Potter, Beatrix (1866–1943)

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Potter, Beatrix (1866–1943)

British author of perennially popular children's books who later became a farmer and a sheepbreeder. Name variations: Beatrix Heelis. Born Helen Beatrix Potter on July 28, 1866, in South Kensington, London; died on December 22, 1943, at Sawrey, Cumbria; eldest child and only daughter of Rupert Potter (a barrister) and Helen (Leech) Potter; educated at home; married William Heelis, on October 14, 1913; no children.

Sold some drawings to Hildersheimer and Faulkner, publishers (1890); wrote Peter Rabbit letter to Noël Moore (September 4, 1893); her research paper "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae" read to Linnean Society of London (April 1, 1897); privately published The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901), published by Frederick Warne (1902); became engaged to Norman Warne (summer 1905); bought Hill Top Farm, near Sawrey (summer 1905); went to live at Castle Cottage Farm, Sawrey (1913); first became involved with National Trust (1914); bought Troutbeck Park (1923); became president of Herdwick Sheep-breeders Association (1930).

Selected writings:

The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901); The Tailor of Gloucester (1902); The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903); The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904); The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (1905); The Tale of Mrs. Jeremy Fisher (1906); The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908); Ginger and Pickles (1909); The Tale of Pigling Bland (1913); Appley Dappley's Nursery Rhymes (1917); The Fairy-Caravan (1929). Series taken over byLinda Almond .

Almond, Linda (1881–1987)

American children's author. Born Linda Stevens in 1881 in Seaford, Delaware; died on January 10, 1987, in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania; carried on the Beatrix Potter series and wrote the "Buddy Bear" and "Penny Hill" series.

In 1921, after Beatrix Potter retired from writing her famous children's books, Linda Almond was selected to take over the series. A Delaware native, Almond continued to reside in the Mid-Atlantic region and wrote two other children's book series: "Buddy Bear" and "Penny Hill." Almond died in 1987, age 105.

The life of Beatrix Potter exemplifies how difficult it was at the close of the 19th century for a middle-class woman to break through the convention of that passive lifestyle which was expected of "spinster" daughters. But it is also an example of how, with determination, it could be done. She did not write her first book until the age of 35, and she lived in London with her parents until the age of 47. Yet Beatrix Potter is remembered not only as a brilliant writer of books for children but also as the champion of Herdwicks, a breed of sheep then in danger of disappearing, and as a supporter and benefactor of The National Trust in the Lake District of England.

Although Potter's parents, Rupert and Helen Potter , lived in London, they both belonged to successful, middle-class, northern families. Rupert's father, a self-made man from Manchester, had made a large fortune with the Dinting Vale Calico Printing Works in Glossop, so, although Rupert chose to become a barrister and was called to the Bar in 1857, he did not need to practice for a living. Nevertheless, he had chambers in London for over 30 years, although the actual work was mainly done by others. Rupert's mother was Jessie Crompton , an early 19th-century beauty whose family was renowned for its forthright manner, both in speech and in action. In her later years, Beatrix displayed much of the Crompton temperament. Helen Potter was the daughter of John Leech, a wealthy cotton-merchant from Stalybridge. The Potters and the Leeches were old friends and Helen's sister Elizabeth was already the wife of Rupert's brother Walter, when the pair married in 1863.

My brother and I were born in London … but our descent, our interest and our joy were in the north country.

—Beatrix Potter

The house where Beatrix was born, 2 Bolton Gardens, Kensington, was a new four-story building when the Potters moved in to accommodate the expected child. They lived in some style, with a butler, a cook, a housekeeper, a coachman, and a groom. The nursery, where Beatrix lived with her nurse, was on the third floor. For the first few years of her life, she seems to have had very little contact with her parents, though this was not a particularly unusual state of affairs at the time. However, because Helen Potter feared bad influences and germs, neither was Beatrix allowed much contact with other children, and, as her only sibling Bertram was not born until she was nearly six, she grew up a solitary child.

According to Potter, her two favorite toys were "a dilapidated, black wooden doll called Topsy, and a grimy, hard-stuffed, once-white, flannelette pig." She claimed that she "learned to read on the Waverley novels," written by the Romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century—and that she wore "white piqué starched frocks … and cotton stockings striped round like zebra's legs." Her hair was long and luxuriant, held behind her ears with a band.

While in London, Beatrix saw little of the outside world other than her daily walk in Kensington Gardens with her nurse. However, she paid frequent visits to her grandmother who lived at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in a house with large gardens on a 300-acre estate. Furthermore, the Potters spent two weeks every April at the seaside, and, for almost three months every summer, Rupert Potter would rent a large house on an estate in Scotland or Cumbria. Away from London, Beatrix was free to spend time outdoors, and, as soon as Bertram was old enough, the two children devised many activities to keep themselves amused.

