Beatrix Potter


(This column was first published in the July 25, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)


One of the few people I recall from my urban Rochester childhood was a favorite babysitter named Nora. (How long ago that was is conveyed by the fact that my parents referred to Nora as my nursemaid.) I recall the name because I wondered why hers was the same as that of my aunt Nora Peterson. Had they run out of names? In any case I loved them both.


What made Nora a particular favorite was her reading to me the wonderful stories of Beatrix Potter. I begged her to share them again and again and she cheerfully did so. So many years later having gone back to those stories, I can understand why she was so willing to retell them so many times. They are absolutely charming.


My rereading brought back those wonderful characters: among them the naughty Peter Rabbit and his good little sisters: Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail; Squirrel Nutkin and his brother, Twinkleberry; Rebeccah and Jemima Puddle-duck; Tabitha Twitchit's kittens: Mittens, Tom Kitten and Moppet; Samuel Whiskers the rat; Babbity Bumble the bumblebee; Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle the hedgehog; and the mouse Appley Dapply.


How today's children can tolerate teletubbies when tales like Potter's are available I cannot fathom. I have watched in amazement my nieces and nephews glued to the television set as those bland pastel snowmen totter back and forth. Surely they would be better entertained listening to Potter's stories and looking at her delightful drawings.


Is it that today's children are to be protected from reality? Like Hans Christian Anderson and the brothers Grimm, Potter does not avoid the real world. Recall, for example, Mrs. Rabbit's warning to her children, "Don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor."


That these stories could be produced by such a constrained Victorian is quite remarkable and it is worth examining Beatrix Potter's own story -- she lived from 1866 until 1943 -- as an indication of how very different our lives are today.


Helen Beatrix Potter was the older of two children of a well-to-do English family. Her father, educated as a barrister, instead spent his time at his clubs and occasionally practiced amateur photography.


Beatrix was brought up by a succession of nurses, nannies and finally governesses in an upstairs room of the Potter home in London. That room served her as nursery, classroom and finally study until she was almost forty years old. She never attended a regular school. Judy Taylor's excellent Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman suggests that not only did the adage "children should be seen and not heard" apply but that she should not be seen much either. For part of the year it wasn't quite as bad, however. The family did spend summers in Scotland or the Lake District where Beatrix had more opportunity to spend time outdoors and to visit relatives.


We might expect, given this upbringing, that Beatrix would have turned into a kind of Victorian couch potato. Instead she created her own world. She displayed artistic talent and her father, recognizing his daughter's ability, briefly hired an art instructor -- Beatrix found her disappointing. More important, Beatrix loved small animals. She managed to obtain and usually hide from her parents a series of pets: mice, rabbits, a bat, even a hedgehog -- the English equivalent of our porcupine. (I saw a hedgehog once in England and found it quite unlike our porcupine, however. It is smaller and the quills are thicker. It is the animal that rolls up to play the role of the Red Queen's croquet ball in Alice in Wonderland and that is exactly the way it appeared to me.) These pets served Beatrix as models and she produced hundreds of detailed and attractive sketches and watercolors of them.


She also became interested in fungi and even prepared a scientific paper about them in 1897. It had to be presented to the British Linnaean Society by a family friend because women were not allowed to attend the society's meetings.


But her art was only shared with Beatrix' family until she was well into her 30s. Finally she was encouraged by a country vicar to have it commercially published and so the public finally met Peter Rabbit in 1902. Beatrix worked very closely with her publisher, Norman Warne, on this and subsequent books, closely enough that, despite their never having been alone together, they became secretly engaged when she was 38 years old. Her parents opposed the match because Norman was "in trade" and thus beneath their status in society. All came to naught anyway: Norman died within a month of the engagement.


But the income from her books finally gave Beatrix the freedom she had never experienced and she used it well. She bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District and moved there. With enthusiasm she blossomed into a new life as a farmer, primarily raising prize-winning Herdwick sheep. She even married her lawyer, William Heelis, who helped her expand her property until she finally owned fifteen farms of almost seven square miles. All of these she willed to the National Trust, the British equivalent of our Land Conservancy.


To me Beatrix Potter, like her contemporary Florence Nightingale, is a true heroine who overcame the obstacles of that very different Victorian lifestyle. I will salute her on her birthday, July 28.-- Gerry Rising