Beatrix Potter And Her Legendary Rabbit

May 28, 2010

Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866, at Number Two Bolton Gardens in London’s Kensington. Independently wealthy, Bea-trix’s father, Rupert, had trained as a barrister but rarely practiced law and spent most of his time visiting gentlemen’s clubs; her mother, Helen, was generally preoccupied with entertaining visitors or making visits of her own. As a young child, Beatrix was cared for by a nurse, and she spent long hours alone, only seeing her parents at bedtime and on special occasions. As she got older, like many young Victorian girls, Beatrix was educated at home where a succession of governesses taught her reading, writing, music, and drawing. She lived a secluded life, and had little contact with children of her own age (her younger brother Bertram was often away at school). Essentially a lonely child, she did have several pets with which she shared her childhood; many were small animals that she smuggled into her house; the most special were two rabbits that she named "Benjamin" and "Peter." Bright, intelligent, and gifted, Beatrix studied her pets’ behaviors and made drawings of them regularly.
It was common for the Potter family to spend three months each summer away from London, first in Perth, Scotland (1871 to 1881), and later in England’s Lake District. It was while staying in the Lake District during 1882 that the Potter family met the local vicar, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, who later founded the National Trust (1895). Rawnsley was concerned with the effects of industry and tourism on the Lake District, and through him Beatrix learned the importance of conservation, a concern to which she remained devoted throughout her life.
While in Scotland and in the Lake District, Beatrix enjoyed watching the forest and garden animals, and she made sketches of them as well as of the Lakeside landscapes. In addition to her drawings Beatrix recorded her daily life in journals (from age fifteen until after she was thirty), using a secret code that was not deciphered until more than a decade after her death.
When Beatrix came of age, her parents decided that she should become their housekeeper. At a time when Victorian women were offered a range of new freedoms, especially in the workplace, Beatrix was discouraged from intellectual pursuits and was kept at home where she kept house for her parents, studied, and drew. Her drawings of microscopic lichens and fungi led her to suggest the symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. Respect for Beatrix’s observations and drawings grew, and in 1897 her uncle, Sir Hentry Enfield Roscoe, presented a paper she wrote on spore germination at the Linnean Society.
Beatrix turned her talents to writing stories inspired by the small animals she loved. Although she was encouraged to publish her story The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she did not find a publisher until 1902 when it was accepted by Frederick Warne & Co. Warne did not publish the story immediately, however, and Beatrix first published it privately in an edition of 450 copies. Warne issued the first color edition as a small book, easy for young readers to hold and read. The story was so well received that Beatrix was able to gain a steady income from its sales.
Publication of Peter Rabbit led to a romance between Beatrix and her publisher Norman Warne. Beatrix’s parents, however, were opposed to her marrying a tradesman and the couple kept their engagement a secret. Sadly, the marriage never came about because Norman fell ill and died shortly after he and Beatrix became engaged.
Although Beatrix was devastated by Norman’s death, she continued to write, and lucrative royalties on her books made it possible for Beatrix to purchase properties in the Lake District. In 1903, she bought a field near Sawrey, and in 1905 she bought a small farm in Sawrey that was called "Hill Top." She also purchased the farm opposite Hill Top, called "Castle Farm." Her characters Tom Kitten and Samuel Whiskers lived at Castle Farm, and her book Squirrel Nutkin incorporated background views based on Derwentwater, Cat-bells, and the Newlands Valley; Fawe Park featured in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. Beatrix drew much inspiration from the Lake Dis-trict’s natural beauty and abundant small wildlife and in buying Lakeland properties she saved many buildings from demolition and improper use.
Beatrix remained single until the age of forty-seven when she married Hawshead solicitor William Heelis in 1913. In 1923 she bought Troutbeck Park Farm where she specialized in breeding Herdwick Sheep. Her sheep won numerous prizes at country shows, and Beatrix became a respected farmer and a local agricultural show judge. She trained sheep dogs and bred prize pigs (reflected in her char-acter Pigling Bland), and she was the first woman elected to serve as the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association’s president-designate. She continued to acquire property, buying the 4,000 acre Monk Coniston Estate in 1930. She cared for her parents when they became old and ill and moved them to the Lake District. When they died, Beatrix used her inheritance to acquire additional farms and tracts of land. She and her husband eventually moved to Sawrey, where they lived in Castle Cottage. Although Beatrix never had children of her own, her illustrated letters to children strongly suggest that she was fond of young people. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was originally written in the form of a letter sent in 1893 to a five-year-old invalid boy named Noel.
Because her eyesight was failing, Beatrix wrote little after 1920 and although The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was published in 1930, it was written long before its publication date. In 1934, she gave many of her watercolors and drawings of fungi, mosses, and fossils to the Armitt Library in Ambleside. In all, Beatrix authored twenty-three books; like the Tale of Peter Rabbit, they were pub-lished in a small format designed for young readers.
Beatrix Potter died at Castle Cottage in Sawrey on December 22, 1943. Her body was cremated, and her ashes were scattered in the countryside. She bequeathed 4,000 acres of land, cottages, and fifteen farms to the National Trust, a legacy that has helped to ensure protection and preservation of the Lake District’s natural beauty and fell farming. Beatrix’s properties are now part of the Lake District National Park, which is visited annually by thousands of visitors from Britain and abroad.
Beatrix Potter’s intelligence, imagination, great artistic gifts, and devotion to the earth and its small wild creatures have delighted generations of children. Her life and stories have also captured adult imagination. In addition to biographies, The Journal of Beatrix Potter 1881-1897 (from Beatrix’s coded journals) was first published by Frederick Warne in 1966. A film titled The Tales of Beatrix Potter was released in 1971, and a number of the Tales were set to music and choreographed for performance by the Royal Ballet. The Beatrix Potter Society was established in 1980 by a group of people professionally involved in the curatorship of Beatrix Potter mate-rial ( The BBC produced The Tale of Beatrix Potter in 1982; The Tale of Pigling Bland be-came a musical theater production first performed on July 6, 2006, in Toronto; and the film Miss Potter starring Renée Zellweger was released in December of 2006. Potter items of every kind (from early editions of her books to vintage and newer toys and novelty items) remain in high demand among collectors.


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