“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” – Beatrix Potter
Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Tom Kitten – we’ve all come across Beatrix Potter and her work at some point in our childhoods; but many do not know just how interesting the author and illustrator of those little hardback books really was.
Early Life & Career
Born 28th July 1866 in South Kensington which remains an affluent area of London today, Beatrix Potter enjoyed a comfortable childhood and adult life, including holidays to the Lake District. Those trips to the countryside, coupled with her adoration for the pets she kept at home; owning at one point rabbits, mice and a hedgehog, meant Potter naturally developed a deep interest in fungi, fauna, and the observation of animal movement for her drawings. At just 11 years old, her first sketchbook (on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum), contained pictures of butterflies, birds and caterpillars. Potter continued to draw, gaining various Art Student’s Certificates for her sketches. In 1882, age 16, during their first family holiday to the Lake District, Potter met Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the three founders of the National Trust – her relationship with the Trust continued throughout her life.
Beatrix Potter was entrepreneurial from the beginning; at 24 she begun illustrating Christmas cards for sale, later illustrating a book of rhymes for an another author. Her sketches were initially rejected by Frederick Warne in 1891. Holidaying for months at a time in Scotland in 1892, she met Charles McIntosh, a Perthshire Naturalist with whom she discussed fungi and who promised to send her samples for study when she returns to London. In 1893, Potter began to send stories about her rabbit, Peter, to her childhood governesses’ young son. She continued her study of fungi, in 1896 visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to present her drawings to the Director, later that year presenting her paper on on germination of fungus spores to Thiselton-Dyer, then Director of the Gardens. Potter was rejected due to being both female and in their eyes an amateur. In 1897, she presented her paper to the Linnean Biological Society, via George Massee, a Kew scientist who encouraged her to continue drawing, as she was not allowed to attend due to being a female. She withdrew her paper due to risk of her specimens having been contaminated and returned to writing and illustrating as her focus.
Independent Woman to Wife
In 1901, Frederick Warne showed interest in Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but she refused to publish the illustrations in colour. Continuing to write stories in letters, such as Squirrel Nutkin, Potter privately published 250 copies of her Tale of Peter Rabbit in black and white, with only a coloured frontispiece. In 1902 she printed another 200 copies and, after reaching an agreement with Warne, they published 8000 further copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, shortened, and in full colour throughout. Potter, still incredibly independent, went on to privately publish 500 copies of The Tailor of Gloucester.
Continuing to write and be published by Warne, Potter developed a total of 23 short illustrated stories in that collection. A businesswoman from the beginning, in 1903 she patented her Peter Rabbit doll, licensing his name to other companies which led to the development of a game and other merchandise.
On July 25th 1905, Potter received a proposal of marriage from her long-term friend and publisher Frederick Warne, and, much to her parents dismay, she accepted. But, just one month later, on August 25th, Warne died of leukaemia aged 37. She went on to marry until death in 1912, to Lake District solicitor William Heelis.
Potter remained influential in children’s literature throughout the early 20th century, with Warne requesting she write something new in 1917 due to falling income during World War One. In 1936, she was approached by Walt Disney to produce the film of Peter Rabbit – she refused, as she believed ‘to enlarge [the book] … will show up all the imperfections’. During World War Two, Warne sent her original illustrations from London to the Lake District and to her safe protection to avoid them being destroyed, as the whole edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was lost in a bombing raid on London.
Beatrix died 22nd December 1943 from pneumonia, and upon the death of her husband in 1945, at their request their 4,000 acres, seventeen farms and eight cottages, were bequeathed to the National Trust.
It is no mystery as to why Peter Rabbit and the rest of Beatrix Potter’s characters are still popular with children and adults today. Her insistence on the small size of her books for children’s hands make the child feel special. Visually and physically she was part of a movement from instruction to delight, whereby children’s literature was growing as a separate genre. She focalises the child through her illustrations; we encounter the events through the protagonists’ eyes and from low viewpoints; emotionally, Potter draws the reader in through her use of space – we can’t help but feel as scared and alone as Peter as he hides from Mr. MacGregor. Potter’s talent at illustration of animals through observation from a young age give her characters hugely human expressions.
She winks to the child-reader through her subjective ‘moral endings’ – in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is he really punished at the end? Or is he sent to bed due to over-eating, having been given TLC by his mother? Whatever you take from her stories, Beatrix Potter remains a favourite children’s author of mine and her collection of 23 stories, including my favourites, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher are a children’s must read.
Read my review on the Winnie-the-Pooh/ A.A. Milne Exhibition at the V&A here