Tales of the real Beatrix Potter: How could Mrs Heelis, the curmudgeonly sheep-farmer, also be the fey storyteller who created Peter Rabbit 100 years ago? Paula Weideger went to Cumbria to investigate the mystery

Paula Weideger
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:51
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BEATRIX POTTER's life story has been turned into a roly-poly version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - the fey creator of Peter Rabbit et al, who in later life became the curmudgeonly sheep breeder Mrs William Heelis.

James Lees-Milne, a leading figure in the National Trust in the post-war years and a widely-read diarist, gives the standard view in a 1945 entry, two years after her death at 77. Looking at her 'delicious drawings', he writes, 'I find it hard to reconcile the Mrs Heelis I met with the Beatrix Potter who conceived and produced them. For Mrs Heelis was an unbending, masculine, stalwart woman with an acute business sense.' Miss Potter, it is presumed, had been feminine, fragile and dreamy.

A brief sketch of her life makes it plain how the split-personality business started, because it does consist of two phases, based in different places. In London, Beatrix Potter lived with her wealthy parents, Rupert and Helen, in Kensington. She visited museums and exhibitions, but vast stretches of her life were passed closeted away upstairs in the nursery with a menagerie of pets who were both company and inspiration for her stories. The first of these was Peter Rabbit, originally written as a letter to a child 100 years ago, when she was 27, and published publicly in book form in 1902.

Physical freedom at least came during the three summer months when the family went north, often to the Lake District. In 1905, with money she made from Peter Rabbit, she bought Hill Top, an 18th-century farmhouse where she occasionally managed to steal a night.

Although her protective Victorian upbringing made it difficult for her to form relationships with men, she undoubtedly did, but it was not until 1913, when she was 47, that Beatrix Potter married William Heelis, a Westmorland solicitor who handled the deals on the extensive property she bought in the Lake District.

After that books still trickled out, but Beatrix Potter's masterpieces had been written. Mrs Heelis was now engaged in breeding Herdwick sheep and buying numerous fell farms in order that the National Trust might preserve them. The myth has it that her personality changed along with her address and preoccupations - for the worse.

I sought out people who knew her to try to find something closer to life. Although remembering Beatrix Potter has become a cottage industry, even now there are people whose memories of her are still warm. The woman to whom they introduced me was as likeable as her achievements were large.

One who knew her throughout her life is Harry Becket, whose father was the Potters' coachman. A fit man of 93, who grew up in the Potter household, he jokes that he first met Beatrix when he was four months old. He later knew her right through her marriage.

At his spruce bungalow on the edge of Kendal, Mr Becket talked at length about the family and their isolated, talented girl. In his family album are photographs by Rupert Potter of Mr Becket's father in livery, and of him taken by 'Miss B'. Needless to say, she had a good eye.

'She did not suffer fools kindly,' Mr Becket says, though obviously she did not count him among them. While her parents never gave him anything, Beatrix gave Harry one of her books each Christmas. He has nine, most of them first editions. He takes them out, handles them tenderly, and reads the inscriptions.

'Hers was a queer life in many ways,' he reflects. 'She was shut away so much it made her shy.' To hear the son of servants feeling sorry for the daughter of their master makes the misery of her early years seem sadder still.

'Her mother expected her to be at her beck and call all the time,' he continues. 'Mrs Potter was difficult. There's no doubt about it.'

This was a real Victorian household, he says. One daughter was expected to stay unmarried and look after her parents. Not every daughter did, of course, but Beatrix Potter remained dutiful. Peter Rabbit, in his blue jacket with gold buttons, did all the disobeying.

Her first chance at a life of her own ended in 1905 with the sudden death of her fiance - and editor - Norman Warne, from pernicious anaemia. He was 37. Her parents had been against that marriage and were still disapproving when, eight years later, she told them she wanted to marry William Heelis.

Bertram, her younger brother, came down from his farm in Scotland to plead for his sister with their unyielding parents. Only then, to help her, did Bertram reveal to them that he himself had been married for years.

''Did she become less shy after her marriage?' I ask Harry Becket. 'Yes, definitely,' he replies.

'Did she become more like her mother?' 'Oh, no,' he says, clearly startled by the idea.

Brigadier John Heelis, 72, who lives outside Appleby in Cumbria, has just finished a biography of Beatrix Potter. He knows plenty about her husband, who was his great-uncle William. 'It always shocks the Beatrix Potter Society when I say that the aunts thought Willie was marrying beneath him,' Brigadier Heelis says.

I'm shown the family album. Here is William with his golf clubs; another shows him playing bowls. He fished and shot and was keen on country dancing. The tiny, chubby spinster had certainly found herself a tall, good-looking and vigorous fellow to wed.

Across country lives a woman who knew Mrs William Heelis well. Like Beatrix Potter, Josephine Banner is an artist and she too has been, and remains, intertwined with the shepherds and their world. With her late husband, the painter Delmar Banner, she lived on a hill-farm in Westmorland for decades and has known the Herdwick shepherds since well before the last war. She remains a beauty at 89.

'I'm so pleased you want to destroy the myths about her,' Mrs Banner beams. 'I knew her intimately. She was so perceptive; she knew all about me without having to be told anything.'

