Rabbits were her best friends
Beatrix Potter was born a wealthy Victorian expected only to marry. Instead, she became the best-loved children's author of her time.
If there ever was an unlikely candidate for a biopic and "celebrity of the month" treatment, it would be Beatrix Potter. The revered children's author and illustrator lived a quiet, estimable life, far removed from the drama so often associated with literary biography.
Until her mid-40s Potter was a spinster and dutiful Victorian daughter. In her 20s and 30s, while her peers were either obsessing over the search for a husband or engaging in romantic high jinks, she immersed herself in the study of geology and paleontology, fretting mostly about the correctness of her sketches of fossils and fungi.
Even later in life, as a famed author and independently wealthy property owner, she cut a decidedly undashing figure. A young boy who knew her at that time recalls that even though he took no interest in clothes, he couldn't help noticing her dowdiness.
And yet today, a little more than 64 years after her death, Potter is the subject of a serious new biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, even as Renée Zellweger portrays her in a major movie release, also unveiled this month. It's a tribute, perhaps, to the enduring appeal of intelligence and talent. Potter had plenty of both.
Born in 1866 into a wealthy Victorian family, young Beatrix entered a world in which little was required of her other than to entertain herself and, someday, to marry well.
Potter's father, Rupert, was an amateur artist who trained as a solicitor but appears to spent little or no time in the office. Her mother, Helen, was a fearsome social snob, obsessed with making a place for herself among London's elite.
Without trying, however, Rupert and Helen Potter created an atmosphere perfect for nurturing the natural talents of their daughter. Left in the hands of a governess, Beatrix was gently educated and largely allowed to follow her own passions, which included keeping pets, playing outdoors, and drawing.
For many years, however, it seemed that such circumstances had combined to create a misfit. The young Miss Potter was a shy creature, more comfortable with rabbits and mice than with her peers. Although she once wrote that "a happy marriage is the crown of a woman's life," she had no taste for the matchmaking conventions of the time (or for her mother's ambitions for a mate with the right family name) and so the years passed and Potter remained home alone with her parents.
But Potter's time was not wasted. Energetic and impassioned, she continued her scientific studies even as she entertained her small circle of friends and family with drawings of her pets and charming stories about them.
Finally, when Potter was in her late 30s, her former governess, Annie Moore, had a thought. Potter wrote illustrated letters to Moore's children, who loved them and read them over and again. Might not other children enjoy them as well, Moore asked? Potter was intrigued by the idea and shaped one such letter, a story about her pet rabbit Peter Piper, into a book.
She submitted it to six publishers, all of whom turned her down. Finally, through the intervention of a well- connected family friend, one reconsidered.
"The Tale of Peter Rabbit," published in 1902, was an overnight sensation. Delighted, Potter went on to create other classics such as "Squirrel Nutkin" and "The Tailor of Gloucester." Soon, she was famous and independently wealthy – but still under the thumb of her parents.
At the age of 39, she received a marriage proposal from Norman Warne, one of her publishers. For Beatrix, this would have been a genuine love match, but her parents were horrified and required her to delay any announcement of a betrothal. Warne became ill shortly after proposing to Potter and died before she was ever able to see him again.
But this loss served to propel her out of her parents' grasp. With her own money, Potter purchased a working farm in England's Lake District and began living the rural life she craved.
A few years later, in the face of her parents' discomfort, she married William Heelis, a country solicitor. The two went on to enjoy more than two decades of a happy, if unglamorous, union, spending much of their wealth in worthy efforts to prevent developers from spoiling the countryside and rural lifestyle they loved. (They kept a large car with chauffeur, and Beatrix could occasionally be seen riding in the back with a sheep or two.)
When Potter died in 1943, she was able to add 4,300 acres to the National Trust holdings in the Lake District.
Lear, a prizewinning biographer ("Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature") has given us an careful, intelligent look at Potter's life. Potter kept a coded journal in her youth and thanks to these entries Lear is able to share some of Potter's own thoughts and feelings, at least in the early part of her life.
In later years, however, the biography seems almost a reflection of Potter's Victorian rectitude and is correct more often than insightful. Once the journal entries end, there's less of a window into Potter herself. At 500-plus pages, plenty of detail is offered but it's more likely to be about Potter's dealings with the National Trust and the Girl Guides than her inner state.
However, as an appreciation of a life well-lived and a talent almost accidentally nurtured, "Beatrix Potter" tells an absorbing story well worth reading.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.