Beatrix Potter

Wed, 07/27/2016 - 3:25pm -- lwhite

Beatrix Potter, renowned children’s book author of the early twentieth century, led a much more interesting life than many people know, or would expect from the soft and cuddly images that accompany her work. Helen Beatrix Potter was born July 28, 1866 to a distinguished and privileged family. As was typical of this time, Helen was educated by governesses and grew up with little to no contact with other children her own age. Helen did have a younger brother, Walter Bertram, and the two Potter children formed relationships with their pets, and spent holidays in the Lake District of Scotland, observing and painting the plants and animals encountered there.A particularly bright and precocious child, Beatrix, like any other girl of the mid-nineteenth century, unfortunately was not given the opportunity to pursue higher education. 

Despite this, Beatrix Potter was fascinated by natural science; something that Victorian Society also deemed particularly interesting at this point. For years she studied and drew specimens from her many excursions, and by the 1890s her scientific interests were focused on mycology. Her interest was only deepened after meeting revered naturalist Charles McIntosh during a summer holiday in 1892. McIntosh helped Potter with the accuracy of her fungi drawings, and gave her live specimens to paint during the winter months. Ever more curious, Potter began doing microscopic drawings of fungus spores and in 1895 developed her own theory on their germination – ultimately submitting a paper to the botanists at Kew Gardens in London. Unfortunately, Potter was turned away because of her sex and her status as an “amateur”.

Beatrix Potter’s literary career began in the 1890s, when she and her brother began to make and sell Christmas cards of their own design. Several of her drawings were purchased by the firm of Hildesheimer and Faulkner to illustrate verses by another author. Within the next year, Beatrix sold more and more of her paintings as illustrations for other books, and was determined to publish her own illustrated stories. 

The characters for her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, began in a letter to her governess’ son, Noel. After running out of things to write to the child, who was sick, she told him a story about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.” In 1900, Potter revised her story and made her own dummy book. After making the rounds of the publishing houses, she published the book herself in 1901 for family and friends. A close family friend saw the potential in Potter’s work, recast it in didactic verse and tried again, this time finding success in Frederick Warne & Co. On October 2, 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published and became an immediate success.

Potter kept writing her children’s books until after the First World War, when she began to focus more on farming, sheep-breeding and land conservation in the English countryside. Beatrix Potter died of complications from pneumonia and heart disease on December 22, 1943. Upon her death, she left nearly all of her property to the National Trust, including over 4,000 acres of land, sixteen farms, cottages and herds of cattle and Herdwick sheep. Hers was the largest gift to the National Trust at that time, and she effectively enabled the preservation of the land now included in the Lake District National Park.