Magazine | April 3, 2017, Issue

The ‘Dual Life’ of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter (Popperfoto/Getty Images)
‘Over the Hills and Far Away’: The Life of Beatrix Potter, by Matthew Dennison (Head of Zeus, 304 pp., $24.95)

On a recent morning drive to school, I asked my three kids (ages nine to 15) to tell me the first thing they thought of when they heard the name Beatrix Potter. “Peter Rabbit,” “gardens,” and “angry Mr. McGregor” were the first three ideas they offered. Not bad, seeing that it has been years since our family read Potter’s anthropomorphic tales. What I did not hear — nor did I expect to — from my children was the word “fungus.” Yet, as Matthew Dennison recounts in this new biography, Beatrix almost made her professional mark in mycology, the branch of biology concerned with fungi. Rebuffed by the science community of the day for being both an amateur and a woman, Beatrix turned to storytelling and employed her careful observation of detail to create some of the most beloved characters in all of children’s literature.

She was born in 1866 into a wealthy London family. They enjoyed many of the comforts available only to the upper class, including lengthy holidays in the country, where Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram were free to explore the beauty of the natural world. Both of Beatrix’s parents had an appreciation for art, and they had developed limited skill as amateur artists. Many of the pictures of Beatrix as a child that Dennison includes in this book were taken by Beatrix’s father, who had some talent as a photographer. The Potters cultivated this same love of art in both of their children and encouraged them to work at it.

While the Potters wanted their children to interact with nature, they were not as eager for Beatrix and Bertram to befriend outsiders. According to Dennison, the Potter parents believed that “other people’s children threatened germs or, worse, bad influences, and Beatrix did not form acquaintances among the children in her parents’ neighborhood.” As a result of this isolation, the two Potter children developed a close bond, not just as siblings but also as friends, and this special relationship was extremely important to Beatrix throughout her life. But this friendship with Bertram could not completely satisfy her need for company. And when Bertram went off to school, while she stayed home to be tutored by a governess, her longing for companionship only grew. She spent much of her childhood and early adult life alone and lonely. To cope, Beatrix turned to reading, writing, painting, and collecting a wide range of pets, including mice (her favorite), rabbits, insects, and even a bat.

Beatrix’s parents expected their only daughter to marry well and secure the family’s standing in London’s elite. But this expectation was at odds with her independence, which ironically had been cultivated by her parents’ efforts since her childhood to expose her to nature, art, and literature. While Beatrix remained loyal to her parents, she used her limited connections with outsiders — including extended family and former governesses — to pursue a non-married life beyond the walls of her parents’ London home. Through these connections, she eventually published the book that she is most known for: The Tale of Peter Rabbit. This “little book” (her term) was an instant success and led to almost 30 others, including stories such as The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Beatrix’s personal favorite, The Tailor of Gloucester.

Royalties from the sale of her books made Beatrix independently wealthy, and the income allowed her to make her own decisions and escape the sometimes oppressive control of her parents. Her first significant purchase after her initial publishing success was a property called Hill Top Farm, in England’s Lake Country. Thinking the farm was nothing more than an investment, Beatrix’s parents approved the purchase of Hill Top and were surprised when their daughter made this modest country cottage her permanent home.

Beatrix remained unmarried until age 47, when she wed William Heelis, a mild-mannered country lawyer. She was looking not for romance but for exactly what William provided: companionship. The marriage suited both Beatrix and William because each had interests that operated independently of the other. Beatrix made her home with William at their newly acquired farm, Castle Cottage, but she kept her original Lake Country property as a studio where she could write and paint. (Dennison insightfully identifies Hill Top Farm as the setting for many of Beatrix’s later books.) Apart from their work, Beatrix and William were extremely close, and Beatrix took his name. As she had done before, she successfully negotiated what Dennison calls a “dual life.” Most of the locals knew her as Mrs. Heelis — the farmer, wife, and conservationist of Castle Cottage. But the world outside this rural escape knew her as Miss Potter, the globally prominent writer of children’s stories.

In 1943, Beatrix Potter died of complications from pneumonia and heart disease. By the time of her death, she had acquired 15 farms, totaling more than 4,000 acres, in the Lake Country. She had bequeathed in her will almost all her property to the National Trust, and when William died 18 months later, he left most of the remaining property to the Trust. At that time, Beatrix and William’s collective gift represented the largest land donation to the National Trust, and much of this property became what is now the Lake District National Park.

But Beatrix Potter will always be remembered primarily for her “little books,” which used anthropomorphized animals to teach us how to be better human beings, and she belongs alongside other giants of the genre including Aesop, Joel Chandler Harris, Kenneth Grahame, A. A. Milne, George Orwell, Richard Adams, and Brian Jacques. What makes her work stand out is how beautifully she merged nature and imagination. Dennison says that Beatrix’s “best work emerged from blurring fantasy and close observation,” and her attention to detail in her illustrations and her allegiance to fairy-tale storytelling allowed her to create a “fictionalized reality” where “nature and art marched hand in hand.”

Dennison’s scholarship is sound, and he provides extensive endnotes for readers who want to follow the author’s path through Potter’s personal journals and other resources. But this book is not primarily an academic text. Rather, it is for those who want to know more about the woman behind the stories, and it will be especially interesting for those who know Beatrix’s stories well.

Unfortunately, Dennison’s effort to please Potter’s most ardent enthusiasts may have resulted in what this reviewer considers a minor miscue. Throughout, Dennison connects people, places, and events from Beatrix’s life to characters and scenes from her beloved stories. Many of Dennison’s associations seem legitimate, but the flaw has more to do with quantity than with quality. The author’s overuse of this technique (sometimes more than one connection on a page) interrupts the flow of the text and at times interferes with his ability to tell Beatrix’s story well. Potter’s biggest fans may welcome these associations, but for the average reader, they might quickly become monotonous and even distracting.

Dennison is at his best when he asks readers to face the choices Beatrix had to make: Submissive daughter or independent woman? Scientist or artist? Internationally known author or local farmer? Throughout her life, she rejected false dichotomies and patiently negotiated a third way. Dennison’s book shows us that Beatrix’s struggle between opposing forces in her life did not cripple her intellectually, imaginatively, or spiritually. Rather, these choices, and the experiences that resulted from them, shaped her as a human being who used her natural gifts to provide millions of readers with moments of utter joy.

– Mr. Coupland is an associate professor of education at Hillsdale College.

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