From a very early age, Beatrix enjoyed drawing and painting; in this, she was encouraged by both parents. Before her marriage, Helen Potter had painted in watercolors, and although Rupert Potter was no painter, he was a highly accomplished drawer. He was also an enthusiastic and talented photographer. In 1869, he was elected to the Photographic Society of London, and, for many years, he helped his artist friend John Everett Millais by photographing landscapes and people to use in Millais' paintings. He also enjoyed photographing his family, and many of the photographs of Beatrix still in existence were taken by her father. Sometimes Potter was allowed to accompany her father when he visited Millais' studio, and, as she grew older, several drawing and painting teachers were engaged for her. Both parents viewed her talents as a pastime, however, and though Bertram, as a young man, was allowed to become an artist, there was no question of Beatrix doing anything other than staying at home.

Indeed, for many years Beatrix Potter was suspended in what amounted to perpetual childhood. As she grew older, she was more in the company of her parents and became particularly fond of her father. But she had no close companions of her own age, she did not "come out" into society as did many of her upper middle-class contemporaries, and her dearest friends were old men—John Bright, the Quaker politician who had worked for the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s, and William Gaskell, Unitarian minister and husband of Elizabeth Gaskell , the writer. Both men were frequent guests of Rupert Potter and had first been friends of Beatrix's grandfather.

Throughout her life, Potter was very fond of animals. As a little girl, she was accompanied on her walks by Sandy, her Scotch terrier. As she grew older, other dogs followed. She also caught and tamed wild animals when in the country, bringing them back to London and even taking them on visits to relatives. Other creatures she bought from pet shops. It is not clear how much

of this was known to her parents or governesses but at various times she owned rabbits, mice, rats, newts, lizards, "a little ring-snake fourteen inches long" and a hedgehog. All these creatures Beatrix studied and drew. When he was not away at school, Bertram shared her interest in the flora and fauna around them. One wonders how they managed to skin and boil dead rabbits in order to study their skeletons, but so they did.

Potter's activities scarcely altered as she developed into womanhood. At age 15, she began keeping a diary written in code, and she would still be using the same code for her diary entries at the age of 30. She was just three weeks shy of 19 when her last governess, 22-year-old Annie Carter , left to get married. In her 20s, Potter visited galleries and exhibitions with her father and on one occasion accompanied her parents to the theater. She noted in her diary, "It was the first time in my life that I had been past the Horse Guards, Admiralty, and Whitehall, or seen the Strand or the Monument." Often ill with colds and headaches since a child, in 1887 Beatrix had what was thought to be rheumatic fever and lost much of her hair. Two years later, she suffered a similar illness which left her with a permanent heart defect.

However, there were brighter periods. In her early 20s, Potter learned to drive a pony carriage. In 1890, her Uncle Walter sold some of her drawings to Hildersheimer and Faulkner for £6 to enable her to buy herself a printing machine. These drawings were used as Christmas and New Year cards and to illustrate a book of verses called A Happy Pair. In June 1894, she traveled without her parents for the first time in five years to visit her cousin, Caroline Hutton , in Stroud, Gloucestershire. Potter enjoyed it immensely and shortly afterwards traveled into Wales to stay with her Uncle Fred Burton. She became interested in fungi and on April 1, 1897, her research paper, "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae," was read to the Linnean Society of London by one of the principal assistants at Kew Gardens, where she had done some of her observation. She could not read the paper herself, for women were not allowed to attend the society's meetings. Meanwhile, she had sold some more drawings, this time to Ernest Nister, a firm of fine art color printers.

Potter did not lose touch with her former governess Annie Carter after Carter had become Mrs. Moore. Whenever she could, she visited her and her growing family in Wandsworth. On September 4, 1893, Potter wrote to the eldest child, Noël Moore, and, not having any news, she told him a story about four rabbits which she illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings. Other stories, in letters to other children, followed. But it was not until 1901 that Potter got the idea of turning her first story-letter into a book. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was of a size to be comfortable in a small child's hand, with a drawing facing every page of writing. When publishers showed no interest, she had it printed privately. However, on the very day that this first edition came out, December 16, the firm of Frederick Warne and Company offered to print her book if she would change her line drawings to colored illustrations. This she did, and in the next 11 years Warne published over 20 children's books by Beatrix Potter. For the illustrations, she mainly used her pets as models and places she knew and loved as settings. She also designed Peter Rabbit wallpaper, a Peter Rabbit doll, a Peter Rabbit board game, three painting books, and an almanac for 1929.

Potter was in her middle-30s when The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, yet, writing to Frederick Warne, she is clearly still dominated by Rupert Potter: "If my father happens to insist on going with me to see the agreement, would you please not mind him very much, if he is fidgetty about things…. [H]e is sometimes a little difficult." Her avowal, "I can, of course, do what I like about the book being 36," lacks conviction. Even when Bertram became a farmer in Scotland, he returned for family holidays, and he had been married for seven years before he told his parents of this fact. What hope was there, then, for Beatrix to break free?

Nevertheless, she exerted her growing independence by buying first a field and then a farm in Near Sawrey, Cumbria. Although she had learned to love the Lake District through family holidays there, she bought it as an investment, not as a potential home. She also, in the face of her parents' opposition, became friendly with the large Warne family, and, when Norman, the 37-year-old brother most involved with her books, proposed marriage, she accepted, despite the fact that, as the Warnes were "in trade," the elder Potters disapproved of the match. Sadly, even before the engagement was made public, Norman died of pernicious anaemia.

