's youngest son (Ewan McGregor), and becomes secretly engaged despite parents' opposition. But lover tragically dies of pernicious anaemia just one month after proposing. Heroine seeks solace in her painting and writing and becomes famous but unhappy. Finally she meets Mr Right II and lives happily ever after, surrounded by furry animals and beautiful countryside. The End.

It's not just the anaemia which is pernicious here. Modern films may research the period details, but psychologically how close will it be to the real story?

It was certainly true that Beatrix Potter was a solitary child. Born in South Kensington in 1866 to parents who had both inherited Lancashire cotton fortunes, she had a life of lonely privilege. The family was wealthy enough for her father Rupert, who was nominally a barrister, not to need to work. Instead he and his wife absorbed themselves in the social life of London.

It was an age when children were to be "seen and not heard". So on the third floor of their large house, Beatrix, and her younger brother Bertram, who was born when she was five, were cared for by nurses and governesses, only seeing their parents at bedtime and on special occasions. Yet if Beatrix's mother was stiff and conventional she was not unkind. And though Beatrix, as her coded diaries showed, sometimes found her parents irritating she did not dislike them. Indeed it was from her father that she learnt the idea that was to make her famous; several times he came home with coloured sketches by Randolph Caldecott depicting animals dressed, and behaving, like humans.

What is revealed by her coded diaries - which she kept until she was 30 - is a vivid inner life. She smuggled into her nursery small animals. Her first pet rabbit, bought secretly from a London bird shop, later became the model for many of her drawings. "He was extremely fond of hot, buttered toast," she wrote. "He used to hurry into the drawing room when he heard the tea-bell!" She and Bertram would collect all manner of creatures, alive and dead, on the family's annual three-month holidays in Scotland and later in the Lake District. Dead specimens were skinned or boiled so they could extract the skeleton. And everything that they brought home, they drew and painted.

After Bertram was sent off to boarding school, Beatrix's only playmates were the animals she found. "I seem able to tame any animal," she later wrote. "I was always catching and taming mice." She covered pages with sketches of them. Almost all her famous characters are based on the pets that she used to own.

Her secret diary, which remained undeciphered for 80 years, showed two other obsessions. The first was art; the family's friendship with the painter Millais gave her an insight into the world of artists. Visits to the Royal Academy developed her critical skills. The second was science. While painting fungi and lichens, she started to make observations on them. Her Uncle Harry - the distinguished chemist Sir Henry Roscoe - tried to introduce her as a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew but she was rejected because she was female. Even so, with his encouragement, she prepared a paper on the germination of fungal spores and the symbiotic nature of lichens which he read (women not being allowed) to the Linnean Society in 1897. It was pooh-poohed by botanists, partly through chauvinism, but partly because her ideas ran counter to received wisdom. Her theories have since been proved right.

But though Potter sniped deliciously at her denigrators in her diary, she was not a conscious feminist, taking no interest in the contemporary women's suffrage movement. As she entered her thirties, she ended her coded journal and took to writing letters, often to the children of her former governesses. One day in 1893 she sat down to write to one boy and began: "My dear Noel, I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits..." The letter was illustrated with the drawings which, nine years later, were published in her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

It was then that she began to take control of her life. Unable to find a publisher, she had them printed herself, devising what was to prove a winning formula - well-crafted stories, with illustrations which showed animals in human clothes but drawn utterly without sentimentality, and (unlike the large and elaborate children's books of the period) in a format suitable for small hands. The book - which has since sold a total of 40 million copies - was an instant success, providing her with a small, independent income. Three years later in 1905, she was proposed to by her publisher, Norman Warne. Though she was approaching 40, her parents objected to her marrying someone who worked for a living. But the issue did not come to a head because her fiancé died within a month.

Beatrix was devastated. She wrote in a letter to his sister, Millie: "He did not live long, but he fulfilled a useful, happy life. I must try to make a fresh beginning next year." She found solace in her painting and writing, producing three new books in 1906. A steady stream had begun. With the profits she bought a farm in the Lake District called Hill Top at Near Sawrey by Windermere. With every few books - she wrote 23 altogether - she bought more property in the area.

She was an astute businesswoman. It was her idea, not her publisher's, to design Peter Rabbit wallpaper, dolls, jigsaw puzzles and games. It was Beatrix Potter who invented merchandising. And when her eyesight began to fail in the 1920s she turned happily from writing to sheep-breeding, reviving the Herdwick sheep and trying to ensure that traditional farming methods would not be forgotten.

By then she had finally married. Seven years after Norman's death she wed William Heelis, the solicitor through whom she had bought all her Lakeland property. It was 1913 and she was 47. As the years passed, local people forgot about Beatrix Potter and came to call the woman who always wore the same dour, grey wool suit, Mrs Heelis. The couple were happily married for nearly 30 years.

Their house was small and simple, but it was a comfortable life in which Beatrix Potter ended her days - dressed in clogs, shawl and old tweed skirt, sometimes with a sack tied eccentrically round her waist or over her shoulders, helping with the hay making, searching the fells for lost sheep, at her happiest when she was with her animals. Thus this icon of the Victorian era died in 1943.

Her home is open to the public today. A visit evokes the charm of a disappeared age, when a world of adventure could be confined to the walls of a small cottage. The stove is the same one in which the mouse pie is cooked in The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. Upstairs you can see the floorboard that was lifted by the joiner to rescue Tom Kitten from becoming a pudding for the rat Samuel Whiskers. The garden by the front door is recognisably the one in which Peter Rabbit's father was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor. Here it was that Tommy Brock, the badger, could smile and be a villain. Here the cat and dog, Ribby and Duchess, engaged in social discourse worthy of Jane Austen. Here the sullen teenager Squirrel Nutkin became the prototype rebel without a cause. And Little Pig Robinson set out on a journey which is the small person's equivalent of the travels of Odysseus.

It all shows that imagination is no less vivid when it is circumscribed by even the most limited everyday reality - so long as the interpreter is touched with genius, as Beatrix Potter was. And there is far more to be gained from trying to understand that world - and live for a short time within it - than there is in romanticising it. For all Ms Zellweger's undoubted charms.