Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman, by Judy Taylor. Harmondsworth, England, and New York: Frederick Warne/Viking Penguin. 224 pp. $24.95. NEW light shed on a beloved subject. That's what Judy Taylor, author and former children's books editor at the Bodley Head, has accomplished with the publication of her rich and vivid biography of Beatrix Potter.
Known by generations of children and parents on both sides of the Atlantic for her Peter Rabbit books, Beatrix Potter combined her keen interests in natural history, landscape, and painting to create a magical world inhabited by animal characters with distinctly drawn features and deftly layered personalities. They also had some marvelous names: Jemima Puddleduck, Mrs. TiggyWinkle, and Squirrel Nutkin.
Taylor's highly readable account of Potter's life work establishes pleasant new ground between Leslie Linder's scholarly studies of Potter's art and his transcription of her ``Journal,'' and Margaret Lane's charming biographical volumes, ``The Tale of Beatrix Potter'' and ``The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter,'' which focus primarily on Potter's early years.
Lane's and Linder's works are enhanced by ``Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman,'' which incorporates Taylor's extensive research in the Frederick Warne archives and reflects her growing personal collection of Beatrix Potter's letters - shared by Potter enthusiasts from around the world. Taylor weaves her material into a seamless narrative, often recounted directly by Beatrix Potter through quotations from her ``Journal'' and letters. For new Potter fans, this biography provides a well-rounded picture of its subject. For Potterphiles who are already familiar with earlier biographical material, it offers insight into the roles that Rupert Potter, Bertram Potter, Hardwicke Rawnsley, Norman Warne, and William Heelis played in the development of Beatrix Potter's character and careers.
Rupert Potter, Beatrix's father, comes across more appealingly than in earlier accounts. We learn that he shared with Beatrix both his talent for sketching and his interest in photography. Bertram Potter, six years younger than his sister, shared her artistic interests; together on summer holidays in Scotland, they explored forests and fields, catching, taming, drawing, and studying rabbits, birds, and other small creatures.
Another individual who shared Beatrix's love of northern England was Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, the vicar of Wray, where the Potter family summered for the first time when Beatrix was 16. They shared not only a love of the Lake District, but also an interest in writing. When Beatrix was seeking a publisher for her first book, ``Peter Rabbit,'' she turned to him for advice. At one point, he even rewrote Potter's text in verse, beginning with: ``There were four little bunnies/ no bunnies were sweeter/ Mopsy and Cotton-tail,/ Flopsy and Peter.''
For Beatrix, however, two men nearer her own age claimed her affections. When she was in her 30s, she worked closely with Norman Warne, the youngest son of her publisher, on several of her books. Taylor gives us a more rounded view of this young man through details of his family life gleaned from the Warne archives and from interviews with descendants of his brothers. Biographical detail included here shows how natural it was that romance should bloom between Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter, whose little books began as letters to the children of one of her governesses and to young relatives.
Like Fruing Warne, William Heelis, the lawyer-solicitor whom Beatrix Potter married in 1913, valued the business acumen of this gifted artist and storyteller. Heelis first became acquainted with Beatrix Potter in 1905, when she consulted with him about Hill Top farm, her initial purchase in the Lake District. The ``kindness and efficient and understanding support'' he provided were not lost on Beatrix, who, having previously experienced difficulty in personal relationships, soon grew fond of this considerate man.
Taylor does not close the record of Beatrix Potter at the time of her marriage to William Heelis, but includes some heartwarming detail, not only about their individual pursuits, but also about the activities they participated in together, looking after relatives, attending country dances and Heelis family parties, and generously contributing land, time, and money to local charity and community events. Taylor traces these and other activities through the 30 years of their marriage to Beatrix's death in December 1943, which was followed by William's a year and a half later.
Taylor's account leaves the reader pondering the magnitude of Beatrix Potter's love - a love fostered and nourished by five special men in her life, free of bitterness or rancor about the circumstances of earlier years, and seeking only to bestow good on the land, the people, and the animals she had learned to love. The many photographs and illustrations (at least one per page) in this beautifully designed book illuminate its content.
As was said of Beatrix Potter's own works in a New York Herald Tribune editorial of January 1944, ``Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman'' is ``a book that brings grown-ups and children together in shared delight.''
Helen Borgens teaches children's literature at San Diego State University, California, and has lectured on Beatrix Potter at professional conferences.