Sunday, January 29, 2012

Beatrix Redux

There is something delicious about writing the first words of 
a story. You never quite know where they'll take you.” – 
Beatrix Potter, in the movie Miss Potter

I remember my mother reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit to me when I was a small child. How tragic that Peter’s father had been made into a pie! How happy I was when Peter escaped from Farmer McGregor and his evil garden hoe. But I felt sorry for naughty Peter because he didn’t get to have blackberries and camomile tea with his saintly siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. 

Unfair! Didn’t his mother understand that he had nearly met his doom? Besides, any dolt could see that Peter was the interesting character, taking risks and having adventures, while those good little bunnies were boring. At that age, I relished the delights of the story, but it probably never entered my mind that every picture has an artist, every story has an author. . . .

Beatrix as a child
Helen Beatrix Potter—author, artist, and naturalist—was best known for her children’s stories about animals: Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddle-Duck—a whole managerie of characters with names that are fun to say out loud. 

As a child, she spent endless hours observing and drawing animals. She had private art lessons but preferred to develop her own style. Perhaps even then she made up stories about the animals she drew. 

Norman Warne with his nephew
Although she was born into a well-to-do family, success didn’t come to Beatrix gift-wrapped and tied with a bow. As a young woman in post-Victorian England, she fought hard to get a hearing in a business world dominated by men. 

In 1901, she privately printed The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which was published by Warne and Co. the following year. Peter Rabbit was followed by The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and a long string of other enchanting titles. Her friendship with publisher Norman Warne blossomed into romance, and in 1905, they became engaged—unofficially. (Her parents disapproved.) But tragically, Norman died only a month later of leukemia.

Hilltop Farm
That same year Beatrix purchased Hilltop Farm, in Near Sawry in the Lake District. Perhaps as a remedy for grief, she immersed herself in country living, touring neighboring farms to learn more about fell farming and raising livestock. She kept the tenant farmers on at Hilltop to preserve it as a working farm. 

In the following years, she bought additional farms in the area in order to keep the landscape from being ravaged by greedy developers. In this endeavor, she often sought advice from the law firm of W. H. Heelis & Son in Hawkshead. That professional relationship also turned to romance, and William Heelis proposed.

Beatrix and William
In 1913, Beatrix and William were married--without the approval of her parents, who were deeply entrenched in ideas about social class. Nonetheless, the couple were happily married for thirty years, continuing their work in conservation of the land and sheep breeding. Beatrix had no children of her own, but she was actively involved in the life of William's nephews and nieces and with the Girl Guides, a sister organization of the Girl Scouts.

Another view of Hilltop Farm
Beatrix Potter Heelis died in 1943, at the age of 77, leaving a lasting legacy of over 23 children's books and other writings. Most of her estate was left to the National Trust, to preserve the Lake District. William died 18 months later.

Yes, there is “something delicious about writing the first words of a story.” It’s a leap of faith that Madeleine L’Engle likened to walking on water. For Beatrix Potter, those first words took her far, to a place of beauty and serenity at Hilltop Farm and to immortality as a children's writer.

The Stark Raving Mythopath recommends Miss Potter, a 2006 movie version of the life of Beatrix Potter, starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. And of course, I recommend all the charming stories written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. 

And if you'd like to know more about how The Tale of Peter Rabbit came to be written, click here. It all began with a letter to a sick little boy. . . .


  1. I read her books as a child, but never knew anything about her as an person. Thanks for sharing. =)

    I think her quote rings true for me. One of the reasons I found my first NaNoWriMo so intoxicating was that I wrote a bunch of short stories. Each one opened a new little window into another place, time, and host of characters.

  2. Patty - love the new look - must more pleasant for nightime viewing that the Medusa head! Loved to hear about Beatrix too -read a charming book about her life not long ago. However I'm not sure I agree with her quote about the first words of a story - they are a leap of faith, a dive into a deep dark pool of uncertainty! Delicious is not the word that comes to mind - that word is reserved for the act of dreaming the story - that is the best part before putting it out to the world when it's just a private thing like a secret store of chocolate.

  3. Lovely! As a child, those charming, child-sized books were among my favorites. And as an adult, "Miss Potter" is among my all-time favorite movies. Where did you find the wonderful pictures?! Thanks so much for sharing.