The next few years were spent producing her books and buying even more property in and around Sawrey. She extended Hill Top so that there was room for herself and her tenant farmer's family—although she was seldom able to get away from her parents in order to stay there. Her property transactions were looked after by a Hawkshead solicitor named William Heelis. He was a bachelor in his 40s, belonged to a large family, was a great sportsman and a lover of the countryside. He was also of a kind and gentle disposition, and when he proposed marriage to Beatrix, she was happy to accept. Once again, the Potters considered her fiancé to be their inferior, but Beatrix and Willie were married on October 14, 1913. They made their home at Castle Cottage Farm, one of Beatrix's properties near Hill Top.

Potter's writing declined after her marriage, both in quantity and, many claim, in quality. In 1929, she was persuaded by an American publisher, David McKay, to create a big story book from all the writings which had not previously made it into print. A few others followed. Possibly, the American literary scene succeeded where Warne had failed. Potter was aware that children's literature was taken more seriously in the U.S., and its writers were afforded higher status than was the case in England at that time. She wrote in a letter, "Never does anyone outside your perfidiously complimentary nation write to tell me that I write good prose." She seems to have been more willing to welcome American visitors to Castle Cottage than English ones and made a number of American friends, including the prestigious New York children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore and Bertha Mahony Miller , who founded Horn Book, a magazine dealing entirely with children's literature, and who, in 1916, opened a children's bookshop in Boston where questions of quality outweighed those of salability.

As Potter gradually lost interest in writing children's books, she became more and more immersed in the life of the countryside. She insisted on being addressed as Mrs. Heelis, even when functioning in the capacity of a children's author. She helped found a branch of the Nursing Association in Hawkshead, allowed Girl Guides to camp on her land, and helped preserve the old traditional furniture of the area by collecting fine examples which came up at local sales. When, during the First World War, many of her farm workers joined the forces, she managed with the help of an inexperienced volunteer, who offered her services after reading a letter Potter wrote to The Times bemoaning the shortage of laborers. On a wet, cold November day, a forester's wife observed Potter "gathering acorns in the woods for her pigs. She had a shovel and a wheelbarrow for the job, and was fit up to brave the weather in a short thick wool skirt, a man's jacket and cap and a sack over her shoulders." Potter joined in the razzing over her appearance, recalling one wet day when a tramp mistook her for another of his kind and called to her, "It's sad weather for the likes o' thee and me."

On buying Troutbeck Park in 1923, a fell farm with a large stock of sheep, Potter became involved with Herdwicks, the breed indigenous to the area. It was a strain losing popularity and market value, for its coarse wool was excellent for the manufacture of carpets, but the housewife of the period preferred linoleum. Potter, however, set herself to learn all she could about sheep. Attending local sheep fairs, she somehow

got herself accepted into the closed masculine world of Lakeland sheep-breeders, exhibiting and later judging at shows. She became a member of the Herdwick Sheep-breeders Association, founded by Canon Rawnsley in 1899, and in 1930 became its first woman president.

Potter had known Hardwicke Rawnsley since she was 16. The Potters had spent their long summer holiday at Wray Castle in the Lake District and had met the man who was to become a lifelong friend. He was a fascinating person—local cleric, canon of Carlisle Cathedral, amateur poet, naturalist, antiquarian, bonfireenthusiast and self-appointed protector of the natural beauties of the Lake District against overdevelopment and entrepreneurialism. In 1895, he co-founded the National Trust, a body dedicated to preserving land and buildings for the pleasure of future generations. Potter wholeheartedly supported his work and began to have an eye to the National Trust whenever she bought land. Some she gave while she was still alive, much of the rest she bequeathed.

Nowadays Beatrix Potter pilgrims can visit Tarn Hows, Cockshott Point, the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, Hill Top at Near Sawrey and a fund-raising exhibition in Keswick entitled Beatrix Potter's Lake District. All of these are owned and administered by the National Trust. Beatrix Potter books, tapes and memorabilia are widely available in the Lake District and beyond. Generations of children have read and reread her books, and grown up to read them to their own children, and the animals she created in her books remain as popular today as they were when she first drew them a century ago.


Lane, Margaret. The Tale of Beatrix Potter. Harmondsworth: Frederick Warne, 1946 (rev. ed. 1985).

Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. Harmondsworth: Frederick Warne, 1986.

suggested reading:

Buchan, Elizabeth. Beatrix Potter: The Story of the Creator of Peter Rabbit. Harmondsworth: Frederick Warne, 1991 (1st pub. by Hamish Hamilton, 1987).

Heelis, John. The Tale of Mrs. William Heelis: Beatrix Potter. Hawes: Leading Edge Press, 1993.

Lane, Margaret. The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter. London: Frederick Warne, 1978.

related media:

"The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends" (animated film, 6 episodes), produced by John Coates, Television Cartoons, Ltd., 1993 (available on Good Times Home Video).

Barbara Evans , Research Associate in Women's Studies, Nene College, Northampton, England

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