Once upon a time there was a little girl named Beatrix Potter who lived in a big house in a big city. Most days she played by herself in her third-floor nursery.
She didn’t like the city; she loved the country. And she loved animals. So she smuggled many different creatures – rabbits, mice, hedgehogs, snails, even lizards – into her tiny world.
As she grew older, Beatrix got better and better at drawing animals and nature. When she was a young woman she started adding stories to her illustrations, making them into books.
British author Matthew Dennison is the latest to turn the story of Beatrix Potter herself into a book: Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter. Indeed, Ms. Potter’s extraordinary life makes for an absorbing tale.
Nearly 75 years after her passing, she still is one of the most famous children’s writers in the world. Millions of copies of her 23 books have been sold – in many languages.
Potter’s parents were wealthy Londoners who kept their daughter on a short leash well into adulthood. “The Potters’ world was one of conformities and prohibitions,” Mr. Dennison says.
But Potter, with the help for a while of her younger brother, turned the children’s area of their Kensington home into a place to enjoy, study, and draw wildlife. The Potters also took long vacations in the country.
In 1901, when Potter was 35, she self-published "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." She’d attempted to interest various publishers in this now world-famous tale – including Frederick Warne & Co., which finally published "Peter Rabbit "the following year. Soon, she was a best-selling author.
Dennison ably tells about Potter’s cloistered childhood; about her determination to get published, and about her marriage to an attorney. Moreover, he tells about her years of success. Readers feel her passion for England’s beautiful Lake District, which became her home. They understand why she ended up buying large tracts of land, and farms, protecting this for England’s National Trust.
Potter won her popularity by involving readers in the dilemmas of her characters using simple, almost poetic words: In Peter Rabbit’s case, he must escape from the garden of Mr. McGregor. Peter Rabbit’s mother already has warned him: “‘Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.’”
Here is a description from "The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher": “Mr. Jeremy Fisher ... lived in a little damp house amongst the buttercups at the edge of a pond.” Jeremy Fisher, a frog, almost gets eaten by trout.
In "The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse" she tells the story of Johnny and his visitor from the country, Timmy Willie. Timmy Willie fell asleep in a hamper of food and was dropped off in the city. Potter writes: “One place suits one person, another place suits another person. For my part I prefer to live in the country, like Timmy Willie.”
Meanwhile, Potter’s illustrations – beautiful, quiet pictures depicting animal characters in people clothes – enthrall her readers. They are super-realistic, but also whimsical and almost dreamlike.
There is much to like about Dennison’s version of Potter’s life. Dennison’s text is filled with telling observations. This is Dennison’s description of Potter in her 40s: “Her hair inclined to unruliness; she dressed as simply as prevailing fashions allowed ... in clothes that were practical to the point of shapelessness.”
Meanwhile, Dennison skillfully weaves Beatrix’s stories into every part of her narrative. He describes a happy holiday this way: “Brother and sister revelled in a natural paradise, as companionable as Timmy and Goody Tiptoes in the nut thicket in "The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes.”
But Dennison could have benefitted from following Potter’s example of straightforward storytelling. His narrative sometimes is distractingly non-linear. This can facilitate a theme – as it does in many instances here. But it also can prevent the reader from gaining traction in understanding periods in Beatrix’s life.
The effect also can be frustrating. Readers familiar with major events in Beatrix’s life find their anticipation as to, for example, the publication of "Peter Rabbit," rewarded with backslides into earlier periods in her life.
Dennison, however, rectifies this with earnest descriptions, including his stunningly evocative paragraphs about the final chapter of Potter’s life. At the end he describes the view today from the sitting room of her Hill Top home, now a museum in Cumbria County, in a way Potter would have loved: [I]t stretches ... past stone cottages and snaking lanes to ... the blue slopes of mountains and the distant glimmer of sunlight on lake water, over the hills and far away."