By Nature, an Artist and Children's Author

By Elizabeth Hand,
whose 10th book, "Saffron & Brimstone: Strange Stories," has recently been published
Wednesday, January 24, 2007


A Life in Nature

By Linda Lear

St. Martin's. 583 pp. $30

Renee Zellweger plays a young Beatrix Potter in a recent biopic, putting a romantic spin on this relentlessly down-to-earth British author's life and work. But readers of Linda Lear's thorough new biography may more easily imagine a stout pragmatist such as Dame Margaret Rutherford in the role, sensibly shod as she pursues hedgehogs and mice across the English countryside. From the appearance of her first book, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," Potter created and helped sustain one of the most successful franchises in literature, successfully marketing not only children's books but toys, wallpaper, handkerchiefs, games, puzzles -- a retail enterprise now worth $500 million.

At her death in 1943, the elderly Mrs. Heelis, nee Potter, left an estate valued at today's equivalent of 7 million pounds -- more than $13 million. Her influence on children's literature is almost incalculable and can be seen in works by Alison Utley, Margaret Wise Brown, Tasha Tudor, Robert Lawson and Margery Sharp, to name just a few. Not bad for an empire built on what her editors called "the bunny book."

Yet Potter herself remains something of a mystery -- not surprising, perhaps, for someone who for 16 years kept a diary written in code and whose work dealt almost exclusively with the doings of small creatures whose fictional lives and homes were cunningly hidden in hedgerows, wainscots, woodlands, farmsteads and floorboards. Born in 1866, she was the eldest of two children of a wealthy couple whose mercantile background, North Country accents and progressive Unitarian beliefs kept them from being fully assimilated within their genteel London circle. Potter's father had artistic leanings and connections; her mother was a lifelong snob.

Potter's girlhood may not have been the stuff of Victorian melodrama. Still, she appears to have been a solitary soul, happiest roaming Camfield Place, her grandparents' country estate in Hertfordshire, or the grounds of Dalguise, the Scottish estate where her family summered for 10 years. Camfield's grounds were designed by the great 18th-century gardener Capability Brown; the vistas near Dalguise were painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, a family friend and frequent visitor. The memory of these landscapes -- the quintessential pastoral English countryside, the more rugged forests -- suffuses Potter's best-known work. So do the myriad animals she and her brother housed in their nursery, among them "rabbits (Benjamin Bouncer and Peter), a green frog called Punch, several lizards . . . water newts, a tortoise, . . . salamanders, many and different varieties of mice, a ring snake, several bats, a canary and a green budgerigar, a wild duck, a family of snails, several guinea pigs and later a hedgehog or two."

Potter drew as a child and as a teenager took private art lessons. She later made her own illustrations for books she loved, including Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, which featured clever Brer Rabbit. Her father's friend Millais encouraged her, saying: "Plenty of people can draw, but you . . . have observation." She refined her skills with gorgeous, meticulously detailed watercolors of plant life (beautifully reprinted in this volume), in particular mushrooms and other fungi, for which she had an amateur's passion.

A visit to an exhibition of Old Master paintings chastened the 16-year-old artist, but her customary practicality shone through. "Was rather disheartened at first, but I have got over it," she wrote in her journal. This sturdy, no-nonsense attitude is at the core of her best books, which belie Potter's undeserved reputation for winsome little nursery stories.

As a budding naturalist, she collected insect specimens and other creatures, including rabbits, which were "caught, tamed, sketched, painted. When the animals died, they were boiled and their skeletons preserved. The bones were then articulated, measured, drawn, labelled, and preserved." Potter's dry-eyed view of the animal world is echoed in Mrs. Rabbit's offhand 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."

"The Tale of Peter Rabbit" first saw light in 1893, as an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the 4-year-old son of Potter's former governess: "I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits." Years later, in 1899, Noel's mother suggested that Potter turn her picture letters into a children's book. Potter already had successfully marketed her drawings as Christmas cards and pamphlets, but publishers had rejected "The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor's Garden."

So, in a move that has brought hope to would-be authors ever since, in September 1901 Potter withdrew her savings and paid for a first printing of 250 copies of her book, with another 500 copies ordered and held in reserve. The cost of her venture into self-publishing: 11 pounds.

"The public must be fond of rabbits!" she marveled a year later; "what an appalling quantity of Peter." By 1903, there were 56,470 copies in print. Today, the book has sold more than 45 million copies worldwide in 35 languages.

Lear tells Potter's story with painstaking, occasionally dogged, thoroughness. There was not a whiff of the bohemian in Potter's life. Feminists hoping for a martyr in the figure of a young girl clutching the bars of her nursery window will go away disappointed, and readers expecting to find romance or melodrama might be better-suited to the cinematic version; here Potter generates as much erotic heat as a pudding. It's telling that the two men she was involved with were her business partners. Potter's brief engagement to her editor, Norman Warne, ended when he died a month after he proposed. Seven years later, in 1913, she wed her loyal solicitor, William Heelis, to whom she remained happily married until her death at the age of 77.

During the course of their lives together, Mr. and Mrs. Heelis bought and preserved thousands of acres of land in the Lake District, saving farms and woodland from developers. She ultimately bequeathed them to the National Trust, making her one of its largest benefactors.

The woman who once said she "had many mouse friends in my youth" ended up with legions of human ones as well, and had the farsightedness and generosity of spirit to ensure there would forever be a wild place where they could all coexist.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company