Beatrix Potter: a life in nature, by Linda Lear

Countrywoman, superstar

Penelope Lively
Friday 05 January 2007 01:00 GMT

I am aware that these little books don't last long, even if they are a success." Beatrix Potter wrote thus to Norman Warne, her publisher and future fiancé, while negotiating terms for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her first "little book". We know better today. The chief competition, back in 1902, was Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo, laid to rest decades ago as racially insensitive. That fate would no doubt have surprised Potter as much as Peter Rabbit's longevity.

There are two remarkable stories here: Potter's own, and that of a series of small books about animals who usually wear late-Victorian costume. The imagery of iconic figures such as Peter Rabbit or Jemima Puddleduck is familiar to many who will never have read the books; the accompanying elegant texts have set a standard in writing for children, and allowed generations of four-year-olds to glimpse the pleasures of language.

Potter's own tale is that of a young woman initially in thrall to possessive and demanding parents. At 37, she could still be forced to decline an invitation of which they disapproved. She retained her sanity and self-esteem by developing her skill as a painter and student of the natural world. Eventually she achieved independence by her own efforts, enabling her to end up as one of the largest landowners in the Lake District, an industrial farmer and passionate advocate of Herdwick sheep.

A quick scan of the compendious bibliography in this equally exhaustive biography comes up with such titles as Beatrix Potter: Mycologist and Biorecorder. These are a pointer to an intriguing early period when she was absorbed in finding, identifying and painting fungi, with such scientific accuracy and insight that a paper she wrote was presented to the Linnaean society, but not by her personally - since no woman could join or attend that body.

Born into another age, she might well have become a scientist, at the cost of Mrs Tiggywinkle and the rest. As a teenager, she chloroformed and stuffed a long-eared bat, taking careful measurements. Dead rabbits were boiled, and the skeletons preserved in pursuit of anatomical accuracy for her drawings. This was an instinctive professionalism.

Much of the evidence of the early years comes from Beatrix's own adolescent code diary, which she kept until she was 31. The fluency and maturity of her early writing is arresting; even more so are the dry comments that hint at the style to come in the books. It is clear that she was a natural writer from an early age, quite as much as she was an artist - a rare and enviable fusion of talents. Her parents were not unsupportive: her father in particular was proud and encouraging. The trouble was that it all went too far, got out of hand. Commercial success was an embarrassment to them, and more still her engagement to Warne. Publishing was trade; such an alliance was unacceptable to this socially ambitious north-country family, now ensconced in Kensington.

Poor Warne died of leukaemia at 37, only a month after his proposal to Beatrix. She remained faithful to the firm, even when his brother was accused of forgery many years later and sentenced to 18 months hard labour. She did her best to help bail out her old publishers, who needed her more than she needed them, though her heart was no longer in the books ("I am utterly tired of doing them and my eyes are wearing out") and there had been endless problems over dilatory accountancy.

Potter was a good businesswoman, as is demonstrated by the way in which, with the help of her solicitor husband Walter Heelis, she began stealthily to buy up parcels of Lake District land as they became available, with the object of bequeathing all to the National Trust. By this time she was a wealthy woman, thanks not only to royalties but also to the inheritance from her father, who died leaving the equivalent of £7m in today's money. Even so, she ran a tight ship on her Cumbrian farm, monitoring stock and quibbling over wage rises. The redoubtable Mrs Heelis, a major landowner, seems a most unlikely reincarnation of the young Potter, intent upon drawing fungi and tearful because the director of the Natural History Museum failed to speak to her at a social gathering.

That said, she is remembered today (except perhaps in Lake District) not as a sheep-breeder and conservationist but as a superb illustrator and the creator of characters who have seeped into the national consciousness. Linda Lear's biography is a meticulously researched account of her life. Its illustrations nicely display her talent - occasionally surprising, as in a 1905 painting of Bolton Gardens at dusk, delicate, atmospheric, and a long way from Lakeland. There could, however, have been more consideration of Potter's position as a publishing phenomenon, her place in children's literature and reasons for her abiding appeal, and one does feel the author is a great deal more interested in Potter as artist than as writer.

She discusses all of the books, but without much attention to that extraordinary prose, so cadenced, so perfectly judged and, above all, so robustly unpatronising to children. If Potter wants to use an esoteric word, she does so: lettuces are known to make people soporific, and that is that. Anyone who has read the books with children has appreciated such felicities, and knows too that children not only absorb the language but relish it. Potter knew that; resisting a copy editor's suggested change, she retorted: "children like a fine word occasionally." Quite so.

Without the prose, the books would just have been delightfully illustrated nursery assets. They might still have generated the Potter industry, heralded by her own astute fostering of marketing spin-offs in the early days (Peter Rabbit dolls, wallpaper, board games). But they would have lacked that essential ballast, the quality that will always seize the responsive reader, child or adult: the maverick voice of a most individual storyteller. It sings out time and again: "The dinner was of eight courses, not much of anything, but truly elegant"; "Oh, yes if you please'm. I'm an excellent clear starcher"; "No breadth at all, and cut on the cross... tippets for mice and ribbons for mobs! for mice!" And the "scr-r-ritch, scratch, scratch, scritch'" of Mr McGregor's hoe will forever make ominous a familiar gardening sound.

Penelope Lively's 'Moon Tiger' and 'Oleander, Jacaranda' have recently been re-issued as Penguin Modern Classics

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