Beatrix Potter’s vision of country life | Sunday Observer

Beatrix Potter’s vision of country life

Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter

The word ‘potter’ has many connotations. To a modern reader, ‘Potter’ means Harry Potter. To an average reader a potter means someone who turns out pots and pans out of clay. But how many of us have read Beatrix Potter who delighted millions of readers with her vision of country life?

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was an English writer and illustrator of children’s books. She was born in London and privately educated. Unlike her friends and contemporaries, she lived mostly in a farm cottage in Sawrey, Westmoreland where she used to keep several animals as pets. She made an unsuccessful attempt to publish watercolour studies of fungi in 1893.

Thereafter, she wrote “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” for an invalid child. Although it was not intended for the average reader it soon became a children’s classic throughout the world. Children fell in love with her animal characters such as ‘Benjamin Bunny, Jemina Puddle-Duck’ and ‘Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.’ She illustrated her whimsical tales with watercolour pictures. After making her mark in the field of children’s literature, she wrote “The Tailor of Gloucester” (1902) and “The Tale of Tom Kitten” (1907). Although she wrote only a few books for children, they have stood the test of time.

While living with her parents in London Beatrix used to take at least one of her favourite pets wherever she went. Sometimes she carried a hedgehog named ‘Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’ or a large white rat called ‘Sammy.’ She described Tiggy-Winkle as a great traveller who enjoyed going by train. She also kept ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘Hunca Munca’ two mice caught in a cousin’s kitchen. Meanwhile, she was very fond of rabbits. One such rabbit called ‘Benjamin Bouncer’ loved to eat peppermints. She took him for long walks. She also had another rabbit called ‘Peter Piper.’ She bought him for four shillings and sixpence.

Little rabbits

Beatrix loved to sketch her pets for stories. To cheer up a sick child she wrote: “I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were ‘Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail’ and ‘Peter.’ She drew many drawings of Peter eating lettuce, beans and radish in the garden of bearded ‘Mr McGregor.’ Seven years later, she revised the story and published it as, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” Today, it is one of the bestselling children’s stories. The book has been translated into 23 languages. Although the story irritated some bearded horticulturists, Beatrix later confessed that she never knew a gardener named ‘McGregor.’

Beatrix immortalised her favourite hedgehog as ‘Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’. Sammy became the greedy Samuel Whiskers. Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca are the two mice who ransacked a doll’s house. Benjamin Bunny was the leader of a daring raid. Beatrix’s tales coupled with beautiful illustrations have become so popular that the sales figures have reached 80 million copies.

Although Beatrix had no university education, she was an exceptionally gifted author, illustrator, farmer, conservationist, botanist and landscape artist. In fact, she started sketching at the age of nine. At 16 while holidaying in the Lake District she came across new things to draw and sketch fresh territory to explore. Later she wrote, “Lost continually, alarmed by collies at every farm, stuck in stiles, chased once by cows.”

Being the child of a wealthy family, she was brought up by nannies and educated by governesses. She was not allowed to mix with other children for fear of catching germs. She substituted lizards, bats, frogs, a dormouse and a grass snake for human companionship. Although her barrister father took her to exhibitions and art galleries, her mother Helen was a frightening figure. Beatrix maintained her diary in a code language to escape her mother’s prying eyes. However, Leslie Lander, a Potter specialist, deciphered what she had written in her diary in 1958.

According to her biographer, Beatrix was a thoughtful, determined and intelligent woman with a keen sense of humour. Her professional career began with the sale of her drawings. A greeting card firm paid her $9 for six of her designs. She was so happy about her earnings that she lay awake chuckling until two in the morning! However, when she tried to sell more of her drawings, she received many rejections. One major reason was that women from affluent families were not expected to go into art commercially.

Beatrix had many hobbies. She took photographs, collected fossils, studied insects and made microscopic drawings of fungi.

Marriage

When she wrote the expended version of Peter Rabbit, it was rejected by six publishers. However, book publishers Frederick Warne agreed to publish it provided she redid the illustrations in colour. With the rapid sale of her book Beatrix became a household name.

At 39, Beatrix was at the height of her popularity. When her publisher’s son proposed marriage her parents strongly disapproved it. However, she insisted that she should marry him.

However, Norman Warne died in 1902 dashing all her hopes to the ground. She retreated to her newly-bought Hill Top residence where she kept sheep, cows, pigs, ducks, and hens. She used the animals as models for her illustrations.

When Beatrix’s characters appealed to readers, a businessman designed a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903. Another enterprising man made a Peter Rabbit board game. Soon wallpapers and slippers with Peter Rabbit design appeared for sale. In the meantime, she was attracted to a good-looking solicitor – William Heelis. They got married in 1913.

When Beatrix went on honeymoon, she carried a cage full of white mice and let them loose in the drawing room of the hotel. Warne wanted her to write more books but she said she was too tired to do so. In 1943 she died of rheumatic fever at the age of 77. Beatrix Heelis is no more, but her animal characters will live on delighting millions of readers.

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