I came late to Beatrix’s work.
Sometimes it takes a while to recognize patterns in a life. Sometimes the patterns never become clear. Sometimes the only way to glean the message is to catch a glimpse of someone else’s life. That’s when the “Eureka” moment pounds through the thickness of one’s skull. And that’s how it was for me when I began dipping into the stories of Beatrix Potter’s life.
A caveat first: Of course, like you, I’d read Beatrix’s books. As a child. I couldn’t resist the cute, minute, child-sized books, which the Warnes, the publishers, produced at Beatrix’s insistence, perfect for small hands to hold while turning pages.
And I also loved the names of the hordes of characters she created: Tabitha Twitchwit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Pigling Bland, Diggory Diggory Delvet, Hunca Munca. Who wouldn’t delight in the funny noises rolling off their tongue with those delectable syllables?
But now, from my vantage point of many years, I realize that those little books provided a means for Miss Potter’s greatest masterpiece, Hilltop Farm, as well as the farms surrounding it. Today the National Trust manages Beatrix’s properties in England’s mythical Lake District. By buying those properties, followed by bequeathing them not to her husband, solicitor William Heelis, but rather to the National Trust, Beatrix became one of the earliest conservationists.
Beatrix’s brilliance as a writer and as an artist once came under the scrutiny of another of my favorite writers, Graham Greene. His 1933 article, “Beatrix Potter,” in the London Mercury, caused her to pen a rare rebuke to him, for in that article he dissected the difference in tone between her earlier and later work with a bit of Freudian analysis, which she dismissed with a sharp rejoinder, indeed “acid,” as Greene put it.
What draws me to Beatrix now is not so much her art or even her writing per se. It has more to do with her mission. Granted, she hailed from a very privileged background, tremendous wealth actually, so much so that she spent her summers for years on large country estates, where she was able to observe nature closely. Her cloistered lifestyle, thanks to the very Victorian sensibilities of her parents, allowed her the solitude and freedom to explore the ideas that birthed the various Tales, as well as her seminal and ground-breaking thoughts on the germination of fungi. Beatrix’s calling, as it turned out, led her to preserving the land and way of life of the people who lived and worked in the Lake District.
Nature was her Muse.
She herself became a farmer, breeding and raising prize Herdwick sheep.
Yes, all of this information appears in books by Margaret Lane, Judy Taylor, Linda Lear, and numerous articles widely available on the internet. One of the most amazing things about Miss Potter is her journal, which she kept between 1881 and 1897, written in a code of her own devising and first cracked by Leslie Linder around 1966. [See The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881-1897 (1990), edited by Leslie Linder]
What really hit home, while immersing myself in the stories of Beatrix’s life, turned out to be the influence of gardens on her and her work. This comes as no surprise, for gardens crop up in her stories with the constancy of mushrooms after a long and gentle rain.
Then I discovered Marta McDowell’s Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, brimming with colorful illustrations, vintage photographs, and tidbits of botanical lore. This book gripped me in a way that few have in my life. I could see a pattern, finally, to all the longings, the desires, the hollow places, the things that seemed to be whispering “Is this all there is?”
Yes, I came late to Beatrix’s work. But thank goodness I did.
© 2017 C. Bertelsen