Almost immediately the conjuring up of Mrs Heelis begins. 'She walked in clogs quite a lot when she was out. People picked on that as a crude thing, saying 'She stomped about'. But that's not true. She walked, I would say, sensitively. Like somebody who was thinking, rather, while they were walking.'

The Banners had been introduced to Mrs Heelis at the Eskdale Show, one of the high points of the Herdwick sheep-breeder's year. 'I was there in my boiler suit and clogs, serving dinners to shepherds and helping with the washing up,' Mrs Banner recalls. 'I was part of the scene. A friend of the farmers. As that she would accept me.'

Mrs Heelis had no time for the county set, but plenty for the shepherds. This was not inverted snobbery but fine judgement. The Westmorland shepherds were as tough and doughty as their Herdwick flocks. Yet they were sensitive, too - and they could certainly talk about sheep.

'She had the brightest blue eyes,' Mrs Banner says. 'They looked at you unclouded by any suspicion. And she'd got a lovely sense of humour. She wouldn't show it to just anybody. She didn't, at first, to us. When she got to know us better, we'd have jokes about various things, she would sit in her little easy chair and laugh and rock herself backwards and forwards. Her little hands would go up and down on her knees. Just like one of her own little animals.

'She knew she was like one of her own little animals. Oh, yes. She once gave me a little caricature of herself, like Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. And she knew she was rather fetching. This little black velvet bow at the top of her head with the velvet coming at the back - she knew this was rather cute.'

Cute? Mrs Heelis, who dressed in practically floor-length heavy tweeds? But coming from this feminine beauty, it is easy to believe.

'Delmar and she talked an awful lot of shop about art and painting. What colours would last and so on,' Mrs Banner says.

So Mrs Heelis hadn't turned her back on pictures after all? 'Oh no. The only reason she gave up art is that her eyesight gave out. She told us that. She could no longer see properly to do it. She was determined not to get worse and worse.'

The picture of Willie as 'dim', a word James Lees-Milne uses to describe him, is also wrong, Mrs Banner insists, even if his wife did poke fun at his slowness in some of her letters.

'They were very fond of each other. It was quite romantic. One afternoon, latish in the year, it was getting dark and she began to prepare his supper. We were staying on to meet him. He was coming back from his work. And you know,' Mrs Banner whispers, 'she forgot us. She didn't think about us at all. She laid the table. She put the candlesticks on it. She lit the candle. It was very romantic. Oh, yes. She was expecting her man back.'

But what about the belittling of Mr Heelis that she sometimes went in for? This, Mrs Banner insists, was just North Country talk.

'We were sometimes snowed in,' she says, beginning another story. 'Once, in a very bad winter, we were snowed in for a fortnight.' During those weeks, 'Beatrix Potter was able to bring a child into the world and lay out a corpse. She could do this. That makes people very close to nature, and their jokes . . .'(there is a long pause) '. . . different, if you know what I mean.'

Here was another clue to help me to piece together the split personality. This closeness to nature was already there in the little books that Beatrix Potter wrote, of course - but it was a nature red in tooth and claw. Foxhounds save Jemima Puddle-Duck; they also eat her eggs.

Mrs Banner also helps to explain why Mrs Heelis had a reputation as brusque and unbending. By this time her greatness had been recognised and many admirers made the pilgrimage to Hill Top. But their heroine might not answer a knock at the door. She might tell a caller, adult or pint-sized, that Mrs Heelis was out.

'There was tremendous pressure on her not to be an artist; not even to be a farmer. Just to be something to visit,' Mrs Banner says. 'That's why people thought she was a curmudgeon. They thought they were the only ones, but there were hundreds who wanted to see her.

'She did entertain people at Hill Top. But when the people had gone, she and Willie would put out the fire and would just go quietly over the field back to the cottage where she really lived.'

Perhaps Beatrix Potter had come to feel comfortable with seclusion during those long years in the nursery. 'She was,' Mrs Banner says, 'like one of those little animals that didn't want a lot of people in her burrow.'

Graham Greene was among those whom Beatrix Potter wished would keep their noses out. Her response to his 1933 essay about her was acerbic. Yet Greene was adulatory, his subject was her genius. Comparisons with E M Forster and Henry James were made. Greene wrote that the action in her tales 'is observed from the outside by an acute and unromantic observer, who never sacrifices truth for an effective gesture'. These words apply just as well to the young woman who wrote such astute criticisms of paintings at the Royal Academy in her diary. And that same detached sharpness of perception was there later when she judged Herdwick sheep. Her romantic side was kept for her burrow and the husband, with whom she was finally able to share it.

So there never was a sea-change. Beatrix Potter had two successful careers, not two personalities. Three, actually. She was a story- teller, a prize-winning breeder of sheep, and a cunning, visionary conservationist. More than 4,000 acres of land in the Lake District have been preserved, along with the way of life of the people who farm them, because of her efforts - and the money earned by Peter, Jemima, Samuel Whiskers. To conjure up Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde does her a great injustice. She was remarkable all the way through.

An exhibition marking the centenary of 'Peter Rabbit' is at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 27 November.

(Photographs omitted)

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