Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Book Review: Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear

If you loved Beatrix Potter's books as a child and if you saw the recent film Miss Potter and wondered about Beatrix Potter's life before and after the events in the film, Linda Lear's Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (in paperback Beatrix Potter: The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius) is the book for you.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was the only daughter of a wealthy family of north-country Dissenting stock. Her father was a London barrister of independent means and almost limitless leisure, her mother a rampant snob who didn't like to be reminded that her forebears made their fortune in what upper-class Victorians sniffily referred to as "trade". Beatrix grew up in a grand part of London but was happiest during the family's frequent country house holidays in Scotland, Wales and the Lake District. Awayfrom the stifling conventions of city life, she was able to indulge her love of nature, deepen her knowledge of it, whilst cultivating her artistic gifts. From an early age she drew detailed studies of plants and animals and she made pets of rabbits, mice, hedgehogs and other small creatures, which she loved to draw and paint (and dissect when dead, for she was no sentimentalist), thus acquiring the detailed botanical and anatomical knowledge that would not only save her later creations from Victorian tweeness, but would also lead her to make a serious study of botany, something her family did not encourage.

But Beatrix, outwardly ever the dutiful daughter, had a stubborn, determined streak. After she had failed on her own account to get a student ticket to the library of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew which would enable her to pursue her study of fungi reproduction, she persuaded her scientific uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, to apply on her behalf in person to the Director, William Thiselton-Dyer. Linda Lear gives a vivid account of her visit to Kew in the company of her uncle. After casually authorising her ticket, Thiselton-Dyer proceeded to ignore her as he accompanied her and Uncle Henry across the Gardens to catch the train home. Beatrix, by then a woman of nearly thirty, later insisted she wasn't offended by Thiselton-Dyer's behaviour, but she took satisfaction in shooting in "one remark which made him jump, as if he had forgotten my presence". The eminent Director would probably not have appreciated knowing that Beatrix's fungi paintings are still consulted for their accuracy of detail and colour, or that her professional contemporaries were later found to have been wrong in dismissing her fungi reproduction research.

Beatrix's mother was extremely demanding, and at a age when most young women would have been married off to a suitable young man, Beatrix was still at her mother's beck and call. But in between her daughterly duties, Beatrix found fulfilment in her scientific studies and, increasingly, in paintings and drawings of animals in fantasy. It was in the illustrated story-letters she sent to various children of her acquaintance that the Peter Rabbit books had their origins.

The story of how she eventually found a publisher and fell in love with Norman Warne, one of the brothers who ran the company, is beautifully told here as is her grief at Norman's sudden death not long after her parents had given their grudging and belated consent to the marriage. One can't help but feel anger toward the selfish mother who denied her a happy courtship, and would have deprived her of a subsequent happy marriage as well, if Beatrix hadn't asserted the independence the success of her books gave her. But Beatrix herself, to her credit, never seemed bitter, probably because after Norman's death she made herself a new life in her beloved Lake District as Beatrix Heelis, wife of a Hawkshead solicitor and a prominent farmer and landowner in her own right. Long before conservation became the watchword it is today, she had the foresight to realise that the integrity of rural landcapes and ways of life needed protection, and she used much of her fortune, as well as her husband's local knowledge and legal expertise, to buy up Lakeland fell farms in order to keep them out of the hands of property developers and maintain them as working farms. The magnificently-named Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, joint founder of The National Trust for the Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, had been a longtime family friend and inspired by him, she intended all her Lake District property to go the Trust including, after her death, her principal homes, Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage. She took up farming with gusto, aided by an unerring instinct for finding the right men for the jobs she couldn't do herself, and overcoming a good deal of local prejudice in the process; she was, after all, both an "off-comer" and a woman, and this was rural England between the wars.

Toward the end of her life, Beatrix Heelis wrote to a kindred spirit, Samuel Cunningham, summing up her philosophy of land preservation:
For years I have been gradually picking up land, chance bargains, and specializing on road frontages and the heads of valleys. I have a long way towards three thousand acres...It is an open secret it will go to the Trust eventually...I own two or three strikingly beautiful spots. The rest is pleasant peaceful country, foreground of the hills, I think more liable to be spoilt than the high fells themselves...I am sometimes surprised at myself, being contented. I lift my eyes to the hills, and am content to look at them from below.

Although she could be abrasive and didn't suffer fools gladly, Beatrix kept the robust sense of humour so evident in her books and she always had time for interested visitors, especially children. She continued to write and illustrate her animal stories until her eyesight and her inspiration began to fail, but she farmed until her health finally broke down. She was always happiest as a stout, rosy-cheeked figure tramping her fields and woods dressed in clogs and clothes of coarse wool from the unique Herdwick sheep she loved and championed.

In this beautifully-written biography, Linda Lear paints an honest, yet appealing portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and part of it, a woman who against the odds created a useful and fulfilling life for herself whilst giving pleasure to generations of children and preserving the fragile Lake District landscape and way of life for the benefit and enjoyment of all.

And because Linda Lear has given us the real-life contexts for the illustrations in Beatrix Potter's books, we can re-read these nursery classics and appreciate the exquisitely-detailed illustrations with a new depth of knowledge about their characters and settings.

In 1940, Lear tells us, Beatrix Potter wrote to a child who had asked her what happened to the fairy caravan after the book of that name ended:

When we grow old and wear spectacles, our eyes are not bright, like children's eyes, nor our ears so quick, to see and hear the fairies...where can the circus have wandered to? I believe I know! Right away amongst the fells - the green and blue hills above my sheep farm in Troutbeck. Such a lonely place, miles along a lovely green road. That was where I first saw the mark of little horse shoes. There is an old barn there we call High Buildings...and when I was younger and used to take long walks, I used to eat my bread and cheese at High Buildings, or shelter from the rain. That was where the Caravan sheltered in a very wild rainstorm, and Xarifa made acquaintance with the melancholy Mouse...

1 comment:

Kirsten Campbell said...

She was such a remarkable woman, wasn't she? So intelligent and talented. I've always loved her stories and illustrations. Mr. Jeremy Fisher was my favourite. :)